1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Persephone, Publisher, Setting, Uncategorized, Winifred Watson

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 234 pages; 2005.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) is an enchanting version of Cinderella, and the story of its re-printing by Persephone Books is also a kind of fairytale,” writes Henrietta Twycross-Martin in the preface to this quite remarkable book.

According to Twycross-Martin, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was her mother’s favourite book and she, herself, read it as a teenager. When she discovered that Persephone Books was seeking title suggestions, she took her mother’s battered copy to the London office and the book was reprinted in 2000.

If I ever happen to meet Twycross-Martin I will probably hug her for rescuing a truly wonderful, uplifting and inspiring story that would otherwise have been lost forever. Now, thanks to her efforts, a whole new generation of readers can experience one of literature’s secret gems. For that is the best way of describing Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day — a gem.

I read the book in two sittings, but I wanted to drag it out longer because I couldn’t bear it to end. I’ve never quite read anything like it. Joyous without being cloying, light-hearted and fun without being frothy, are just two ways of summing it up.

The Cinderella-like story revolves around a downtrodden middle-aged governess called Miss Pettigrew, who is on the brink of homelessness. When her employment agency accidentally sends her to the home of a young woman seeking a new maid, Miss Pettigrew gets caught up in a day that changes her life forever.

By any stretch of the imagination Miss Pettigrew and her potential employer, the glamorous cabaret singer Miss LaFosse, should not get on. They come from completely different backgrounds, completely different generations and are poles apart when it comes to social mores and morals. But what ensues is an immediate ‘chemistry’ that bolsters Miss Pettigrew’s confidence and has her doing things she’s never done before: donning make-up, getting dressed up to go to a party, downing cocktails and dancing at a nightclub.

She also plays matchmaker and sorts out numerous lovers’ tiffs. All in all, she becomes the star of the show and it is wonderfully upbeat stuff. You can’t help but cheer her on!

Throughout the book, Winifred Watson’s writing is confident and remarkably modern. The dialogue crackles and sparkles and drives the narrative forward without wasting a word, as does the structure in which each chapter is divided into hourly time periods.

My only quibble is that there are a couple of politically incorrect references to Jews and foreigners, probably indicative of the time in which the book was written, but if you ignore them this is pretty much a perfectly written tale about one woman’s second chance at life. Do add it to your collection if you’re looking for something a little on the enchanting side.

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson, first published in 1938, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as 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”.

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