The weather has been horrible, everything is hotting up for Christmas and after a challenging day of being nice to people (no matter how trying they choose to be – this is just one of the many joys of retail) all I want to do is go to bed with a hot water bottle and a book which will give me the same feeling the hot water bottle does so I’ve gone for a revisit to 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day'. I first read it when Persephone released it as a classic, and fortunately before it came out on film.
I wish the film had had more in common with the book; it was enjoyable enough viewed as an entirely different story, but Miss Pettigrew is a little gem and really didn’t need dicking about with. Poor timid Miss Pettigrew who has spent a blameless and latterly miserable 40 years being respectable and doing her duty as befits the position of a gentlewoman. Forced to earn her living as a rather under qualified governess and facing unemployment at the beginning of the story her situation is parlous. In a time of recession it’s a shock to realise how much harsher the world was in 1938. Miss Pettigrew is hungry, homeless and entirely alone in the world. She knows a desperation that few of us will ever be unlucky enough to experience.
What unfolds is a single perfect unlikely fairytale day, the fairytale being Cinderella with perhaps just a hint of sleeping beauty. The Miss Pettigrew in Winifred Watson’s book has never been kissed, in the film there are hints of a lover lost in the war. I like the un-kissed elderly virgin better; it makes the promise of romance for her more poignant, and the story far more magical. This isn’t about second chances it’s about the wonder of finally getting any chance.
Lovely as the Cinderella story is it’s the detail and dialogue which lifts this book so far above the ordinary. Lots of books make me laugh, but few books make me laugh out loud as often as this one, and few books make me want to get others to read it as much. When I bought my copy I stood behind a woman buying three copies as presents she’d loved it so much. It’s all airy light and belts along at a tremendous pace just balancing on the line between fundamental truth and total nonsense and for anyone who has unaccountably managed to miss out on reading this already I’m going to leave you with this:
“I presume,’ said Miss Pettigrew scornfully, ‘you are speaking of the young girls you are so fond of. You are a very stupid man. You should remember your age. No. I will not flatter you. You are not a young man. You will undoubtedly get rheumatism. You go straight home to-night and to-morrow insist on pure woollen underwear. Whether I am rude or not, let me tell you this. They won’t get romantic over you whether you wear silk or wool. So you may just as well wear wool and be comfortable.’
Miss Pettigrew is undoubtedly correct in her assessments (even if pure wool underwear sounds a bit scratchy to my modern sensibilities I’m sure she’s right).