Lucinda Elliot

Re-Reading ‘Edith’s Diary’ by Patricia Highsmith: A Fascinating Psychological Thriller


I read a few of Patricia Highsmith’s novels and some of her short stories when I was in my late teens and early twenties.
I remember her as an astute writer, with a sense of grim comedy, an extraordinary sense of the complexities of the darker sides of the human psyche, and the ability to draw the reader into psychological thrillers.
It is a weird thing, but I was unable to get through ‘Strangers on the Train’. I’m not sure why; maybe because I’d seen the film version, and thought the climatic scene with that carousel going at an impossible speed while the two characters slug it out on it, ridiculous. I believe that the book ends differently, with one of the dark twists typical of Patricia Highsmith.
However, I did read ‘The Two Faces of January’, ‘People Who Knock at the Door’ ‘This Sweet Sickness’ and ‘A Dog’s Ransom’. I also read a collection of short stories – which, as I recall, featured two highly grotesque and sinister ones about murderous snails – and ‘Edith’s Diary’.
‘Edith’s Diary’ fascinated me for many reasons. I liked comedy as dark as it could be, and it was that; it was also about the skull beneath the skin, the ugly realities of normal life for a particular housewife and mother married to a journalist with radical sympathies in the US of the 1970’s.
Brett Howland, a journalist, and his wife, Edith and their emotionally withdrawn ten-year-old son Cliffie move from New York to a small town in Pennsylvania. On their last night in the city, Cliffie tries to kill their cat, and it is hinted that in moving they may be attempting to escape from building family tensions. In their new life, they live in a sizeable house, make friends with some neighbours similar radical views, and Edith writes for a free radical newspaper.
Things take a turn for the worse as Cliffie’s anti-social behaviour increases and Brett’s miserly, elderly uncle George moves in with them. The burden of caring for him falls on Edith, as he is soon bedbound. Then Cliffie is caught cheating at his university entrance exams, and is expelled. This causes Brett, who has become increasingly exasperated and hostile towards him, to despair of him altogether.
Edith, unable to accept this failure, writes a false entry in her diary, claiming that Cliffie in fact did much better than expected, and might even be able to get into Princeton. She realises that this is fantasy, but it make her happier, and she reflects that no-one will see it.
Brett begins a love affair with a much younger woman in his office, and soon he leaves Edith for her altogether. He even leaves Edith to deal with the problem of his Uncle George, who has become incontinent. Edith has some sympathy from her aunt, but
Edith’s descent into madness – or anyway, her escape into a more bearable alternative reality – increases as she writes fictitious entries into her diary, recording Clffies successful life at Princeton, where she imagines he meets and courts a fellow student, Debbie, and starts on a successful career.
In reality, she is struggling to maintain the house by working at a job in a local gift shop. Cliffie works sporadically as a waiter and becomes known as a ne-er-do-well drunk. Edith’s isolation increases when her beloved aunt dies. Brett starts a new family with his new wife. Edith imagines that Cliffie and Debbie have two children, and knits baby clothes for these imaginary grandchildren and does sculptures of the whole family.
Brett, on a visit to persuade his Uncle George to contribute more money to the household, is astonished at how handsome and noble Edith has made Cliffie look in the sculpture.
Cliffie in reality has no real girlfriends, though he has an imaginary relationship himself with a girl, Luce, whom he once took out for one evening.
Edith remains politically radical, and becomes increasingly distraught about the role of the US in the Vietnam War. She is sacked from her job. It is never said why, though the proprietor is described as looking at her oddly.
The story is related in the third person, but largely from Edith’s point of view, so exactly how Edith’s behaviour becomes so strange that her friends and neighbours become concerned about her – and finally, too late, Brett – is never explained.
George dies of an overdose of morphine based painkillers. However, he has been taking the medicine for years, and is old and frail. Nobody suspects foul play but Brett, who thinks Cliffie may have killed him. Edith, in fact, knows that Cliffie has given George an overdose before, but keeps quiet.
But meanwhile, Edith’s friends have become worried about her erratic behaviour and increased isolation; when Brett next returns, it will be with a psychiatrist to assess Edith. Edith fears that her privacy may be invaded, and that someone might read her diary…
I found this story fascinating and grimly humorous when I read it aged nineteen. Re-reading it decades later, I find it a lot grimmer, though still often grotesquely comical.
There are stronger implied criticisms of a woman’s role in US society, and by implication, in society generally, than I remember. Of course, I saw then that Brett’s behaviour was outrageous, but it seems far worse to me, now. The peculiarities of Cliffie’s psyche intrigued me than, as now.
Edith seems to me on this second reading still more of a tragic figure. She tries to do the right thing, to be a good wife and mother, to be a good citizen not only of her country but of the world, to stand up for what she thinks is right. She ends up victimised, unfulfilled, neglected and an accessory to manslaughter, if not murder. Perhaps, with her sensitivity and high ideals, the retreat from reality into the happy world of her diary is the only way in which she could bear to face day-to-day existence. It does seem to me that there is a grotesque resemblance between Edith’s retreat into a fantasy world, which happens in a world long before the advent of ‘social media’, and the bizarre behaviour which is encouraged by Facebook and other websites today, where some individuals reveal only the most flatteirng, heavily photoshopped images of his or herself, record only his or her happiest moments, successes, etc. Both this and writing lies in a diary disguise reality. This does strike me as a potentially sinister move, though in this case, anyone coming across this ‘dcoumentary evidence’ would believe a fantasy version about someone else and his or her life, not about his or her own.

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