Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day



To try and shake me out of my sorrow I am reading the book the cures the blues: Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938). This beautiful little novel, given to me by a dear friend (by way of saving my life) on a rainy, dark day when every thing that could go wrong had gone wrong begins with its heroine in much the same circumstances: ‘Miss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine.  She had, as usual, very little hope…’ Winifred Watson’s enchanting tale was rediscovered and republished by Persephone in 2001 and since reprinted several times with its delicious original line illustrations. The story unfolds over twenty-four hours in the life of unemployed governess and neglected spinster Guinevere Pettigrew – but this is not just any day, and Miss Pettigrew is not just any spinster.  Sent to the wrong address by her employment agency, Miss Pettigrew is mistaken for the new housekeeper by the glamorous and rather amoral night-club singer Miss La Fosse, and this slip brings Miss Pettigrew smack into a world of cocktails before noon, cocaine that must be disposed of, punch-ups between dangerously handsome suitors, and, perhaps most shocking of all to Miss Pettigrew – the wicked thrill of make-up. As first time readers, we worry for the frightened and sheltered Guinevere – will she be found out? how will she cope?  But those who are returning to re-read this joyous story (and you will, you will) know that there is more to Guinevere than meets the eye. ‘This,’ she thinks, ‘is Life.  I have not lived it before.’ Though some reviewers have seen Miss Pettigrew as a Cinderella story – Watson does something much more subtle than simply finding a “beau” for her lonely lady.  Instead, over the course of the day, in a series of deft interventions, witty misunderstandings, brilliant repartee and enough gin to sink a lesser woman, Guinevere is revealed not only to her new-found friends, but more importantly to herself, as a life-saver, in more ways than one. (And sadly it was this subtlety that was missing in the recent film version which stuck strictly to the Cinderella theme, largely missing the self-love and sisterly friendship that makes this book so damn good). A delightful, intelligent and naughty novel, which reminds us that it is never too late to have a second chance; it is never too late to live. An important reminder in dark times.


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