Life in a day

Miss Pettigrew lives for a day by Winifred Watson is very much of its time, but is nonetheless an absolute gem of a book. One of those chicken-soup for the soul novels that leaves you with a pleasant warm glow after finishing it.

It is in essence a Cinderella story brought up to date in the 1930s, and all the more charming for that. Miss Pettigrew is a 40 year old spinster, a depressed governess, down on her luck, hating her job, and within touching distance of complete poverty and the workhouse (or its near equivalent. I think workhouses had officially been abolished by 1936 when the novel was published).

About to be thrown out of her lodgings, Miss Pettigrew turns up at an address given her by the employment agency, hoping for a post, and to her surprise meets the charming nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse, who's having man trouble. Miss Pettigrew turns out to be surprisingly good at sorting out difficult men, and ends up being taken under Miss LaFosse's wing. She has a fun-filled day meeting the bright young things of London's Bohemian society, acting as Cupid in love affairs, and being kissed for the first time. It's gloriously daft and detached from reality; and yet, you really hope that there are delightful people out there like Miss LaFosse and her loyal Michael, Joe, the millionaire corset manufacturer, and, of course, Miss Pettigrew herself, who embraces life with such fervor. 

It's an absolute joy to read. Gloriously funny, poignant and touching, but never sentimental. A complete delight. Filled with wonderfully comic moments, it's a great read.

There's also a fascinating preface in the edition I read - Persephone Classics - which gives some background on the writer. Winifred Watson wrote a series of fairly popular books in the style of Mary Webb, of the kind that had been mocked by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. The novels did well, so the publisher, Methuen, were dismayed when they were presented with the author's latest offering - a comical tale of high life in London society, placed rigidly within a chronological framework of a day (Miss Pettigrew). The publishers asked for another novel in a similar style to the earlier hits. Winifred obliged but also persuaded them to publish Miss Pettigrew. It was an immediate hit, being re-published in America almost immediately, was translated into French, and was about to be translated into German when the Second World War broke out. One does wonder what on earth the Nazis would have made of such a joyous romp!

Another comic novel followed, and then tragedy struck. The house where Winifred was living with her young son and her mother was bombed out; and the family was forced to re-locate to her mother-in-law's home. Sharing a small space with a young son (who had narrowly escaped death) and two older women meant that Winifred had little time, and more importantly space, for herself, and so her writing materials were put aside, and she never wrote again.

This doesn't seem to have been a particularly difficult decision for her, and she lived happily until her 90s. Although she never wrote again, she was delighted when Persephone reprinted Miss Pettigrew lives for a day in 2000, it had long been her favourite literary child. This isn't surprising because it's a complete joy of a book. Brilliantly well written - it's now been taught on literature courses across the country, and has made it onto the 1001 books to read before you die list; but it remains a chicken-soup for the soul book. Life affirming, and joyously funny. Read it, and have your heart warmed.


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