Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

“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.

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19 thoughts on “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

    1. Really? I admit, I am very surprised. Much as I really enjoyed Miss Pettigrew, it is the fluffiest out of all the Persephones I’ve read. It’s sparkling and well-written, of course, but I’ve always thought the 1001 Books list skewed more to novels carrying dense themes or written with a more interesting style. And I would think the antiquated sentiments expressed in Miss Pettigrew would bar it from modern reading lists.

      I thought perhaps the 1001 Books list just wanted a good example of light-hearted easy reading. But then I thought, and I think this is more likely, the list really wanted to highlight a Persephone classic and Miss Pettigrew IS the book that made Persephone famous, despite having published other books that are more literary.

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  1. Ok, it gets a half page rewrite of the plot, and a warning to recognise that “there is more to her than meets the eye” because she is a “lifesaver in more ways than one”. Summarised as “A delightful, intelligent, and naughty novel, which reminds us that it is never too late to have a second chance, it is never too late to live.” (p399, the 2006 edition)
    Reading this in the light of your thoughts makes me think that this one is out of place among the other really significant women authors, e.g. Woolf (of course), Iris Murdoch, Amelie Nothomb, Margaret Drabble, Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates and lots more…

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    1. Hahaha, that was quick! You must have that tome nearby.

      Delightful, yes. Naughty, yes. Intelligent — witty is the word you are looking for.

      While I’m still surprised Miss Pettigrew made it to the 1001 list, I hope I haven’t discouraged you against giving it a try. It is a delightful little novel and like I said, reading it made me quite happy.

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      1. LOL Just a short stroll from the bedroom to the library where it was (uncharacteristically) on the shelf exactly where it was supposed to be.
        Anyway, it’s still on my 1001 wishlist, where I shall leave it, because, hey, most of what’s still on that list for me to read before I die is heavy, heavy, heavy…

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    1. You have such a beautiful blog name, I love it! I, shamefully, have not read ‘Jane Eyre’ — I really want to this year though.

      I love Miss Pettigrew! I couldn’t believe she never found her wit until that fateful day! She is indeed clever and witty, but sweet and brave and honest too. That moment of honesty she had in the cab with Joe was probably my favorite part of the novel. I warmed to Miss LaFosse too; somewhat a ditz, but so charming and I love her “women ought to sow their wild oats” quip.

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    1. No, I haven’t. But thanks so much for the recommendation! I read Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Angel’ a couple of years ago and loved it, one of my favorite novels of 2014. I’ve been wondering which Taylor novel I should try next. ‘Miss Palfrey at the Claremont’ seems very promising, although quite different from ‘Angel.’

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      1. I will. I just ordered two books online so I’m on a no-buy for a while but another Taylor novel is definitely on the “buy this year” list. Thanks again for your recommendation. I really didn’t know where to continue with Taylor so you really helped. 🙂

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  2. I second the suggestion of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I also kind of feel you need to watch a Fred Astaire movie….

    This is a light and bright and sparkling book. Sometimes that is all a book needs to be. A deep, meaningful book may be important in the literary canon but sometimes a book we can’t put down is more important in the moment. I am glad you enjoyed this.

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    1. Great! Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is definitely on my wishlist now. Googling tells me it is also on the guardian’s list of best 100 novels.

      “A deep, meaningful book may be important in the literary canon but sometimes a book we can’t put down is more important in the moment.” — Very true, I think I am prejudiced somewhat in thinking Miss Pettigrew does not deserve to be in the literary canon. Yet I enjoyed Miss Pettigrew more than some of the books ON the literary canon.

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