Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

I have to apologise for two things in this review. First, commingled in my review of the book will be a review of the movie, which I loved. Second, that the book is not in the public domain, and will be difficult for you to get hold of. But that's not too bad, because all things considered, I don't recommend the book.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day tries awfully hard to be the kind of charming book one reads for a pick-me-up. A modern--well, at any rate a vintage--Cinderella tale, it tells of a timid, plain, poor, middle-aged, and lonely spinster who has never known love. Guenevere Pettigrew, destitute and about to be evicted from her lodgings, is looking for work as a governess. But when she arrives at the apartment of Miss Delysia Lafosse, actress of questionable virtue, to find that charming young lady desperately trying to evict her lover of the night before before the lover who owns the flat arrives, Miss Pettigrew finds herself sucked into a whirlwind of excitement where, suddenly, she can do nothing wrong. Liberated by desperation and the glamorous excitement of clothes, makeup, lovers, nightclubs, and all the things she was brought up to abominate, Miss Pettigrew restores sundered hearts, brings fickle Miss Lafosse to her senses, and even finds love and a home of her own.

I would have enjoyed it immensely had it not been for the author's attitude to all the philandering. The book was written in 1938, in those long-faded, romantic days when gently-reared women still cherished the belief that vice could make one happy. Miss Pettigrew, the daughter of a curate, has been brought up never to smoke, drink, swear, or use makeup; but as a succession of men rush through Miss Lafosse's flat each in the happy belief that she isn't cheating on him, Miss Pettigrew feels not shock or dismay but romantic excitement. As the day passes, with each new vice she tastes for the first time, she feels happier and happier. Of course, she is still too self-possessed to do anything scandalous (and this is the 1930s, after all) but she enters happily into the spirit of the liberated Miss Lafosse.

In the movie, one was not privy to Miss Pettigrew's innermost thoughts; one saw her blooming under a little kindness and affection from an obviously very silly young woman, and one saw her guiding that silly young woman into a conventional and happy marriage with a young man who adored her and expected her to love him to the exclusion of all others: an upright young man, as good as the other men are weak or vicious, full of the Chestertonian vigour of virtue. That still occurs in the book; but the young woman is not at all silly in the book, and the young man is not quite as good, and in the book Miss Pettigrew obviously loses her moral compass.

In fact, even if the movie doesn't have a rock-solid moral compass, it is much more solid than the book. In the book, Miss Pettigrew has been kept from pretty clothes and makeup by her conscience; in the movie, by her poverty, and consequently her conscience is not disturbed by the finery. In the book, Miss Pettigrew's Joe Blomfield drifts to her from a fiancee who he knows has a younger lover; in the movie, he breaks from her when she admits unfaithfulness. In the book, Miss Lafosse's young man is of her own set and presumably of her own morals; in the movie, he is penniless and honest like a fresh wind. The end result is that in the book, Miss Pettigrew is transformed by Miss Lafosse's set; in the movie, she saves Miss Lafosse from it. A far more satisfying conclusion.

Finally, there was one more thing the movie added, and that was--the War, which is declared on the afternoon of the Day during which Miss Pettigrew Lives. As a bit of a World War I buff, I truly appreciated the moment when Miss Pettigrew looks over to Joe Blomfield and says, very quietly underneath the cheers of the younger set, "They don't remember the last one." It's a very poignant moment, which (I think) perfectly captures the feeling of those who were fortunate enough to live through the first war, when the second one was announced. It added a bit of emotional gravitas to an otherwise frothy story.

IMDb page for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day


hopeinbrazil said...

I liked the movie (especially with Miss Pettigrew as the moral compass), but thought I would like the book even more, naturally. It's a relief to read your review and save myself the disappointment.

Mariangel said...

I will post here, though I just found your blog and have read a bunch of reviews. Including, of course, the two about the Lord of the Rings, which I enjoyed very much.

I liked Miss Pettigrew's movie a lot when I first saw it, it had a lightness that endeared it to me, even though (as you say) the morals lack to be desired. Then I borrowed the book from the library, and was disappointed by it. It is nice to see we agree. I re-watch the movie now and then and have a smile on my face as I finish.

As I was going along reading your reviews, it was so exhilarating to find "She likes this book too!". I enjoyed your John Carter review. I remember excitingly telling my friends about this book, very little known in Spain compared to Tarzan, when I was 12.

But it was special to me, as a Spaniard, that the first of your reviews I read was the one about the Cantar del Mio Cid. It felt quite lonely to be the only student in the 10th grade who genuinely enjoyed the book (mandatory reading), but I liked "chivalry books" and not many of my classmates did.

Thank you for your reviews!

Suzannah said...

So glad you're enjoying the blog, Mariangel! It's good to meet someone else who loved THE SONG OF THE CID.


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