Sunday, January 18, 2009
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
3. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
by Winifred Watson
paperback, 234 pages
Who knew that Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day would be so funny? Not me, that's for sure. I haven't read any reviews very closely because as I go on and on about, I like to come to books with a fresh and open approach. This was a joy to read. I loved the whirlwind confusion of the old screwball comedies which came out during the same time Miss P. was written. One of the prime ingredients of those movies is a misunderstanding. Another is quick banter that often makes no sense. It is words following words following words, all spoken at the speed of light. And this book does the same thing. Miss Pettigrew goes to the employment agency and hears of two job possibilities: one a maid and one a governess. Because she has worked (though unsuccessfully) as the latter, that's the address to which she goes. On her way, we learn a lot about her. She is quite poor and is actually facing the "workhouse", is plain looking, isn't happy. As she gets nearer, she prays for help, and:
She added a rider to her prayer, with the first candid confession she had ever made to her conscious mind. 'It's my last chance. You know it. I know it.'
I'm reminded of the prayers offered up in It's A Wonderful Life, which prompts God to send down Clarence the angel to help George Bailey.
As her knock on the door is answered, so is her prayer. The door opening to the apartment is a symbolic opening up of Miss Pettigrew's very life and being. Everything changes. The aforementioned misunderstanding occurs, and she does indeed begin to live for that day. She feels like she is in a movie, which is interesting because the only pleasure she has had is going to the cinema. She gets caught up in the lives of people as unlike her (she thinks) as is possible.
And that's about all I want to say. I loved this book. I loved being in its pages, and in the new life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew. It is a delight. I laughed at how Miss P. takes care of all the characters' problems. She reminded me of another "miss" - Miss Marple, in the way the detective solved cases based on her observations of fellow villagers. Miss Pettigrew has worked for a number of people, and learned much from their various behaviors.
Oh, but two more factors that make this book great! Illustrations. These are new ones, done by Mary Thomson. They are reminiscent of J.S. Goodall's for the Miss Read books, and the Gluyas Williams' drawings for the Robert Benchley books, and the Arthur Watts illustrations for E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady - all three coincidentally (or maybe not) are some of my personal favorite writers. The drawings add enormously to the pleasure of reading these books. They bring a little smile whenever they appear.
And the other is that each chapter is a time of day, such as: 1.17 pm - 3.13 pm. The reader experiences Miss P.'s new thrill-a-minute life right along with her.
I was excited when I first heard of the Miss Pettigrew movie, but now I've read the book, I probably won't watch it. This is a movie that should have been made in the late 1930s or early 1940s with the actors who were working then. This story could be acted to perfection by:
Miss Pettigrew - Katharine Hepburn
Miss LaFosse - Myrna Loy
Nick - Clark Gable
Michael - Cary Grant
Miss Dubarry - Jean Arthur
Tony - Jimmy Stewart
Joe - Spencer Tracy
I'm grateful that Henrietta Twycross-Martin (who wrote the preface - and what a preface: she met the author who was 93!) suggested this book to Persephone Books, and that Persephone published it. And I'm grateful I got the copy with the 'dove grey' cover, rather than the new one which notes the movie. I love these covers. I'm a plain Jane kind of reader, who doesn't like a cover suggesting to me what the inside is supposed to be like. Too often, way too often in my experience, the words inside rarely resemble the cover or live up to its beauty and promise. The Persephone books are like the old-fashioned books in the library. You pick them up quite unknowing of what is inside and are sometimes astonished and thrilled by the great writing and story, and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is the perfect example.
A little note: as in many books written in those days, there creeps into its conversations some racial/national descriptions that make this reader cringe. "I do think when it comes to marriage it's safer to stick to your own nationality" gives you an inkling.