This first week of May is Persephone Reading Week, which means bloggers around the blogosphere are reading books by the British publisher Persephone. I do not typically search out books based on publisher. Yet, Claire and Verity have such an (I think it’s fair to say) obsession with this publisher that it certainly caught my attention. Persephone Books republishes less well-known classics and brings them back in to print. From the descriptions I’ve read, it seems many are written by women about women, and I love the emphasis on women finding themselves, especially given the era (1920s to 1950s) in which these classics were written.
All that to say: I decided to give a Persephone book a try this week, and I’m glad I did! Although it wasn’t a favorite book, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson was certainly entertaining. It’s been summarized as a Cinderella story, but I thought it was more comedy than romance. It’s better than any fairy tale. Miss Guinevere Pettigrew is a middle-aged, inadequate governess that can’t keep a job. When she appears at Miss LaFosse’s door one morning, she is determined to be persistent in getting a job.
Miss LaFosse, however, is exactly what Miss Pettigrew least expected, and what follows is a day such as one she’d never expected before. I loved observing how Miss Pettigrew progressively saw herself, and her role as a woman in the late 1930s, in a new light. As Miss Pettigrew talks to the young Miss LaFosse, for example, she realizes “being a woman” had changed:
“I’ve lived too secluded a life,” thought Miss Pettigrew. “I’ve not appreciated how my own sex has advanced. It’s time I realized it.” (page 24)
Miss Pettigrew becomes the confidant and advisor for young trusting Miss LaFosse, and as she reflects on her own life, she finds she does have something to offer to this spontaneous young woman.
“In my life,” said Miss Pettigrew, “a great many unpleasant things have happened. I hope they never happen to you. I don’t think they will because you’re not afraid like me. But there’s one thing I found fatal: pitying myself. It made things worse.” (page 50)
Miss Pettrigrew, you see, is just as able as the other women she meets: she’s just spent so long being looked down on she hadn’t realized her own potential and internal confidence. Put in the right situation, Miss Pettigrew simply blossomed. I loved seeing how clever she was, and I loved even more the moments when she realized that it was still herself being confident. We can do far more than we anticipate.
Her day got more and more ridiculous, yet it was completely satisfying to me. And I felt so sad for the Miss Pettigrews of our day. We all need to friends that appreciate us! We all need something or someone in our lives to help us have a little out-of-the-ordinary day ever now and then.
In all her lonely life Miss Pettigrew had never realized how lonely she had been until now, when for one day she was lonely no longer. (page 69)
Being a romantic, I loved the ending. I wished there was more scenes like The Cab Scene because I loved it so much. This was not, however, primarily a romance. Miss Pettigrew was, firstly, a comedy, and it was just right.
I didn’t like some aspects of the novel, mostly the alcohol. I wished that Watson could have shown Miss Pettigrew being clever without requiring her to have alcohol beforehand. In the beginning, Miss Pettigrew was on top of things and clever as the situation needed. Later, she was “clever” only because she was drunk. For me, the alcohol lessened the effect of Miss Pettigrew’s own abilities. She seemed a far weaker character to me because she let herself be overcome by the alcohol. Obviously, this is colored by my own moral standards, as I am a nondrinker and always have been for personal and religious reason. While I could see the detrimental effect Miss Pettigrew’s super-religious upbringing had on her social abilities (an abundance of guilt and repression, it seemed), I do think it possible to continue to refrain from alcohol and still feel like you “live.” The suggestion that alcohol was necessary for her “day off” lessened the “wonderfulness” of the book for me.
Persephone readers always praise how beautiful the books are. I can’t say anything nice about the physical book. I got a library copy. It’s paperback. Also, it’s a reprint of the original, so it has weird spacing issues and some lines of text are uneven. The illustrations are cute, but in the end it goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover: reading a book should always be for the words, not the pretty cover. I’m not, therefore, converted to Persephone books themselves or anything like that.
That said, I have spent the last 20 minutes browsing the catalog and deciding which of the 1920s and 1930s woman-centric books I’d like to read next. Apparently, Persephone Books has made an impact on my TBR!
The tragedy is that most of these books are not available. That is, they aren’t in any USA libraries and cost an exorbitant amount to purchase. And purchasing expensive unknown books that I haven’t yet read isn’t going to happen. Books that caught my eye nevertheless: Flush by Virginia Woolf (which thankfully is available in non-Persephone form), The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fischer, Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge, How to Run your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw (which, though it was intended to be self-help manual, sounds hilarious given today’s context). I’m still looking through the catalogue for romantic stories.