Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended by Kate
Published: 2008 (first published in 1938)
Reviewed by Kate Vane
I’m a big fan of poppy neuroscience and psychology books and I’ve become interested in the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘self’. We are just a collection of habits and behaviours, a product of our circumstances. We can change. So I was intrigued to read this novel.
Miss Pettigrew, a downtrodden children’s governess in desperate need of a position, is sent by her employment agency to the wrong address. She finds herself at the home of Miss La Fosse, a beautiful young actress with a complex love life. Miss Pettigrew is thrown into a new world – one of glamour and ease yet one where she is accepted as an equal. She rises to the challenge of bringing order to the chaos and reacts with surprising equanimity to a moral code which is somewhat different from her own.
Miss Pettigrew, although this is not made explicit in the book, is part of that generation of women who were left ‘singled out’ by the mass casualties of the First World War. At a time when middle class women were expected to marry, there were no longer enough men to go round. Yet opportunities for work, particularly for women of her class, were extremely limited.
So Miss Pettigrew becomes a children’s governess, in that uncomfortable place where she is neither one of the family nor one of the servants, poor but respectable, isolated and unloved. She is not an actor in her own life, but dependent on the decisions and whims of others. On the fateful day when she visits Miss La Fosse, she has gone without breakfast and can’t afford bus fare, but she still has to maintain a genteel aspect.
While Miss Pettigrew has neither sex nor a career, Miss La Fosse and her friends have an abundance of both. Though their lifestyle is largely funded by men, in one way or another, Miss Pettigrew does not judge them, acknowledging to herself that she would have married any man who asked her, to escape her drab life.
There’s a poignancy to the story. Miss Pettigrew has found friendship, fun and a world where her merits are noticed and appreciated. But the title suggests that she will live only for this day. As we near the end of the day, we, like her, hope that somehow, something will change, that she won’t have to go back to her ordinary life.
I did find the plot a little predictable. To contemporary readers, the fish-out-of-water storyline is a well worn Hollywood trope (in fact the book was made into a film in 2008, though with significant changes to the plot). I kept hoping to be startled and wasn’t.
What did surprise me was that the author avoided making this a morality tale. I kept waiting for the inevitable homily when Miss Pettigrew realises that being young and rich and beautiful is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that her life of discipline and deprivation has its own rewards. But cleverly the author doesn’t do that. This is a fairytale which remains light and bright to the end, with enough grit in the mix to stop it being sickly. It is more than escapism. It offers the promise of reinvention.
Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End.