Friday, March 2, 2012

Life After Betty: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

With my apologies for not having finished a Betty by the Numbers for this week (we're having a party tonight!), I hope you'll seek out and immensely enjoy this wonderful happy-cupcake of a novel.

-Betty van den Betsy

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

This is a wonderful book!  I just discovered it a year or so ago, and have probably read it four times since.  There’s also a very good, though very different, movie version.  Big caveat: the stinkin’ book carries the 1930s English lit stain of anti-Semitism.  Gosh, I hate that.  But it’s in about two or three sentences, so I excise them mentally and carry on with the otherwise-most delightful Cinderella story ever.

Guinevere Pettigrew is an Araminta at forty-ish, complete with the mouse-colored hair, but without the advantages an RDD provides.  She’s struggling to navigate London in the 1930s, and finding the going difficult for a dowdy spinster who’s not very good at her putative profession of governess-ing.  (She finds children frightening.)  A curate’s daughter, she was reared to strict standards of morality, humility and gentility.  Add to that twenty years of living in other people’s homes, at the mercy of her employers’ moods, children and household rules, and she’s gone from timid to chronically terrified; from modest to apologetically subservient.  Our story opens with Miss Pettigrew in desperate need of a job that will save her from the workhouse.  In search of that job, she finds adventure, friends and happiness.

undated photo of residents of an English workhouse.  They seem frequently to have been stuffed with children, which would have made them especially upsetting for Miss Pettigrew

An employement agency sends Miss P. to the home of Miss Delysia LaFosse (née Sarah Grubb), an actress and nightclub singer of surpassing beauty in need of a governess, despite that “Miss.”  Miss LaFosse has a more immediate problem – too many gentlemen friends about to collide – and despite her parsonical upbringing and belief in her own incompetence, Miss P. makes great strides in sorting out the various callers to beneficial effect.  Miss P. quickly realizes that life’s exigencies have made her much more open-minded and affectionate, and less sternly moral, than her parents and culture molded her to be.

Early in the day (sometime between 11:35am and 12:52pm; the chapters are titled according to the minutes they encapsulate), Miss P. decides “she was going to accept now everything that came along,” including a dry sherry.  She is quickly swept into Miss LaFosse’s gay and frivolous life, teetering on the edge of debauchery, and experiencing all sorts of exciting things she’s never known before, including furs, taxis, a nightclub and kindness.  Her quick wit and courage help her new friends out of several fixes, and she wins a beau of her own and a much, much better job than any she’s held before.  Sometime around 4:00am, the novel closes with a delicious and well-earned sense of happy-ever-after-ness.


Miss Pettigrew and friends attend a cocktail party that may have been quite like this one shown in the TV show Upstairs, Downstairs

It’s not just the marvelous Cinderella story that makes Miss Pettigrew such fun.  Listening in on Miss P.’s thoughts as she transforms herself from cringing, unloved drudge to brilliant social strategist and fierce guardian of her friends’ best interests is great fun – funny and uplifting.  Early in the book, “Miss Pettigrew cast a sternly disapproving eye about her, but behind her disapproval stirred a strange sensation of excitement.”   Close to the end, she’s thrown her upbringing to the wind:  “If the small voice of conscience did pipe up, Miss Pettigrew turned a wickedly deaf ear. ... She was out to enjoy herself as she had never enjoyed herself before, and all the sermons in the world wouldn’t change her course. ... Now she lived.  She was inside of things.  Now she took part.”

I like the movie less well, but still recommend it.  It makes two significant changes from the book:  first, it feels truer to its time period – the late 30s – by bringing WW II’s imminence into the story.  That helps put the gaiety of the society butterflies and Miss Pettigrew’s very different experience into a more realistic perspective.  The second dramatic change is a lousy one:  rather than show the camaraderie between women that the book emphasizes, the writer imbues one of the nicest secondary characters in the book with a vicious jealousy of Miss Pettigrew, and shows the two as rivals rather than supportive friends.  Pfui.

Brighton:  Miss La Fosse luxuriates in all the most garish parts of that sinful city; other characters visit; our heroine’s beau has clearly been there; our heroine, at 40, has never kissed a man.  “’The culmination of all true romance,’ said Miss Pettigrew sternly, ‘is marriage.  Unless the thought of marriage enters both partners’ heads, you may be sure there will be no permanent happiness.’”

Clothes:  a five-year old coat of a nondescript, ugly brown, not thick enough for a cold, drizzly November day in London; a silk and lace négligé; real silk underclothes; home-made woolen underclothes; black velvet evening dress with jade earrings and necklace; a fur coat; a “magnificent black evening wrap with a white fox collar;” gentlemen in evening dress and more.

Food:  not really a focus, but grapefruit, ham, eggs, toast and marmalade; various cocktails, including Miss P’s own pour of soda water with just a dash of sherry for color (“Why men waste money getting drunk on [whiskey], when they can get a really cheap palatable drink like lemon squash...!”); a nice cup of tea; a delicious dinner with unspecified soup, fish, roast and sweet; a “marvelous concoction” of “cream and fruit and nuts and ice-cream and a wonderful syrup.”

Incidentally, the author’s story is fascinating.  She was a secretary with time on her hands, reading at work, when she remarked to her sister and brother-in-law that she could write a better book than the library’s latest offering.  Her BIL told her to get on with it, and she wrote six novels, in three or four quite different styles, before giving up writing to run a household that included her husband, children and mother-in-law.  “You can’t write if you are never alone,” Ms. Watson explained to an interviewer.  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is very available at my local library, and I would love to know what others (like you) think of it.