Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

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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.

Reviewed on May 5, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • We aren’t alone in our obsession! Hee. Also, a point about the books themselves: you read the Classic edition with the funky cover but what we Persephone lovers love most are the dove-grey originals, with the standard covers, dust-jackets and french flaps and the unique endpapers and matching bookmark inside; that’s why we are prone to rave about their beauty some!

    The book is most definitely a charming comedy and I was particularly amused my the recurring jokes surrounding food and Miss Pettigrew unable to eat throughout the day due to one postponement after another.

    You raise an interesting point about the alcohol; I didn’t think that it was implied that she only lived because she was tipsy.

    Some Persephone fans overseas rely on the Book Depository for their book fix.
    .-= Claire (Paperback Reader)´s last post on blog ..The Victorian Chaise-longue Quiz =-.

    • Claire, I was browsing the Book Depository yesterday too! Very dangerous. I don’t normally buy books unless I’ve already read them and loved them or they are a classic that I anticipate loving. I didn’t love this one enough to spent so much extra money on a book! Persephones are very expensive! Too bad, because USA libraries probably don’t buy them for that reason too.

      As for the alcohol, I guess it just seemed like she kept consuming a LOT and she’d said she never drank before. I particularly didn’t like the scene at the party when she was conveniently rude to Tony because she was drunk and that made everything all better. Just too much alcohol in this book for me to recommend to, say, my book group.

  • I loved this book!! It is the only Persephone book I have read, but loved every minute of it. I hadn’t really picked up on the alcohol issue, but a very interesting comment. I also object to that, I’m surprised I didn’t notice it in my first read!!
    .-= Elise´s last post on blog ..Wolf Hall Wednesday =-.

  • I have Flush!! Sorry I know that’s nothing to do with this review but I saw you mention it at the end there. I found it in Half Price Books and it looks like so much fun. 😀

    I have never read a Persephone book. For some reason I’m a bit scared of them. Not sure why. Probably because all the “lesser known” classics I’ve tried to read have not been very good. Of course, they were all lesser known works of people who were famous, so there’s probably a reason they weren’t very good, but still, it scares me. That’s something I need to get over, I think.
    .-= Amanda´s last post on blog ..Happy Cinco de Mayo! =-.

    • Amanda, that’s always been my worry too. But I had such a great experience with ENCHANTED APRIL a few weeks ago, I thought I’d also give this a try.

      I think this book was a fun one, but it was a quick read and (*gasp* don’t kill me Persephone people) not all that special in terms of writing. I wouldn’t spend tons of money on a pretty copy of it, in other words. But you might enjoy it as a casual fun read!

  • Hello! Yes, I fully admit that I am a Persephone addict!

    I’m glad that you enjoyed reading Miss Pettigrew – interesting point about the alcohol!

    I would echo what Claire says about the beauty of the original Persephone books – they are quite a different beast to the classics, which I believe were primarily issued for a different market. Perhaps ne day you’ll be in England and be able to go along to the shop and see what we mean.

    Thanks for joining in!

    • Verity, my dream is to make it to England some day…Since my husband has already been, it may take a lot of convincing to go again. Sigh. I do love pretty books!

  • I’m like you, I almost never buy brand new books that I haven’t read first. Too dangerous! (And I am too poor.) Persephone Week is consequently rather hard on my book-acquiring ban. My library has a few of these books, but not many, and the ones that they have according to the catalogue are often nowhere to be found. Including Woolf’s Flush, which I really want to read because I want to try Woolf and I love the Brownings.
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Aw hell, I forgot all these books =-.

  • I actually have this one, in the format pictured above! It’s been sitting in my TBR for who knows how long — I can’t even remember where I bought it (or why); I do know I got it brand new. I had no idea I actually had a Persephone book in the house until reading this blog post. Although it isn’t the gray covered style that I keep seeing all over the internet, the paperback design is better quality than most paperbacks. I’ll have to read it soon, but not in time for this week unfortunately!

  • This was the first Persephone that I read, and I happened to do so for last year’s Persephone Reading Week! I liked it well enough, but I didn’t love it, much like you. I did love that scene in the cab though, and I also wished there had been more of that in the book.

    And I agree that I wish more U.S. libraries had Persephone titles for us! My library only carries Miss Pettigrew…
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” by Haruki Murakami =-.

    • Steph, I guess it’s just us wishing for a romance, but it’s meant to be more comedy, i guess. I think my library has a few other of the paperback Persephones, but the ones they have are not ones I want to read. I’ll keep searching.

  • This sounds like such a delight! Although this fairy tale lover wonders if she’ll find it better than any fairy tale 😉 It’s such a pity that Persephones are not more widely available in US libraries. I’ve been lucky to have read 6 without having to purchase more than 2: the others were won in giveaways, given to me as gifted, or, incredibly enough, acquired via Bookmooch!
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson =-.

    • Nymeth, well, I liked how realistic it was at the same time. It’s not ALL that much like a fairy tale. Nice that you acquired so many Persephones! I’ll have to look at bookmooch too, although I’ve been moving my books (and subsequently, points) to PaperbackSwap lately.

  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the only Persephone I’ve read, and I loved it, although, like you, it wasn’t a favourite. At least, not an immediate one.

    For me, the book was more comedy as well, and I was thoroughly entertained by how Miss Pettigrew’s day transpired. The alcohol didn’t bother me – in fact, it completely escaped my notice ’til I read your review.
    .-= anothercookiecrumbles´s last post on blog ..Persephone Reading Week #2 =-.

  • I listened to the audio of this last year and enjoyed it, although I think I would have liked it better in print. You make an interesting point about the alcohol consumption, one that I hadn’t thought about. I guess, for me, Miss Pettigrew’s teetotalling was less about religious or personal conviction (something I deeply respect) and more about doing what others told her to do and believing that others who chose differently had no value whatsoever. Giving in and having a drink was a way of showing herself that a person could have a drink and still be a decent person. But, yes, I can see your point in that it appears that the drinking itself is part of what gives her confidence.

    And I’ve had surprisingly good luck getting Persephones through Bookmooch and Paperbackswap. Some, but not all, have been missing the bookmarks and dust jackets, but otherwise they’re just the same. I put a bunch on my wishlists at both sites last year and snagged five or six copies that way–and of popular titles, too! Just make sure that you are in fact requesting the Persephone edition.
    .-= Teresa´s last post on blog ..Hetty Dorval =-.

    • Teresa, the audio for this would be fun, I’d think. I see your point about the drinking: I think you are right in what Watson intended. That makes sense. It still bugged me, but I did enjoy seeing how much she enjoyed her day.

      I’ll have to look at PaperbackSwap/Bookmooch. I like pretty books even without a dust jacket, so I wouldn’t mind that!

  • This is the one I am reading right now (my second this week), and am charmed by it. I do keep seeing the movie in my head as I read though. And as I have not finished yet, I did have to skim over parts of your review … just for now. Until I finish.

    Know that they cost a bit but they are so gorgeous. And feel so good. Avoid getting them from Book Depository because I was told they did not arrive with bookmark from there. Anyone know if this is true??

  • Well, I’m another Persephone addict! But I think I’m an addict 70% for the types of book they publish, and only 30% for how they look (as others said, the dove-grey Originals with their unique endpapers are, to my mind, more beautiful). I really like Miss Pettigrew, but I’m not sure the book is wholly representative of Persephone – it’s more flighty and whimsical than some. You mention Hostages to Fortune – that’s oneof my very favourite Persephones, so if you do decide to seek out others, I recommend that one!

    The alcohol issue is interesting, not something I thought about when I read it (I do drink but, as a Christian, disagree with getting drunk – indeed, I always restrict myself to one glass) I suppose it does let down Miss P’s bravado. Hmm, something for me to ponder on…

    • Simon T, I’m glad to hear that this one is more flighty than the other Persephones. That was part of what made me not so crazy about searching out (costly) other ones: it was fun but very superficial. I’m glad you like Hostages of Fortune because that one really was intriguing me from the catalog. I’ll have to keep looking for it. It does sound more ponder-worthy.

  • I haven’t actually read any Persephones yet but I have Miss Pettigrew and Mariana waiting on my TBR shelf. I have a non-Persephone copy of Flush as well. I did find a few Persephones for sale on Amazon and B&N but I can see that this might be an expensive addiction! I’ll have to start searching Bookmooch and The Book Depository. Sadly, I’ve heard that that store closed. What a shame!
    .-= Karenlibrarian´s last post on blog ..American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld =-.

    • Karen, What?! The Book Depository? I just clicked over there and it looks like it is still up and running! I have yet to buy a book from them, but I’m often browsing and I love the idea of free shipping. I hope nothing happens to it!

      I enjoyed this — it’s a fun read and not too deep but plenty to consider concerning the role of women in the 1930s! I hope you enjoy it.

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