Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

I’m sorry I did not take the advice of my fellow bloggers AT ONCE and dive into this charming, funny novel by Winifred Watson. It is sweet without being too sickly, an escapist fairytale with a good dose of humour and wisecracks to keep it grounded. It has the feel and style of those 1930s Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedies which I used to watch after coming home from school in the afternoon, before I sat down to do my homework. It was – for once – not relegated to the underground storage room of the library, but up proud and yellow on the ‘mood boosting books’ shelf. And never a truer word was spoken!

It is a fairy-tale, a Cinderella story of a middle-aged, downtrodden governess who is sent by mistake to the apartment of a glamorous nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, rather than a household full of unruly children. Before she has a chance to clear up the misunderstanding, she becomes involved in Delysia’s complicated love life and, with her level-headed, prim attitude and warm-hearted if slightly bossy style of questioning, she soon gains Delysia’s trust and gratitude. She gets swept up in the hedonistic lifestyle of her employer and over the next 24 hours experiences the most intoxicating period of her life. But once those giddy hours are over, she is very much afraid she will have to go back to her drab, near-unbearable life.

There is just enough backbone to Guinevere Pettigrew (that first name says it all), and just enough careless charm and genuine warmth to Delysia and her friends to make this story seem almost feasible, while the witty, self-deprecating observations keep us one step removed from fantasy land.  One could dismiss this as ‘romantic tosh’, but it is far more subversive than that. The lifestyle described is a little too decadent and Miss Pettigrew’s conclusion almost too forward for the time period she was living in:

I find it much pleasanter not to be a lady. I have been one all my life. And what have I to show for it? Nothing. I have ceased to be one.

The original illustrations by Mary Thomson are equally humorous and reminded me very much of the illustrations for Ballet Shoes (although those were drawn by Ruth Gervis). Just one note of caution: there are one or two offensive remarks about Jews and ‘dagos’ in there, reflecting the attitudes of the time, but not excessively so, it doesn’t sour the rest of the story.

As I said above, this book has been reviewed extensively by book bloggers I admire, such as Jacqui, Kate Vane, Simon Savidge , Emma, Max and Resh Susan. I haven’t seen the film but Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew strikes me as an inspired choice.

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48 thoughts on “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”

  1. Yes, to all you say! It really is such a mood booster and a non-sentimental fairytale, I loved it. I subsequently bought the DVD and it’s sat on the shelf ever since – maybe this weekend…

    1. Do let me know how you think it compares, if you do watch the film. I can’t help but see all my favourite black-and-white comedies when I read this book…

  2. I loved this, too, but avoided the film in case the book was ruined for me but now that you’ve reminded me that Frances McDormand stars in it perhaps I’ll give it a try. She was wonderful in Olive Kitteridge – it was as if Elizabeth Strout had written the character for her.

  3. I loved this. It’s a lot of fun, a good read in terms of style and witty remarks.
    Yes it’s a bit on the romance side but it’s such a nice “moment de lecture” (I don’t know how to say it in English in a way that holds exactly the same warmth and fondness as the French entails.)

  4. I have just added it to my list as I usually like what you recommend. Admittedly I saw the film, a friend handed it to me and said I must see it. So I know I shall like the book. BTW, have you ever read any Jasper Fforde? I highly recommend the Thursday Next series and that begins with The Eyre Affair and your guide to the Literary World is Miss Havisham. The heroin is Miss Thursday Next and it is non-stop laughs with a Orwellian twist here and there. I am currently reading volume #6 and the author is currently working on #8.

    1. I have to admit I was not terribly fond of The Eyre Affair – great concept but let down by its execution, I felt. If you read the book, I would love to hear how it compares to the film (I hear they changed things slightly).

      1. I think my main enjoyment was that it took me out of my box. My usual reading is history, politics, philosophy, biographies… and the occasional historical fiction such as Signora Da Vinci. It was strange to read them and I must admit, the current volume tends to be a bit over the top for my taste. But I do enjoy letting some air into the grey matter and perhaps clearing out some of the cobwebs. I had no idea there was a film being made but did know he had worked in Hollywood for a time so he would have connections there. As for a movie of it, I don’t think so.

    1. Yes, too bright and cheery for our gory tastes, right? That’s what I thought. But it was a really great change of pace and ‘moment de lecture’, as Emma says above.

  5. Yes, yes, yes! Isn’t this the most wonderful book? As you say, this could have fallen into the trap of being too sweet or sickly, but thankfully it’s so much sharper than that. Like you, I was reminded of various classic movies from the 1930s and ’40s, particularly those directed by Howard Hawks. He would have been the perfect choice for an adaptation.

      1. Yes, definitely. I was also reminded of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, another favourite. Many thanks for linking to my post, very kind of you – I’m delighted you enjoyed the book so much!

  6. I adore this book, one of two Persephone books I have read twice. I also loved the film (which I avoided for about 4 years.) The story is a non sickly fairy tale, and also very funny. Glad you loved it too.

    1. So much love for this book! And it sounds like the film might be worth watching too – although we all seem to have some hesitations, for fear it doesn’t live up to the book!

  7. Isn’t this an ADORABLE Book. I don’t think I dare think about a film. It is her writing which is so delicious, not just the characters. Mind you, McDormand is certainly a lure………

  8. Absolutely! It’s just glorious, isn’t it? Somehow, Miss Pettigrew was one of my first Persephones and it completely sold me on them. I read it with a big grin on my face, on the edge of my seat because I wanted things to work out for her, and the ending was perfect. And there is definitely an underlying edge to the book – I love the fact that she doesn’t turn Miss Pettigrew into something she isn’t!

  9. It’s such a cheerful, charming book, right?! I actually love the movie version even more-it’s one of my go-to comfort watches. The adaptation fleshes the book out more and the costumes are to die for. The cast are all perfect in their roles too. Hope you enjoy it as much as (if not more than) you did the book!

    1. Oh, good to bear in mind, thank you for telling me. I’ll have to seek it out now. I used to draw pictures of all the glorious outfits from the old black-and-white films when I was a child, I just loved the clothes so much!

  10. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Marina Sofia! It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we can end up loving a book that we didn’t think would suit us. And you know, there are times when fairy tales like this one are just exactly what we need…

  11. I enjoyed this one too a few years back when it was doing the rounds of Amazon Vine reviewers. It seems to be one that exists very much on the basis of word of mouth – one of those books everyone ends up wanting to encourage other people to read. Mood enhancing, definitely!

  12. I’ve seen this book mentioned so many times but never bought it because I thought it might be a bit twee, you’ve reassured me on that so it will have to be added to the TBR

  13. Reblogged this on Richmond Hill Reading @ The Roebuck and commented:
    I was amused to read Lucy Kellaway (formerly of the FT) describe this the other day as a book about a job interview which of course it is. I wanted to recommend it but felt it might be too sweet but this excellent post explains the underlying tone which backs off the romantic element.

  14. I finally finished traveling and managed to order this book. Here’s hoping that it will arrive before my next trip in September. Thanks for your wonderful suggestions.

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