Thursday, 4 February 2010

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938)

Edition: Persephone, 2008
Review number: 1396

This wonderful novel nearly disappeared without trace; the introduction to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day explains how, after being a big success when first published, it was forgotten until eventually a reader requested a reprint. Persephone publishes books on the suggestion of readers, mainly to promote forgotten female writers. This sort of enterprise, it seems to me, relies quite heavily on second hand book stores: browsing, which has never been convincingly implemented in online sellers to my mind, makes it possible to be attracted to items which have never been heard of before, or to see something that sparks a glimmer of recognition ("that was one of my mother's favourite books", for example). While it is still true that just about every book which - like Miss Pettigrew - sold a reasonable number of copies in the last 150 years or so will be represented by a physical copy in some second hand bookshop in the UK, more of these wonderful places are disappearing in response to the online competition every month; even towns like Cambridge don't have as many as they did only five years ago.

Miss Pettigrew is a somewhat unsuccessful nursery governess, whose first name (Guinevere) is the only romantic thing about her. On the day in question she is sent for a new job by an agency, but when she arrives, she finds not a harassed mother with small children but a beautiful, worldly young lady, a dancer and actress who is clearly not the sort of person Miss Pettigrew is used to working for, nor the sort of person her upbringing suggests she should associate with or like. And there are no children in sight, though it quickly becomes clear that Delysia La Fosse (a stage name, obviously) is seeing at least three men.

Miss Pettigrew quickly accumulates new experiences: standing up to people, having an alcoholic drink, going to a cocktail party, visiting a night club, and so on. Not at all the life she is used to and mostly things that a conventional nursery governess should have had neither the opportunity or the desire to do. But she doesn't feel out of place, and is accepted, and enjoys herself immensely, while her position a outsider gives her an ability to see what is going on under the surface and then act - in a very nursery governess sort of way - to bring about the changes she judges best for those around her.

In short, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a version of the Cinderella story. It is funny and enchanting. It might be considered rather on the light side; if it came out today, it would probably be considered "chick lit". This particular edition adds  an interesting introduction and some delightful, stylish and appropriate illustrations (though I don't like the way the one used on the cover has been coloured - it looks rather garish to me). All in all a most enjoyable experience - 9/10.

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