Book #2- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Alternate Title: The Cinderella Story We Deserve
The foreword to Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day contains the unendingly maddening sentence, “This is an enchanting version of Cinderella.” I say maddening because I hate Cinderella. Well, not so much the Cinderella story itself, but more our visual representations of it.What is the Cinderella story, if not a tale meant to celebrate internal goodness and perseverance? In spite of all that she has suffered, Cinderella is good and it is that inherent goodness, not her beauty, that makes her lovable. And yet, in every version of Cinderella, she is always played by someone exceedingly and superficially beautiful. For example, I have not seen Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella film, though I love both Mr. Branagh and the film’s predecessor, Maleficent. I haven’t seen it because, one afternoon, I happened upon a short trailer for the film- the first I had yet seen- and became immediately incensed and- quite frankly, offended- by a series of shots lined up back-to-back.
Shot #1: Richard Madden’s hand wraps around Lily James’ tiny, tiny waist.
Shot #2: A close up on Richard Madden’s face as his love-y eyes are falling madly in love with Lily James.
Well of course he’s going to fall in love with her! She’s pretty, thin, blonde and white! What is supposed to be magical about that? What happened to her beauty shining from within, rather than it being so stupidly evident in the basic construction of her cheekbones? Am I supposed to be impressed, inspired, or in awe of two attractive, fit white people getting together? What is difficult about that? What is magical about it? The magic of her story is not supposed to come the Fairy Godmother or the phony CGI world she constructs around Cinderella, but rather from the wonderful things inside of her very soul. With a Cinderella like the one above, there’s no room for Cinderella’s light to shine through. It’s all about the beauty that’s already there. It just makes the whole story too… too easy.
I call the comparison of Cinderella to Miss Pettigrew maddening because if there is anything this book is, it’s difficult. Oh, no, the writing is simple in its clipped, 1930’s screenplay way, and the 200 or so pages were easier to get through than a McDonald’s Apple Pie. No, what makes the story difficult is its insistence on doing something that most modern writers couldn’t dream of doing when writing female characters: they made them as flawed, developed, and real as any real life woman, and that makes things complicated.
“I like independence in a woman. And so do men that are men.”
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day follows Miss Pettigrew as she (an out of work spinster) joins the ranks of the rich and famous, all while attempting to set her new, elite friends- the dear Miss LaFosse and the particular Miss Dubarry- up in happy marriages. What sounds like a grating and even misogynistic plot gets turned on its head when we discover that both Miss LaFosse, an actress and nightclub singer, and Miss Dubarry, the owner and operator of the most exclusive salon in London, have thriving professional lives (“However much you like your man, you’ve still want your career.”), complicated love lives (both are sexually active to the point of recklessness, with Miss LaFosse having three of her lovers in her flat in the span of two hours or so), and strong senses of female friendship (“There’s nothing like another woman when you’re in trouble”). This book is the feminist frock fiction that I never knew I needed, particularly after the film version seemed to go out of its way to pit women against each other.
“For the first time in my life, I am enjoying being with myself.”
Beyond the incredibly powerful lady friendship that drove the entire story- after all, it is Miss LaFosse’s love for Miss Pettigrew that makes the entire impossible adventure ultimately possible- Miss Pettigrew’s story is the tale of an isolated and terrified woman who finds the beauty within herself, and-upon finding it, allows herself to be happy for the first time in her life.
I’m sure that you wouldn’t know it from my outgoing writer’s voice and my selfies where my face is always half-hidden, but for most of my life, I have been Miss Pettigrew before her Big Day. I’ve always seen myself- and assumed that others saw me- as a dowdy, socially clumsy, unloveable downer. I’m sure everyone- at least to some extent- can understand the feeling Miss Pettigrew often describes but never quite pinpoints: the feeling of being an outsider, desperate to break past the window through which one views life and to dive straight into the action.
And that is why this heartwarming 1930’s fairy tale is the Cinderella story that we deserve. The dowdy spinster- too old, too ugly and too awkward by any other Hollywood or fairy tale standards- finds love, friendship and self-acceptance through her own merits. Rather than the cinematic situation described in the first Cinderella I mentioned, everyone loves Miss Pettigrew in spite of her looks, in spite of her poverty, and in spite of her own doubts about herself. Even though Miss LaFosse dresses her up, she is loved because of the things within her, not for what she presents outwardly.
Over the course of the book, Miss Pettigrew begins to understand all of the things that make her special, that make her worthwhile, reminding the readers that we, too, can do the same. No matter if we think we are too fat, too ugly, too dumb to find our own slice of happiness! This wonderful little story promises that anyone with a kind and enduring spirit can find all kinds of love, if only they are brave enough to show the world all of the wonderful things there are inside oneself to love.
Can you tell I loved this book? I feel like you can tell I loved this book. Please pick up a copy and support both the Winifred Watson estate and Persephone Classics, who produce it as a part of their ongoing mission to celebrate forgotten female authors!