Edith's Diary
PublisherVirago
Date Published07 May 2015
 
 
ISBN-100349004552
ISBN-13978-0349004556
Formathardcover
Pages368
Price£ 8.99

Edith's Diary

by Patricia Highsmith

Edith’s diary records the day-to-day achievements of a successful family. In real life, however, things don’t turn out quite so well.


Review

Edith, her husband Brett, and their son Cliffie relocate from New York to Brunswick Corner, Pennsylvania. Brett has to take a reduction in salary, but they both agree that it will be a better place to raise a child, and their new house has plenty of space. Over the next two decades, Edith records the joys of a fulfilled life in her diary.

Unfortunately, this rosy picture becomes increasingly at variance with actual life. Cliffie turns out to be a spiteful and mendacious boy with no drive and full of unjustified resentments, who grows up a joke to his contemporaries and unable to make satisfactory relationships. In Edith’s diary, he gets a good job, marries and has children.
 
Brett is prone to argue with his son; Edith stands between the two although well aware of Cliffie’s failings. The atmosphere of the house deteriorates still further when Brett’s uncle George invites himself for an indefinite stay, trading on his supposed invalid status and the family connection. After some years, Brett leaves Edith, marries his secretary and starts a new family. George becomes infirm but refuses to move out, leaving Edith as a poorly-paid skivvy.

George gradually becomes less capable of managing. He is prescribed opiates for his pains, real or imagined, and Edith effectively looks aside as Cliffie gives George a dose intended to be fatal. Only Brett suspects foul play, and he has no evidence or moral justification for action; however, the event seems to mark the final stage in Edith’s slide from reality.

The above outline fails to do justice to what is a masterful observation of a domestic tragedy. The action is reported in the third person, but focused on Edith’s mental processes from her own perspective, so her departure from normality is only really evident from the reaction of others to her. The disappointments and frustrations in her life cut deeper than is evident from her muted reaction.

The picture of Edith’s life is built up with an accumulation of small detail which completely substantiates the portrait: a woman full of energy, intelligence and interest in the world undermined by the three men she finds herself obliged to pick up after. It is a picture perhaps less easy to understand in current circumstances, but when first written in 1977 would doubtless have rung a bell with many of her sex.

The recent re-issue of Highsmith’s work is well justified given its quality. Her themes vary widely, but always she has a way of making the protagonist explicable to the reader, and creating a drama that sticks in the mind.

Reviewed 12 March 2016 by Chris Roberts