Monday, December 17, 2012

214. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

I was inspired to read Persephone Books - which "reprints forgotten twentieth century novels,..., by (mostly) women writers" - by Marie of Boston Bibliophile. It was last year or so when she embarked on reading Persephone Books and I got interested but couldn't get the books. So when I came across this one, I snatched it quickly.

Once a while you come across a book that leaves you asking for more, a book that is both funny and intellectually rewarding. There isn't many of such books; most intellectually rewarding books are simultaneously drab, insipid, and energy-sapping. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Books, 1938 (republished in 2000); 234) by Winifred Watson belongs to the former group of books. And it is also universal and timeless, like the works of the great Italian sculptors and painters.

Miss Pettigrew is a governess on a job hunt, but she is a terrible governess and she knows it. When she is given the address of a young lady, supposedly in need of a governess, Miss Pettigrew's view of life as she has been brought up to know would collapse and her genteelness and peculiar mannerisms would exuviate; she would go through a rapid mental ecdysis. And find love; something she's never had in all her over three decades of existence. All these, and more, in a day's encounter.The story is funny, interesting, illuminating and sarcastic (in some ways).

When Miss Pettigrew turned up at the door of Miss LaFosse for her appointment, little did she know that she would become her - LaFosse's - magical wand, her thaumaturgist, her problem-solver. Relying on her crude ways, her experience gathered from various places of work, her eagerness to break the mould, and more importantly an unknown untapped potential, she would solve one problem after another - from saving Miss LaFosse from an embarrassing 'caught-in-the-act' moment through to setting up one of the LaFosse's men involved for marriage to saving LaFosse's friend's - Miss Dubarry's - relationship. In all these, LaFosse was oblivious of the important role she played, rather she was memerised by the behaviour of that coterie of socialites and glitterati. She never thought that the things she saw on screens could be transposed into reality. Starting her day almost homeless, should she fail to get this job, and ending it with parties and clubs, Miss Pettigrew saw that there is another side to life, as she had known it to be.

Winifred explored and exposed the lives the rich and the supposedly-rich lived. However, she neither condescended nor condemned them for though Miss Pettigrew's life was one of genteelness, she was pitifully poor whereas those who lived in frivolity, lies, pretensions, and baseless rumours were well-cared for. The story could have been written, not in 1938, but in 2012. The nose-surgery, the facial make-ups, the women endured just to live up to expectations is similar to what pertains today, where breast and butt implant has become the order of the day. Miss Pettigrew, who had never told a lie, considered changing her face with powders and pencils a deception but she quickly realised that it is by deception and through deception that these people lived so handsomely. The art of keeping appearances and living pretentiously were not only about the dusting and lining of faces and eyes and the surgical alterations of noses but also about creating a new and more acceptable background and name, factors germane to success as Miss Delysia LaFosse - formerly Sarah Grubs - testified. Thus, Winifred was almost ticking the requirements a woman needed to be successful: a name that sounds foreign, a good family, beauty, and a bit of sophistication. If all these fail, one could always seduce an affluent old man, marry him off, facilitate his death and inherit him afterwards, as Miss Dubarry did. Or marry one higher up the social ladder or even a boss.

When Miss Pettigrew, who had been brought up in a peculiar way, made a huge impression on Joe, a wealthy man keeping younger girls for appearances only, she couldn't keep to the newer ways she's discovered. She would confess of being homeless, of wearing a makeup, of not owning the clothes she was wearing, and of being a fake. Afraid of being discovered, she blurted it all out. But Joe, himself a phoney of sorts, would accept her as she is. He would also open up to her, his life and how it has been lived.

Through humour and satire, Winifred Watson achieved something momentous with this simple, fast-read story. She explored the social status of women, as objects, and the devices the women resorted to to ensure progress, at least financially. She provides a window to the gender-status of life in that period and now. The in the story sarcasm lies in a comparative analyses of the characters LaFosse and Pettigrew and the social norms of the time. This was a time when marriage was in-vogue; when being unmarried or single - at a marriageable age - was tantamount to curse or was a symptom of an amoral (or bacchanal) lifestyle. Yet, as genteel as she was, as upright as she was brought up to be, having never priorily lied, she never got a husband, until the day she gave up all these and immersed herself, fully, into that 'abhorrent' lifestyle.

The story was written from the point of view of Guinvere Pettigrew and was sectioned into the hours major incidences occurred. As these take place, Miss Pettigrew's confidence grows in tandem. Though there were times that Pettigrew's near mendicancy morphed her into idiocy; but this does not take away from the story. It rather provided it with its humour. Finally, there is a movie to this book though the movie isn't loyal to the book. After watching the trailer, I prefer the book. This is a quick-read and readers would enjoy it; female readers the most.

3 comments:

  1. :-D I'm so glad you got a chance to read this and enjoyed it! It's one of my favorite books. I recommend the movie too- it's different from the book- certain characters and situations were changed for dramatisation- but it's also just really good. :-D

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