Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This was recently a movie starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. I finished reading the book more than a week ago but I put off writing about it hoping to see the movie first. I kept thinking it was going to come any day but then I discovered that someone in my family had hijacked the Netflix queue and High School Musical 3 arrived instead.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was originally published in 1938 and reissued in 2000 by Persephone, the British publisher of forgotten works by women authors. I buy a few of these books each year and am slowly establishing a small collection. A friend went to London last spring and brought me back Miss Pettigrew as a souvenir. She bought the original version from the Persephone shop on Lamb’s Conduit St., and it is bound in the iconic gray Persephone cover, but Persephone has also released Miss Pettigrew as part of its series “Persephone Classics” which sport arty covers and are available at mainstream U.S. bookstores. Only nine Persephone titles are available this way in the U.S.-- the rest must be purchased directly from the Persephone shops in London, or over the Web. Miss Pettigrew is also the only Persephone title available as an audiobook; it's read by Frances McDormand and is probably a lot of fun to listen to.

Persephone books seem to come in two styles, heavy and light. The titles I read last year (especially The Priory by Dorothy Whipple) were distinctly heavy. Miss Pettigrew could not be more different; it is so light it practically floats. The plot can be described in one sentence: Miss Pettigrew, a governess in search of a new job, ends up accidentally in the employ of an actress, Miss Delysia LaFosse, and spends her first day using her good common sense bailing Miss LaFosse out of one disastrous situation after another. Much of the book consists of frothy dialogue and descriptions of Miss LaFosse’s extensive wardrobe.

Yet beneath the story’s bubbly surface lurk hints of the gravity of Miss Pettigrew’s situation. Older, ineffective with children, dismissed from employment with increasing frequency, Miss Pettigrew can see her options diminishing rapidly. Choices for unmarried middle-class women in the early part of the 20th century were limited at best. This theme (the lack of choices for women of all ages and social classes) is one that runs through every Persephone book I’ve read. It certainly is present in this book too, though you might miss it if you aren’t thinking too hard.

Does the movie address this issue? Unfortunately I have to wait until someone has watched High School Musical 3 a couple more times before I can find out.

(Book 16, 2009)


Candyce said...

I saw the movie and have the book and will begin it soon. I got it from Redbox for a dollar--not too bad!

I have enjoyed every Persephone book I have read, Dorothy Whipple being my favorite author thus far.

Little Boy Lost was my last read and I highly recommend it.

LINDA from Each Little World said...

I am waiting for the new catalog thinking it might be time to order something as the exchange rate is so much better these days. I loved Miss Pettigrew; it was my first Persephone book. And the movie is fun and frothy but there is not the same subtlety (and subtext) that you find in the book.

Becky Holmes said...

Candyce, Little Boy Lost is on my list. Thanks for recommending it.

coops said...

I too loved Miss Pettigrew and hope that the movie does it justice.

On the general topic of Persephone books, yesterday I finished Miss Ranskill Comes Home which I thoroughly enjoyed. I would also highly recommend Doreen.

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