Over the past four days, quite unplanned, I’ve read the works of five nineteenth century writers: Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and yesterday I read The Diary of A Nobody by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Okay, Gilman died in 1935 and The Grossmith brothers in 1912 and 1919, but all wrote in the nineteenth century. How very different all five were, in background, in style, in talent, and in breadth of production (Okay, Dickens beats every writer everywhere in that) but what they do share is the nineteenth century. We think of the twentieth century as huge in terms of change, and of course it was. But within the span of the sixty years, from 1840 through the turn of the century, the world underwent intense revolutions (absolute change) in all spheres of life, political and social, economic and spiritual, artistic and philosophical. We can see the changes in the works of these writers.
By the time we get to the England of Charles Pooter, hero/everyman of The Diary of a Nobody, the complacent and uptight middle-class was well-established in England; in Dickens stories, they are just coming into their own, mimicking the manners of the landed gentry and sticking to their economies of mutton pie and darned trousers. The Pooter family does the same but they are also buying kerchiefs on sale in department stores developed just for them and playing dominoes by gaslight and engaging in seances for fun. But like their Dickensian predecessors in the aspiring middle class, the Pooters (love the family name) never question the sagacity or sanguinity of the men in charge, never think anything but the best of the gentry and are thrilled beyond belief when invited to a Lord’s ball. It will be up to their son, born William but who takes on his middle name “Lupin” (wolf), to go in whole hog with me-first commercialism. He has no qualms throwing over the boss and making money on short margins. He will be a true twentieth century entrepreneur while his father, our hero Pere Pooter, is firmly nineteenth century. Pooter senior would be very comfortable reading Louisa May Alcott, revere Dickens (maybe without getting quite all the jokes), and find Charlotte Perkins Gilman a bit too forward in her ideas on women.
Pooter is a lovable old fool because he loves his wife and his little castle of a terraced house in the suburbs and is content with the “Jackson Freres” champagne quickly bought down at the shops for a bit of celebration. The Pooter series originally appeared in Punch magazine and Pooter is a perfect prequel to the “Fawlty Towers” and “Have You Been Served” brand of British humor. At times hysterical and other times just sly, this book is very funny and very pointed and a good, entertaining read. I pretty much knew what was going to happen to Pooter senior, maman, and heir, but there were enough twists and shouts to keep me going.
I could easily spent the entire year reading nineteenth century authors but I should push the cats off my lap for a moment, shake out my shawl, and try something from another century. But I’ll be back in the nineteenth; nothing can keep me away. Just consider a partial list of the nineteenth century writers: Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, Chekhov, Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, Daniel Defoe, and the wonderful Bronte sisters. Anyone want to add to the list?