“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.”
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York: The Adventures of Mrs. Harris. Bloomsbury, 320 pp., £7.99, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.
Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity. A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.
One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.
When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.
All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?
The book gives unambiguous answer that avoids the saccharine twaddle of the books of authors like Mitch Albom or Robert James Waller. You might read all of Albom and Waller without finding a phrase as amusing and well-turned as Gallico’s comment that Mrs. Harris found Paris “the most degeneratively civilized city in the world.” Or without reading passage like one that describes the heroine’s first meal in a French home:
“Mrs. Harris had never tasted caviar before, or pâté de foie gras fresh from Strasbourg, but she very quickly got used to them both, as well as the lobster from the Pas-de-Calais and the eels from Lorraine in jelly. There was charcuterie from Normandy, a whole cold roast poulet de Bresse along with crispy skinned duck from Nantes. There was a Chassagné-Montrachet with the lobster and hors d’oeuvres, champagne with the caviar and Beaune Romanée with the fowl, while an Yquem decorated the chocolate cake.
“Mrs. Harris ate for the week before, for this and the next as well.”
The description of the meal is good, but the line that follows gives it punch and a tinge of bittersweetness. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.
Best line: Paris was “the most degenerately civilized city in the world.”
Worst line: “Mrs. Harris waggled her rear end more comfortably into the bench to enjoy a jolly good gossip.” Gallico comes close to making unintended fun of Mrs. Harris here. And other characters tend to view Mrs. Harris in a way that reflects the views of their day (the “little Englishwoman”).
Recommendation: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was written for adults, but it sweetness may appeal also to teenagers.
Published: 1958 (first edition), Bloomsbury paperback (2010).
If you like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, you may like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.
Furthermore: Bloomsbury has reissued Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in the same volume as a sequel, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York. It first appeared in the U.K. under the title Flowers for Mrs. Harris and in the U.S. as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. Angela Lansbury starred in a 1992 made-for-TV movie version, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2011 Janice Harayda