It can be quite easy at the moment to feel like we live in dystopian times which is why this month we were in the mood for fiction that is anything but. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, our June choice, has been described by the novelist Tracy Chevalier as “irresistible, a perfect mix of wistfulness and joy, substance and froth.” As much as we like a fizzy escapist novel, it is the grit that really makes all the charm of Miss Pettigrew so pleasurable. We were intrigued to learn that the book’s author Winifred Watson had to wrangle with her original publisher Metheun to get it published in the first place: she had made her name writing steamy rustic romances (of the kind mocked in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm) and they were not at all sure about this adventure with a nightclub hostess that was more cocaine and comedy than passionate romance in a rural setting.
The titular heroine Miss Pettigrew is a down on her luck governess, a spinster of 40 in 1938 who needs a job if she is to avoid the workhouse. The reality of this possible fate is movingly touched upon and Miss Pettigrew’s desperation provides an engine both for the plot and our engagement. She is mistakenly dispatched to the home of Delysia La Fosse, a gorgeous nightclub singer (winningly played by Amy Adams in the film) who has several gentleman callers to juggle in the course of the morning and Miss Pettigrew proves the ideal foil to help her.
The action of the novel unfolds over a single day (a typical chapter heading is 6.21pm – 7.25 p.m.) and this compression adds something to the urgency with which one reads about Miss Pettigrew’s transformation. It is a Cinderella story but if you feel you are too old for fairytales, don’t fear: there is no Prince Charming here, both Miss La Fosse and Miss Pettigrew earn their own living and their dynamic is a tribute to sisterhood above all else.
Miss Pettigrew begins the book as a voyeur: when she enters Miss La Fosse’s glamorous home, she thinks “This was the kind of room in which one did things and strange events occurred and amazing creatures, like her momentary inquisitor, lived vivid, exciting, hazardous lives.” She gapes at Miss La Fosse, dressed in her gorgeous negligee of silk and lace as the singer tries to decide between her three beaus: theatrical impresario Phil, nightclub owner Nick or the quick-tempered Michael – but the real drama is the platonic love affair unfolding between the two women. Miss Pettigrew is transformed by seeing herself through Miss La Fosse’s eyes. The latter says “I knew it. The minute I laid eyes on you, I knew you were the kind of person to be relied on” which is news to Miss Pettigrew because she has always felt anything but.
There is a sour note in the novel and that is when Miss Pettigrew says of Michael, “there is something of the Jew about him”. This is an incredibly jarring moment in this otherwise lovely novel and serves as reminder, if nothing else, that it was published in 1938 when Germany was not the only European country where antisemitism was rife. Miss Pettigrew does not feel like an anti-Semitic novel not least because Miss Pettigrew herself falls in love with a corset salesman called Joe Bloomfield (it’s even possible that Watson is sending up racial prejudice by making Miss Pettigrew express anti-Jewish sentiments whilst falling in love with a Jewish man). It’s there nonetheless, and should be noted.
But what an intriguing book this is and how revealing it is about women’s lives in 1930s London, for all its surface delight. It is the perfect book to give someone who needs cheering up, or simply wants to be transported for a couple of hours.
What did you think? Leave your comments below and let us know…