n December 1944 George Orwell was still writing a weekly column in the Socialist magazine, Tribune. He began one article with a disquisition on the contrariness of human nature. Londoners, he claimed, were already nostalgic for doodlebugs —or flying bombs — because they gave warning of where they would fall when their engines cut out. In contrast the new V2, a true rocket, gave no warning at all.
He then turned to the Victorians to talk about how people change, beginning with George and Weedom Grosssmith's The Diary of a Nobody. It was once popular in Russia, he'd been told. Perhaps because in translation it read like Chekov? "But in a way," he went on, "it would be a very good book to read if you wanted to get a picture of English life, even though it was written in the 1880s and has an intensely strong smell of that period. Charles Pooter is a true Englishman both in his native gentleness and his impenetrable stupidity."
Orwell traced the book to Cervantes' Don Quixote. Both Pooter and the Castilian knight are high-minded, adventurous men who bring disaster upon themselves through their own folly. Pooter, too, is surrounded by "a whole tribe of Sancho Panzas". But people do change, he argued, and to make his case he pointed to the way the two books end. Quixote could end in cruelty but late Victorian society had changed: something softer was demanded and so everything had to come right for Pooter at the finish.
England, he then went on to argue, had changed yet again since Pooter's day:
"Say what you like, things do change. A few years ago I was walking across Hungerford Bridge with a lady aged about sixty or perhaps less. The tide was out, and as we looked down at the beds of filthy, almost liquid, mud she remarked:
'When I was a little girl we used to throw pennies to the mudlarks down there.'"
"I was intrigued and asked what mudlarks were. She explained that in those days professional beggars, known as mudlarks, used to sit under the bridge waiting for people to throw them pennies. The pennies would bury themselves deep in the mud, and the mudlarks would plunge in head first and recover them. This was considered a most amusing spectacle."
"Is there anyone who would degrade himself in that way nowadays? And how many people are there who would get a kick out of watching it?"
But is that true? Quite a few people, I imagine, would get a kick out of it: it is surely society that forbids it.
Grossmith, George and Weedom. The Diary of a Nobody. 4th ed. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1919.
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, 4 vols. London: Penguin, 1984 (Vol 3 1943-45).
Last modified 8 August 2006