Saturday, May 21, 2016

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

Source of book: Borrowed from my wife

Without a doubt, this is the fluffiest book I have read this year - and in some time. But it is rather fun fluff. I will also have to confess that it is chick lit - of a sort - which is something I generally do not read. I wanted something a bit light, however, and my wife found it amusing, so why not?

Winifred Watson was an interesting character. Born in England near Newcastle, she expected to follow in her sisters’ path and attend university. Unfortunately for her, the Great Depression hit her father’s shoe business hard, and she had to seek work to help support the family. She took a job as a typist, but found herself with free time in the morning. (Her employer wanted her there just in case - and advised her to bring knitting.) Instead she ended up writing - on a dare no less. When she complained to a sister about the rubbish that was getting published, the sister dared her to write a better book. Over the course of the next few years, she wrote and published six books, the best known (and least characteristic) of which is Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day.

It was a rather dramatic event which terminated her writing career. During the Battle of Britain, her fussy infant son wouldn’t sleep, so she brought him downstairs. A bomb hit the house next door, and blew the chimney into the nursery. This may be one of the few instances in which fussiness had a decidedly positive result. In the wake of the destruction of the two houses, changes had to be made. Watson and her husband and child - and the next door neighbor - all moved in with Watson’s in-laws. With all the people and no space to be alone, Watson found she couldn’t write. Even after things went back to normal, she found she had lost the desire.

The war also put an end to the planned movie based on Miss Pettigrew. Watson would, however, live to the age of 95, and see the book re-released shortly before her death. Posthumously, the book would get the movie treatment, starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. (As usual, the movie appears to have taken significant liberties with the plot.)

The titular character, Guinevere Pettigrew is a 40ish governess mired in poverty. She isn’t particularly good at her job, and admits that children scare her more every year. After losing her job with a rather terrible sounding employer, she is sent by the employment agency on a lead. When she arrives, she finds that her prospective employer is Delysia Lafosse, an actress and socialite. Immediately, she is thrown into crazy situation after crazy situation where she is expected to save the day, whether it is helping Delysia juggle the three men she is involved with, or helping Delysia’s salon-owning friend Edythe win her man back. Along the way, Miss Pettigrew has her first drink (and a few more - but not too many to keep her wits), gets a makeover, visits a nightclub (unthinkable for a vicar’s daughter), and is kissed for the first time.

She feels as if she is being dreadfully wicked, what with drinking and flirting and wearing makeup and hanging out with people her parents would consider thoroughly disreputable. But she finds she likes it, and revels - for a day - in a world she had never experienced.

Miss Pettigrew is in the tradition of the Cinderella story. The dowdy wallflower turns out to clean up well, and discover a wit and charm she didn’t know she possessed.

What gives this particular book its pleasure is that it is from the viewpoint of the disoriented Miss Pettigrew, who discovers that she isn’t who she thought she was after finding her world turned upside down. The small naughtinesses are more thrilling because the prim Miss Pettigrew is experiencing them, and her triumphs are all the more exhilarating because the author makes her character’s nervousness and unintentional audacity real. We discover just what talents Miss Pettigrew has right along with her.

The dialogue is rather fun, with characteristic British wit. In particular, I found the moment when Edythe takes a professional interest in Miss Pettigrew’s face, explaining in graphic detail all the things that need to be done.

Also delightful are Mary Thomson’s drawings. 

 Edythe and Miss Pettigrew

The one thing that grated a bit was more of an affectation of the period and style. Watson subscribed (at least in print) to the idea that women couldn’t resist the appeal of a man who was forceful and aggressive. (Or as Anne of Green Gables would put it, a man who, if not quite wicked, could be wicked and chose not to.) Of course, this fits with the general tenor of the book, which is the allure of almost, but not really quite, scandalous behavior.

I never thought I would go for a book like this, but it was rather fun in its own way. Certainly not deep, but witty and full enough of gentle humor to carry it off.

1 comment:

  1. I quite liked the McDormand movie, actually, though I'm embarrassed to say I didn't realize it was based on a book.