Sunday, December 16, 2007
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
I enjoyed reading this reissue of a 1938 novel, now published in Persephone's smart grey livery. It's a tale of one day, but isn't a Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses. The eponymous Miss P is a timid, dowdy failed governess who finds herself by accident plunged into a demi-monde of bright young things, night-clubs and all night parties, presided over by the deliciously named Delysia LaFosse. She immediately becomes a Jeeves-like guru to the madcap women of this circle, averting disaster in their complex love lives by producing last minute solutions. She is an idiot-savant version of Jeeves, though- her plans are not the careful product of a highly developed brain, but the instincts she has when she allows herself to be be bold for the first time in her life. The short chapters, each detailing a few hours in the day, show Miss Pettigrew at the centre of a maelstrom of social activity as she pilots Miss LaFosse and her friend Edythe DuBarrry towards the safe havens of marriage with suitable young men, and incidentally finds a beau for herself. We are in the world of Waugh's Vile Bodies here, but without the vitriol. The villain of the piece, the caddish Nick, has an inexplicable power over women. This is explained in a disarmingly frank piece of racism by the fact that he has some Italian ancestry. More startlingly, Miss Pettigrew instinctively knows he isn't right because "he has a little Jew in him". These jarring notes aside - and Miss Pettigrew's eventual conquest is clearly Jewish - the novel is delightful, and to criticise it would be, as someone said of Wodehouse, like taking a spade to a souffle. Indeed, there's much of a Wodehousian nature here, and it's interesting to read from the introduction that Winifred Watson, who died as recently as 2002, was the daughter of a Newcastle shopkeeper, with no direct knowledge of the London scene she described. She stopped writing during the war, having written some historical fiction, a murder mystery and this little gem.
Persephone Books is an excellent enterprise. Their reprints of obscure twentieth century classics are stylish and robust, printed on good paper with beautiful endpapers based on contemporary designs. An extra delight in Miss Pettigrew is the illustrations, which are very evocative of that hedonistic pre-war period.
This particular publication is obviously a winner, as I see it is about to become a film. That will doubtless bring it to a larger audience, and that can't be bad. The film trailer is here.