Sunday, 28 July 2013

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day ~ Winifred Watson

Am I the only one in this vast world who found Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day disappointing?

When I chanced upon a copy of the book at the library, I picked it up immediately, primarily because I remembered all the wonderful things I had read about it. The fact that the book was published in 1938, roughly during one of my favourite literary ages, also made the choice easier. After reaching home I realised that this was a Persephone classic, complete with pretty illustrations by Mary Thompson, and my heart leapt. To be frank, the beginning of the book did live up to my expectations. Guinevere is a dowdy forty year old governess who is not particularly adept at her job. After many failed positions, she is directed by the employment office to the apartment of Miss Delysia LaFosse. The moment Miss LaFosse opens her door to Miss Pettigrew, the latter's life is thrown headward into excitement. The book covers the events of this one special day in the life of Miss Pettigrew, and the chapters are divided hour-by-hour.  

Yes the book reads wonderfully in the first half. Miss Pettigrew does not get the chance to explain the reason of her presence to Miss LaFosse, but from the very beginning, she finds herself embroiled in the circumstances. It is with immense pleasure that one watches Miss Pettigrew, reserved, conservative, daughter of a clergyman, handle the delicate situations involving Miss LaFosse's many men. Miss Pettigrew lies glibly, drinks, and swears a bit to throw the first two suitors of Miss LaFosse out of her apartment. Unfortunately, the second suitor happened to be Nick, the very owner of the apartment Miss LaFosse lives in. Yet, as the events unfold, I begin to sense a feeling a boredom. Every thing unfolds perfectly for Miss Pettigrew. Miss LaFosse never questions her purpose, keeps on offering her glorious food, Miss Pettigrew holds her liquor perfectly throughout the evening (and that includes devious concoctions by spurned lovers), and of course her figure is just like Miss LaFosse, so that she fits into the latter's clothes perfectly. That's too much perfection in one sentence; so you know when the perfect events are spread out over a few pages, you begin to settle down into an atmosphere of ennui.

Yet, this is not supposed to happen. Many readers have countered that Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day reads like a modern fairy tale. I find this particular tag disturbing because all the fairy tales I read and love have a distinct strain of violence, disturbance, strong action (and so on) through it. This book has none. The day is too perfect; and if there are any hardships that Miss Pettigrew has lived through, it happens in the twilight zone before the events of the novel begin, and are referred to in passing. The goal is almost to show that all the chances and perfections that Miss Pettigrew experiences on this particular day is simply because after having lived through a hard unrewarding life, she deserves it. But let's break the bubble of fuzziness and warmth around a kind character and realise that such wonderful things simply don't happen. They don't happen now, and they especially didn't happen in 1938, when Europe was threatened by a looming war; when England was in turmoil (read your Jessica Mitford), confused over the peers' support for Hitler and the thought of Germany emerging as a major European power posing a threat to the largest empire in the world; when the two-hundred year old servant problem was at its height; the Americans were steadily invading the British drawing rooms in a way different from Hemry James; and when class system and socialism was in a head-on collision. In between all this Miss Pettigrew is made up by Miss Dubarry, the owner of the best beauty parlour in London (and whom she did not know an hour ago), wears Miss LaFosse's dress and jewellery (albeit artificial) and embarks on an all-expenses-paid all-night-trip to a night club in a taxi, simply because she has had a brainwave regarding the abysmal nature of the love lives of these women, and has promised to help them with their cad fiances. Oh, and did I tell you that Miss Pettigrew also finds her love before the end of the evening? A perfect fifty-four year old millionaire who comes from humble origins too, and hence doesn't find faults with her being a nursery governess.

I'm aware I sound caustic. It wasn't my original intention. I'd lie if I said that I didn't enjoy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day at all. I liked it the way one likes a very light read to while away the time on a beach. That wasn't my initial intention with the book, of course. To be sure, I love a resolution of all problems in the end, and I could kill for a happy ending. I love it when good things happen to the main character by divine retribution. Yet in this book, that is all that happens: from the very first page, to the very last line. And all because the matronly lady comes up with clever ways to deal with irate boy friends. That doesn't speak much, does it? By the way, Miss LaFosse is incidentally a night club singer. Oh, where is the gumption of my darling, starving, Sally Bowles? 

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