Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. By Winifred Watson. Illustrations by Mary Thomson. Foreword by Henrietta Twycross-Martin. Persephone Classics, 234 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
This sparkling comedy is something rare: an intelligent fairy tale. Henrietta Twycross-Martin rightly compares it to a Fred Astaire movie. But Guinevere Pettigrew hardly resembles the heroines of those films. She’s no gamine Audrey Hepburn, seduced by Astaire’s sophistication, in Funny Face: She’s a virginal 40-year-old curate’s daughter, without family or friends, who gets so little work as a governess that she is facing eviction for nonpayment of rent.
Then her employment agency sends her, mistakenly, to the home of a nightclub singer instead of family of untamed children. Over the next 24 hours her life changes in ways that are near-magical yet believable.
Winifred Watson describes the upheavals on an hour-by-hour basis that invests her novel with a voyeuristic allure-by-proxy: Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is like reading a diary kept not by its owner by an amused and lighthearted observer. That structure works partly Guinevere’s character remains solidly drawn through all the changes: She is meek but open-hearted, susceptible to change but not a fool, and free of self-pity yet touchingly grateful for her good fortune.
Like all good fairy-tale heroines, Guinevere can think on her feet. She is hardly knows what to say when she arrives at the home of singer Delysia LaFosse and finds her wearing “the kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films.” Yet she finds the right words, telling Miss LaFosse shyly: “You look so lovely in that … that article of clothing.”
Dazzled as she is, Guinevere helps her new acquaintance sort through romantic entanglements that have elements of a classic bedroom farce. Miss LaFosse repays her by showing her a world of cocktails, evening gowns and men who never knew her as a failed governess. Miss Pettigrew, though sheltered and naïve, never comes across as vapid or ridiculous. Without being stuffy, she has self-respect.
All of this alone might set this novel apart from much of the more recent fiction aimed at women. But Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day also has sparkling repartee, bright scenes of London nightlife, and whimsical pen-and-ink drawings retained from the first edition. In 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Meg Jensen writes aptly that this novel reminds us that “it is never too late to live.” It doesn’t hurt that this book lacks a stereotypical pink cover, either.
Best line: “Terrified, aghast, thrilled, Miss Pettigrew stared at the innocent-looking white powder. Drugs, the White Slave trade, wicked dives of iniquity, typified in Miss Pettigrew’s mind by red plush and gilt and men with sinister black moustaches, roamed in wild array through her mind. What dangerous den of vice had she discovered? She must fly before she had lost her virtue. Then her common sense reminded her that no one, now, would care to deprive her of that possession.
Worst line:” ‘And yes,’ thought Miss Pettigrew; ‘somewhere in his ancestry there had been a Jew.’”
Recommendation? Manna for book clubs. Smart, funny, short enough that everybody can finish it.
Published: 1938 (first edition), 2008 (Persephone Classics edition).
Movie link: For more on the 2008 movie version, visit www.imdb.com/title/tt0970468/.
Furthermore: Watson’s obituary in the Independent is posted at www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/winifred-watson-640426.html.
About Persephone Books: Persephone publishes “neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” that are “neither too literary nor too commercial.” www.persephonebooks.co.uk
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.