Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

When down-on-her-luck governess Miss Pettigrew meets glamorous actress Miss LaFosse in an accidental encounter, her life is changed forever. This delightful Cinderella story also contains an undercurrent of social realism about the status of poor, single women in 1930s British society.

Winifred Watson wrote six novels during her long lifetime, but gave up writing in middle age. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was her third novel and was published in 1938.

Miss Guinivere Pettigrew works as a governess. She’s single, feels herself to be plain looking, and has led a lonely life. Brought up a curate’s daughter, she’s always denied herself many of the world’s pleasures. Her skills are rather limited. As Miss Pettigrew admits, she’s not a very good governess. The novel opens with her down on her luck. Her landlady is threatening to throw her out and she desperately needs work. A mix up at her employment agency sees her turn up at the house of actress Miss Delysia LaFosse. This name is a confection: her real name is the less glamorous Sarah Grubb.

The novel traces a 24 hour period. Miss Pettigrew is introduced to Miss LaFosse’s glamorous and somewhat racy world and slowly undergoes a personal transformation.  She realises she need not be ground down by poverty and poor prospects, and that if she will only take the leap she might just be on the doorstep of a much brighter world.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day works mainly as a Cinderella story mixed with a bit of 1930s screwball comedy. Watson's descriptions of the Bright Young Things of 1930s London brings to mind the platinum blondes and swishy clothes of the silver screen. In this regard, the book is quite a nice period piece. More interestingly, the novel looks candidly at the position of poorly skilled, single women in English society in the 1930s. Things turn out well for Miss Pettigrew in the end – but as the reader well knows, there must have been many, many more real life Miss Pettigrews who stayed poor and indigent. This is the chilly breeze of realism that runs through Miss Pettigrew – but how lovely it is to fantasise that all life's problems can just melt away in one magic day. This is probably part of the novel’s ongoing appeal.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson. Published by Persephone. ISBN: 9781906462024  $26.95