‘Edith’s Diary’: Madness, Escape, or Creativity?

“I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”    ––– Louisa May Alcott
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Edith's DiaryMy point of contact with Patricia Highsmith’s work is mainly in the movies: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Two Faces of January, and Carol based on her novel The Price of Salt which I’d read. Edith’s Diary, first published in 1977, is a very different work from all the above.

As the book begins, Edith Howland, 35, her husband Brett, and their ten year-old son Cliffie have just moved into small town Brunswick Corner, Pennsylvania, from New York City. The year is 1955. The reason for the move is for Cliffie to grow up in a country environment with more space to roam. Edith’s diary is a precious possession wherein she records her experiences.

Edith is quick to immerse in the community and makes a few friends. With Gert, she successfully revitalizes the local paper Bugle, and she continues with her freelance writing. It’s Cliffie that’s her main concern. Cliffie isn’t a normal boy. He keeps to himself, is indifferent to his parents, unkind to their cat Mildew, makes no friends and doesn’t do well in school. That’s enough for alarm, but Edith’s attitude is concern mixed with appeasement. 

Not long after they’ve moved into their house, Brett’s elderly uncle George comes to live with them, a decision not from mutual consent between the couple. Edith has to take care of George, cook and bring his meals to his bedside, keep the house in good order, write for Bugle and pitch to magazines, all while keeping an amicable social front.

Ten years gone by, life hasn’t aligned much with Edith’s wishes. Far from it. Cliffie can’t make it into any college, no full-time job and turns to alcohol and drugs to pass his days. Old George still hangs in there needing more of Edith’s time and attention. Most devastating to her psyche is Brett, who has left her and moved back to NYC to a new life of his own by marrying his young secretary. Highsmith is meticulous in detailing the psychological world of Edith’s, her frail personality, appeasing her son and yielding to her husband.

But as life’s burdens become heavier and things get gloomier, Edith’s entries in her diary shift to a more and more uplifting tone. She creates a different life for her son in her diary entries, imagining Cliffie successfully graduates from Princeton and begins a good career, marries a sweet girl who later bears her a grandchild.

Edith’s diary is an imaginary narrative that’s totally different from her real life. Towards the end, madness takes over and Highsmith’s ending is both shocking and dismissing. No spoiler here. However, reading the book makes me think of a quote from Little Women‘s author Louisa May Alcott:

I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.    ––– Louisa May Alcott

What’s the difference between Alcott writing jolly tales and Edith’s detailing an alternative life in her diary? If Edith isn’t writing into a diary, which is supposed to be ‘non-fiction’, isn’t she just creating a work of fiction? Where’s the line between escape and creativity?

Highsmith drops obvious clues for us describing Edith’s sinking deep into the slough of madness as she actually prepares for her imaginary Cliffie’s visit to her home for dinner with wife and son in tow. So, it looks like Highsmith is showing us the demarkation, when the two lives, the imaginary and the real, merge into one, therein lies madness.

But, is Edith’s diary an evidence of madness, or an imaginary work of fiction? Hmm… that would be my question to Highsmith if I were a journalist interviewing her. Now, just let me dwell on that thought some more…

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Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, Grove Press, New York, 2018. 393 pages.

Note: Patricia Highsmith’s own diaries will be published in the coming year. Now that would be an interesting read.

 

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

12 thoughts on “‘Edith’s Diary’: Madness, Escape, or Creativity?”

    1. Claire,

      It’s a captivating read, and I’ve enjoyed Highsmith’s sensitive description of Edith’s inner world. I found this book in a new library in our city about a month ago, before the intense Covid-19 pandemic measures. It’s brand new and I admit a title I’d never come across. Now, after the declaration of the pandemic, all libraries are closed and so this book is now renewed indefinitely. I can read it again and again. We’ll forever marked by this Before and After effect.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. OK — When this popped up in my email alert it listed only the title and the Alcott quote. I looked at it, more and more perplexed. And then I decided, Arti has decided to write Edith Crawley’s diary! She in chronicling her sense (or lack) of self worth! She’s seeing every conflict with Mary through creative eyes! And oh, the fantasies she is setting out as she writes about meeting Matthew, the return of Patrick (or is it?), her almost-marriage! We’d read about her escape into publishing — was it all it seemed to be? Oh, the possibilities!

    So, this looks good, the Highsmith. But not, I think, as good as you could write Edith’s story!

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    1. This is hilarious! You should be writing a book, not just in your diary, Jeanie. LOL, I never thought of Edith Crawley. And yes, you’ve got the storylines all mapped out already. Go for it! 🙂

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  2. I started reading Edith as I really enjoyed Lila which I discovered here, but as I went along, I became certain that Edith’s liberal beliefs would not be easy to become immersed in, as I am a President Trump supporter, believing God has given him to our country to show how our country could be. Yes, this was written way before his election. Also, some of my nine siblings are liberals and some are conservatives, so am well-versed in the beliefs and rhetoric. Even so, thank you for the opportunity.
    God bless, C-Marie

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    1. C-Marie,

      I believe literature and films can hone our sensitivity towards others and help us be more empathetic. We don’t need to agree with the characters’ views and beliefs to understand their situations and depths of emotions. As we go through this Covid-19 global crisis, empathy is all the more essential as we face the pandemic as one human race.

      Regarding the book, the political situation during the Vietnam War era is more a backdrop, even Edith’s own political views are non-essentials when compared to the demise of her psychological state. She’s actually a victim of domestic bullying (from both her husband and her son). Her husband divorces her and marries his young secretary, moves away while leaving his own elderly uncle still living with Edith who cares for him for over a decade!

      Today is Palm Sunday. In this Easter week, I remember Christ’s death on the cross. He died for all, regardless of political or moral stance. Over the past twelve years at Ripple Effects, I’ve tried to show that as someone who believes in the Biblical Easter story, I can still be a thinking person, being in touch with others who might hold different views and have very different life experiences. Easter reminds me too that we all share the Common Grace bestowed upon us by our Creator God, who’d humbled Himself to live among us, exemplifying the epitome of empathy and love.

      Again, as always, thanks for stopping by the Pond and throwing in your 2 pebbles. 🙂

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      1. Dear Arti,
        Thank you!! Your open heart is very beautiful. I am 76, with still lots to learn. I did live through the Vietnam War and much more. Perhaps I will try the book again. And I, too, celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and am so very, very grateful and full of thanksgiving that He forgives me my sins. He made us, He knows us, He loves us, He forgives us, each one when we ask.
        God bless us all, C-Marie

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a read of this, and enjoyed it, although I do think it was a bit long as there were no sub-plots to support the main story.
    The end made me think of the behaviour of some men who have been regarded as great artists but in their personal lives behaved in a way that was very anti-social (eg alcoholic or abusive to wives). Whereas all the men dismiss Edith’s writing as evidence of unsoundness, when they are pieces that have been bought by papers, including her husband who has been quite abusive in using her as unpaid labour.
    Great ending, it was very tense.

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    1. Denise, always thankful for your thoughts after you’ve read or watched and then come back to share. I’m surprised Edith’s Diary wasn’t made into film as it would have made an intense character study. Films back in the old days esp. the Hitchcock ones often dwell on psychological issues like this. But I can see it’s not something modern viewers might like though.

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      1. Some of the issues were still so pertinent though. The way women end up doing all the caring, easily able to be exploited as Edith was. Ten years of her life stolen. But maybe film makers thought that viewers would expect a bigger mystery if they knew it was a Highsmith? This was a more rounded novel.

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        1. You’re absolutely right! Domestic bullying (not necessarily violence, but verbal abuse, intimidation) is the reality of some (reports show during Covid lockdown, domestic violence increase by far), and the inequality in sharing of domestic chores, caring etc. as you pointed out. Also, in my own observation of immigrant families, esp. with parents not fluent in English, they tend to choose appeasement to let their children / teenagers have their way. Parents being intimidated by their next generation in a land that’s foreign to them. And drugs and alcohol problems, all families would find that challenging dealing with young people.

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          1. That’s in Normal People as well! My friends with Irish heritage talk about the history of institutionalised abuse which was there until quite recently, a strong tendency towards appeasement, which explains the pressures on the mother, which might not be so apparent from an English writer.

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