My first encounter with The Diary of a Nobody was the direct-to-camera monologue given by Hugh Bonneville in the TV adaptation on BBC4. The mixture of delight and horror at modernity made for a drama that was compelling. It was somehow both Victorian and contemporary. I’ve since found myself less surprised at buying and reading this classic novel than I am at wondering what stuff a ‘classic’ is made of.
The novel revolves around the domestic life of a middle-class social climber called Mr Pooter, as narrated in his diary. His account is an historical record of the emerging middle-class in the 19th century. He continually expresses disdain at the conventions that have been adopted by his peer group and its progeny. His strongest ire is reserved for his son Lupin. Lupin is a continuing source of bemusement to Pooter, unable to ever live up to his father’s seemingly arbitrarily decided standards of what a respectable way of life is. Pooter thus represents an idea of Englishness based in class and snobbery. This is the England of pettiness, status anxiety, and angry little men and women battling against impudence. In his vanity, and in thinking that in all of his seriousness that he has a sense of humour, Pooter becomes both an object of satire and a sympathetic character – not an easy combination to pull off effectively. This may be what’s behind its enduring appeal. I think of this while pondering on what it is that makes a classic a classic?
It’s worth considering the time in which Diary was written. Its gentle fun-poking at class came about at a time when a growing middle-class wanted to distinguish itself through its tastes. The late 19th century formation of ‘leisure’ and the diversification of its cultural phenomena brought about new questions about what counted as culture. For example, 1869 saw the publication of Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold. Arnold attempted to set out what he thought was culture with a capital C. He centred on the classics, principally meaning Greek classics. His broader idea was that culture is the best that has been. The interesting thing about this is that The Diary of a Nobody was published two decades after Culture and Anarchy and has since fallen into that category we call ‘classics’.
Would that qualify it, in relation to Arnold, as contemporary fiction that became a classic? The diary’s proddings at class and snobbishness weren’t universally popular until some time after the first world war.
Alternatively though, is Pooter’s devotion to expressing aghast at the changing world around him a story that’s been around since the dawn of time? There’s something abstract and eternal to the themes that are central to classics. Social distinction and new ideas may have always undergone contestation.
I’m not sure which of these versions of the book’s classification is more convincing. The former suggests that a classic withstands the tests of time. The latter suggests that it’s a question of having something eternal to a story. So the book seems to be about both class and classification; in turn, these two things are as much bound up with the book itself as they are with the book’s content. A question arises from this: is a classic a book that forces you to consider what kind of a book it is?