If ever a book required a floral housecoat, multiple cats and a heart-shaped box of violet creams as reading accessories, this is it!
I’ve read more glowing reviews of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) than you could shake a Waterstones revolving bookmark stand at, so I knew I was in for a fabulous treat from the very first page. A bright pink sticker on the cover of my copy (sigh) reminded me that this Persephone classic was recently made into a film, which as a fan of Frances McDormand and Ciaran Hinds who star, I am very much looking forward to seeing, too.
Like films, some books offer a sanctuary of comforting escapism rather than challenging adventure into unknown territories, and Miss Pettigrew falls firmly into this camp. It is a Cinderella style story saved from saccharine sweetness by Watson’s wry wit and tight prose.
At the novel’s start, the middle-aged, down-at-heel, unemployed governess, Miss Pettigrew is one interview away from destitution. She arrives at the door of her prospective employer at the appointed time, and due to a series of hilarious misunderstandings ends up spending the day in a dreamworld of high society parties, helping to untangle the romantic intrigues of Miss LaFosse, a nightclub singer and her friend, the make-up artist to the stars, Miss DuBarry.
When jealous cad, Nick, is on the cusp of discovering that Miss LaFosse has had male company, Miss Pettigrew saves the day with her quick thinking.
“Ha! So you smoke a cigar now, do you, miss?”
Miss LaFosse was quite incapable of speaking. Miss Pettigrew saw that everything now depended on her.
Her mind whirled dizzily, then burst like a rocket into dazzling light. She remembered Mrs. Brummegan, her last employer: chest like a hill, nose like a horse, mouth like a clamp, chin like a hatchet, voice like a rasp, manner calculated to awe like a brigadier. Her life with Mrs. Brummegan had been two years of sheer, undiluted hell. But she was thankful for it now. It all lay in the manner…
Miss Pettigrew stood up. She stalked across the room, arrogance and contempt in her stride. She picked up her handbag lying on a chair. She turned: she glanced at Nick, chin up, eyes blazing, voice rasping.
“Young man,” said Miss Pettigrew, “if there’s one thing I completely abominate it’s the effeminate type of man that snoops round a house like an old, peeking busybody. ..If I want to smoke cheroots, I’ll smoke cheroots… I’ve reached the age when I can please myself and I mean to please myself and to hell with your opinion”.
Having extracted him as well as Miss LaFosse’s overnight guest, Phil, Miss Pettigrew is introduced to Michael, Miss LaFosse’s third beau, and she can tell that he is the one that will make her happy, and does her best to ensure they end up together, as well as mending the broken communication between Miss DuBarry and her beloved. In the convoluted process of match-making, she encounters a glimmer of hope for her own happiness too.
The novel is a bright and sparkly read, and dry as a bone like good Champagne. I devoured every minute of it, and must admit, coming down with a bad cold while reading it rather enhanced the experience. Being propped up in bed with tissues and lemsip to hand, is not far off reclining in a housecoat, with cats and chocolates!
The book contains the original illustrations by Mary Thompson which are a fabulous accompaniment to the text, and add to the light frothiness of the book. Yet don’t be fooled by the unashamed fluffiness of Miss Pettigrew , it is brilliantly written and fast-paced, never languishing for too long over the sentimental. Considering the time in which it was written, with the threat of war casting its shadow across an uncertain future, it’s easy to see why this grown up fairytale with a happy ending was so popular at the time. And after a week of news filled with hate crime and violence, I was more than ready for a little feelgood froth myself.