Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

When I put together my reading list for the Classics Club back in December, I wanted to include a few light-hearted books, witty novels such as Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which I reviewed here, and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which I’ve yet to read. Winifred Watson’s novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, also falls into this category of ‘fun’ books. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story, one full of warmth, wit and charm. Also, as it was originally published in 1938, it qualifies as my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club which is running all this week – there’s a link here if you’d like some more information about the event.

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Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. As the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is in urgent need of a new job as a governess or a children’s nanny. If she doesn’t secure a new position that day, Miss Pettigrew may well find herself with nowhere to go but the poorhouse as her landlady has threatened to evict her. This next quote perfectly captures Miss Pettigrew’s situation as she sets out in search of a suitable role.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy, November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead. (pgs 1-2)

Luckily for Miss P, the employment agency has a couple of new vacancies on its books: one for a lady’s maid and one for a nursery governess. However, in a mix-up over the details of the two positions, the agency sends our heroine to the home of Miss Delysia LaFosse, a glamorous nightclub singer in need of a new maid. When she arrives at the apartment, Miss Pettigrew finds Miss LaFosse in a bit of a fix. With her own culinary skills being virtually non-existent, Miss LaFosse is in urgent need of someone to fix breakfast for her gentleman friend, Phil; so before she can explain the reason for her visit, Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the kitchen, cooking ham and eggs for the two young lovers. The charming Miss LaFosse is thrilled with her new ‘maid,’ and Miss Pettigrew in turn is delighted to feel appreciated for once, an emotion she has rarely experienced while working as a governess.

She felt strong with compassion and sympathy, though for what she hadn’t the faintest idea. Yet behind her solicitude, rather guiltily, Miss Pettigrew felt the most glorious, exhilarating sensation of excitement she had ever experienced. ‘This,’ thought Miss Pettigrew, ‘is Life. I have never lived before.’ (pg 11)

Miss LaFosse feels so confident in Miss Pettigrew’s abilities to manage a crisis that she asks for some much-needed help in disentangling her rather complicated love life. As it turns out, Miss LaFosse has three lovers on the go: first there is Phil, the kindly chap she needs to keep sweet in the hope he will place her in his new show; then there is Nick, the dashing, influential and dangerous lover who pays the rent on her apartment; and finally there is Michael, the self-made man who wants to marry her. When Miss Pettigrew successfully manages to get rid of Phil before Nick arrives back at the apartment, Miss La Fosse is extremely grateful; in fact she is so impressed that she begins to see Miss P as some kind of miracle-worker, a fortuitous gift from Heaven. In reality, however, Miss Pettigrew is making it all up as she goes along, relying on her knowledge of characters from the movies as a way of managing these tricky situations. What’s more, every time she tries to explain the real reason for her arrival that morning, Miss LaFosse interrupts her flow, promptly cutting her off before she can finish.

All too quickly Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into Miss LaFosse’s world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. Despite the fact that she is a little disapproving of her companion’s lifestyle, it’s a world Miss Pettigrew begins to enjoy very much. She knows that her mother and father (a curate when he was alive), would have disapproved of this new behaviour, but what the hell – it’s time for Miss Pettigrew to live a little!

Miss Pettigrew sat savouring to the full a blissful sense of adventure, of wrongdoing: a dashing feeling of being a little fast: a worldly sense of being in the fashion: a wicked feeling of guilty ecstasy. She enjoyed it. She enjoyed it very much. (pg. 97)

As the title of the novel suggests, we follow Miss Pettigrew over the course of a complete day during which Miss LaFosse and her friend, Miss Edythe Dubarry, take our heroine under their wings, transforming her into a lady of distinction.

Another woman stood there. A woman of fashion: poised, sophisticated, finished, fastidiously elegant. A woman of no age. Obviously not young. Obviously not old. Who would care about age? No one. Not in a woman of that charming exterior. The rich, black velvet of the gown was of so deep and lustrous a sheen it glowed like colour. An artist had created it. It had the wicked, brilliant cut that made its wearer look both daring and chaste. It intrigued the beholder. He had to discover which. Its severe lines made her look taller. The ear-rings made her look just a little, well, experienced. No other word. The necklace gave her elegance. She, Miss Pettigrew, elegant. (pgs 98-99)

There is a cocktail party for Miss Pettigrew to attend; there are more romantic troubles for her to fix; and finally there is a glittering trip to the Scarlet Peacock, the nightclub where Miss LaFosse performs as a singer. It all makes for a wonderful story.

This is a very charming novel indeed, the ideal read if you’re in the mood for something light-hearted and vivacious, but with a little substance too. The two central characters are beautifully drawn, and their different personalities complement one another perfectly. Miss Pettigrew experiences life as she has never known it before, namely the excitement, thrills and pleasures that come with new opportunities and adventures. She discovers skills and talents that had remained hidden for many years. Conversations are no longer a problem for her as others seem interested in what she has to say; in others words, they see Miss Pettigrew as a person, an individual in her own right as opposed to someone else’s governess or nanny. For her part, Miss LaFosse also learns something from her new friend, particularly how to make sense of her romantic entanglements. I could say a little more, but I’ll leave it there for fear of revealing too much about the outcome.

The secondary characters are also very well drawn, especially Nick, Michael and Miss Dubarry. Watson is very adept at drawing brief but revealing pen portraits of these characters – here’s how she introduces Nick, the handsome but treacherous matinee-idol type.

Graceful, lithe, beautifully poised body. Dark, vivid looks: a perfection of feature and colouring rare in a man. Brilliant, piercing eyes of a dark bluish-purple colour: a beautiful, cruel mouth, above which a small black moustache gave him a look of sophistication and a subtle air of degeneracy that had its own appeal. Something predatory in his expression: something fascinating and inescapable in his personality. (pg 27)

The dialogue is sharp and witty, very reminiscent of the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s. Even though they come from two different eras, there were times when Miss La Fosse and Miss Dubarry reminded me of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the Howard Hawks film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Watson’s novel has a similar tone.

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Finally (well, almost finally) a note on my Persephone edition which comes complete with a beautiful series of line drawings by Mary Thomson and an excellent introduction by Henrietta Twycross-Martin. It’s a beautiful little book.

I’ll wrap up with a favourite quote from the novel, one that typifies Miss Pettigrew’s transformation from mousey spinster into someone with a zest for life – perhaps it will encourage you to (re-)read the book for yourself.

No longer were the damp November streets dreary. Fairy signs glittered on buildings. Magic horns hooted insistently. Palace lights shed a brilliant glow on the pavements. Avalon hummed, throbbed, pulsed, quivered with life. Bowler-hatted knights and luscious ladies hastened with happy faces for delightful destinations. Miss Pettigrew hastened with them, though much more aristocratically than on her own two legs. Now she, herself, had a destination. What a difference that made! All the difference in the world. Now she lived. Now she was inside of things. Now she took part. She breathed Ambrosial vapour. (pgs 167-168)

Alimadame bibi lophile and Karen have also reviewed this novel.

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

  1. MarinaSofia

    I like the sound of this one very much indeed – I have a faiblesse for those screwball comedies and witty characters/zany situations of Dorothy Parker and Anita Loos (the author of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, who subsequently became a screenwriter for many of those types of comedies).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yay – its fab! I can’t remember the last time I had such fun with a book. I really must get hold of the Loos at some point as it’s right up my street. You can’t beat those old screwball comedies – I watched Bringing Up Baby again at the weekend and it still cracks me up (even though I’ve seen it several times).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, that little bit of substance really elevates it. There’s a danger that something like this could be seen as too frivolous or frothy, but it’s not like that at all. Huge fun, though!

      Reply
  2. sharkell

    I have to read this after reading your review – it sounds like so much fun. We read such serious novels most of the time it is so nice to break it up every now and then.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! I read this straight after a couple of very dark books (one of which was Jim Thompson’s The Grifters) and it turned out to be just the antidote I needed at the time. I really hope you enjoy it, Sharkell.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? I can imagine re-reading it at some point as well. It’s such a gem. I’ll be heading over to yours in a little while to read your review. (I resisted the temptation to take a peek when you tweeted it at the weekend as I try to avoid reading other readers’ reviews when I’m about to write my own!) :)

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    This has to be one of my favourite feel-good reads ever, and the Persephone edition is beautiful, with those lovely drawings. Wish I’d had time to re-read this week. Great review, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s fabulous, isn’t it? Well, thank you so much for providing me with the perfect opportunity to read this one. I already had it on my Classics list, so your 1938 Club couldn’t have come at a better time.

      (PS I’m struggling to keep up with all the 1938 reviews flying about the web at the moment and it’s only day 2 – you must be thrilled to see such an enthusiastic response!)

      Reply
  4. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve been lent a copy of the Persephone edition by a friend and kept meaning to read it (never lend books…) This and Kaggsy’s 1938 club give me that impetus. It sounds wonderful, and I love classic Hollywood screwball comedies (His Girl Friday still has a better lead female role than most movies today, which is rather depressing on reflection).

    Hopefully I can give it a go this coming weekend, probably too late for the 1938 club but while your review is fresh in mind to encourage me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous – I can’t wait to hear what you think of it! Much as I like Frances McDormund (who plays Miss P in the recent adaptation), I really wish this had been filmed in the 1940s or ’50s. There’s the basis for a great screwball-style comedy here – Howard Hawks would have been the perfect director (I love His Girl Friday, too). I’m almost a little fearful of watching the film in case it fails to live up to my impressions of the novel.

      (PS Very much looking forward to reading your review of Young Man with a Horn as well – the 1938 Club is proving to be very popular indeed.)

      Reply
  5. Poppy Peacock

    I’ve had this on the TBR for a while… putting it top of the list for when I need a fun treat in between some of the more heavier books on the pile. Great review Jacqui, as ever :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yay! So glad you loved it too, Claire. It’s definitely turning out to be a favourite judging by the feedback I’ve received so far. You know, I really can’t decide whether to watch the film or not. Frances McDormund is one of my favourite (contemporary) actors, but I loved the novel so much that I wonder whether the adaptation might fall a little short. Maybe I’ll give it a go, especially as you think it’s worth a watch. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Rosie. It’s great, isn’t it – the perfect pick-me-up read. I keep meaning to investigate Dorothy Whipple’s novels as her name has cropped up a few times recently. Is there one in particular you would recommend?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d be okay with it, Guy, as long as you picked your time. It’s actually huge fun. Max is about to read it as well, so you might want to wait for his review and then take a view as to whether it’s for you?

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It is feel-good, but I don’t think it’s overly sentimental (if that makes sense). I’ll be interested to see how Max gets on with it too.

          Reply
  6. Scott W.

    I very much liked this novel with its winsome main character and copious borrowings from Hollywood screwball comedies. The table of contents alone – listing discrete moments of the day – totally won me over. It was also my first Persephone book, an added bonus. The 2008 film version, though, can be skipped. This is a novel that richly deserved to be transformed into a black and white film, in 1940 or so, preferably directed by Howard Hawks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, terrific! I’m so glad you enjoyed this novel as well, Scott. The use of time slots as chapter heading was a smart move on Watson’s part; they worked so well, and I loved the fact that they were timed right down to the minute!

      I am so with you on Howard Hawks being the perfect director for an adaptation of this story – in fact, I just saying as much in reply to Max’s comments! I really wish this had been filmed in the 1940s or ’50s. It would have made a great ‘classic’ movie.

      Reply
  7. Lady Fancifull

    This is such a delight. It was my introduction to Persephone, some years ago, when someone gave me Miss Pettigrew as a present, and I fell in love with her and Persephone all at once.

    Now i don’t know if I’ll manage a re-read for this week, as i am deep in Homage to Catalonia re-read for Kaggy’s challenge, re-reading John Fowles French Lieutenant’s Woman for my own sheer delight, and reading and re-reading a couple of Alan Sillitoe’s for NetGalley publication days, but you have reminded me of the sheer fun of Miss Pettigrew and her shocking new chums

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Glad to hear my review revived a few happy memories for you, Lady F. Her new chums are rather shocking, aren’t they? Miss Pettigrew’s curate father would have been turning in his grave at the thought of his daughter rubbing shoulders with this crew. :)

      My, you’ve got a lot of reading on your plate there. Looking forward to hearing more about Alan Sillitoe in particular. Would you believe I’ve never read him (in spite of my best intentions)?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s huge fun! In some ways, I’m quite surprised that it wasn’t snapped up for a film adaptation in the 1940s or ’50s. It would have been perfect for the likes of Howard Hawks or another director of classic comedies from that era.

      Reply
  8. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I’ve had this on my TBR pile for a while already, but your review (and the many positive comments) have really reminded me to move it up. You can never go wrong with intelligent, feel-good stories with substance!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely – I really ought to have a few more books like this in my life. ReadWomen just replied to one of my tweets to say it’s the ultimate comfort read, a great description.

      You should read it with Naomi as I suspect she would be up for a readalong. Maybe you could tempt Cathy and a few of the others to join you as well? Just a thought. ;)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you should make time for it. This was a late addition to my Classics Club list, but I’m so glad I went with it in the end. Pure unalloyed joy from start to finish. i’m looking forward to the Mitford – it’s been ages since I last read anything by her.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! And thanks for providing me with the perfect opportunity to make time for this one – the 1938 Club couldn’t have come at a better time..

      Reply
  9. kimbofo

    Isn’t it fab, Jacqui? I have fond memories of reading it in 2006. I was holed up in bed with pneumonia and someone suggested this would be a good book to read to cheer me up. At that time I’d never heard of Persephone books, so was absolutely delighted to order online and have it delivered in a day or two.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s absolutely wonderful! Pure unalloyed joy from start to finish. It’s like the literary equivalent of a delicious dessert, something fun and frivolous to brighten your day. So glad to hear that you enjoyed this one as well, Kim. It’s been great to see the response to this much-loved novel!

      Reply
  10. Caroline (Bookword)

    What a great review. You have caught the pleasure of this novel just right!
    My only difficulty with the novel was the references to jewishness, not that disparaging, and definitely of the time, but it jarred …
    But everyone should read this novel, especially when they are not feeling very well.
    Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, good point about the slurs towards Jews – one of the mentions in particular was rather blatant. I’ve been rereading a few of Raymond Chandler’s novels over the last couple of years and I’ve noticed the occasional casual racist comment there as well. As you say, these references are a reflection of attitudes at the time, but even so, they stand out when you read them today.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can imagine. You’ll have to indulge in a couple of Maigrets or suchlike just for a change of pace. Miss P was such a delight – I think I need a few more books like this in my life!

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I’m so glad I already own a copy of this as your lovely review would have made me dash to the bookshop right away.
    It’s nice to read something entertaining but still clever and witty.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Exactly, it made me think of your review of Anna Gavalda’s Breaking Away, something light-heartened but with a bit of substance too. So glad you have a copy of Miss Pettigrew – I feel sure you’re going to love it.

      Reply
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  13. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    This sounds like such a pleasure. I also wanted to make sure to put some fun reads on my Classics Club list to counterbalance other more weighty tomes, and this would be a great candidate. I love those drawings too. I think I’ll have to add this to my Persephone collection.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s good to have that balance as the ‘classics’ should be about more than just the traditional heavyweights. I had such a ball with this book! I do hope you get a chance to read it at some point.

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is the ultimate comfort read, something to lift your spirits when you’re feeling rather low or disillusioned with the world. A good antidote to everything that’s been happening lately across Europe. Sometimes we need books like this in our lives – I think you’d like it.

      Reply
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