“The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling”
Jane Austen on her own novel Pride and Prejudice
Austen’s oft-quoted line above perfectly describes how I feel about Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It’s happy and bubbly, frothy almost, and it gladdens the heart.
Miss Pettigrew is a drab, nondescript governess on the edge of destitution and homelessness. A final chance at employment takes her to the abode of nightclub singer Miss LaFosse. No unruly children in sight here. Instead, Miss Pettigrew is pleaded to assist Miss LaFosse’s romantic entanglements. Beautiful, glamorous, and frantic, Miss LaFosse is juggling three boyfriends and it is all up to Miss Pettigrew’s wits to keep LaFosse’s men clueless and separate from each other.
The action whirs from the start and whizzes continuously. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day spans a day and follows our eponymous heroine as she is introduced to LaFosse’s world of beauty makeovers, captivating characters, theater figures, and jazz clubs – gradually, Miss Pettigrew learns to be merry, learns to live.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the novel that put Persephone Books on the map and I can see why. It has been a while since a novel calls to me every time I had to put it down. I just couldn’t wait to pick it up and continue reading, which is a bit silly since Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is essentially a Cinderella story; there’s no extra points for guessing a happy ending. But the journey is such an entertaining and playful romp I couldn’t help but race through the pages.
The preface of this novel described Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as “closer to a Fred Astaire film than anything else I can think of.” Now, I have never seen a Fred Astaire film, but Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day certainly has an old-fashioned comic charm. It feels slightly fantastic, its settings glamorous, and its mood playful, light-hearted, mischievous, and just pure fun.
Now, it is important to note that despite being stuffed with some delightfully subversive views (“A woman’s got to sow her wild oats”), Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is most definitely a product of its time. Which means, there are extremely dated sentiments that may be considered odious to a contemporary eye. Here’s an example:
[…] I wouldn’t advise marrying him. I don’t like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn’t quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage, it’s safer to stick to your own nationality.
Readers fall into two camps when it comes to retrograde viewpoints in fiction: those who shrug and reason that reading about, say, sexist diatribes doesn’t automatically turn them sexists and those who cannot abide hateful ideas and will refuse to support such ideology by not purchasing the novel. If you fall into the second camp, perhaps best to stay away.
Complaints on obsolete attitudes aside, shutting the final page of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day fills sweet positivity to my heart. Sometimes books don’t need flash and flourish. Sometimes books just need to make you happy.