Friday, December 16, 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

“Nervous, incompetent, dowdy and shy.” Possessed of these self-descriptive and self-denigrating attributes, impediments to life of enjoyment or promise, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, the heroine of Winifred Watson’s charming 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, wrestles with the unexpected events of a singular, transformative day that begins when she answers an employment announcement for a nursery governess – a last chance to save herself from the poorhouse.

Before I get to the meat of Miss Pettigrew (cooked precisely à point), I feel obliged to mention Persephone Books, a London-based publisher who has put out Miss Pettigrew plus some 90 other volumes, all but a handful by women, providing an invaluable service of rescuing from oblivion writers like Winifred Watson. These are lovely editions. Jorge Luis Borges, in one of his Norton lectures, “This Craft of Verse,” comes across, perhaps inadvertently, as dismissive of the physical book. I understand perfectly what he means, but since reading his essay I've held a quiet and unfair grudge against his omitting a nod to this craft of bookmaking (unfair, as he probably appreciated book arts as much as anyone, given his history of immersion in libraries). I like well-made books. I like the smell of them, the way they feel in my hands, the artistry involved in putting them together, and the work of a talented designer. And while I’m grateful to wonderful teachers, friends, reviewers and bloggers for showing me the way to many terrific works of literature, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also credit book designers - including the person who came up with the cover for the first English language paperback edition of Borges’ own Labyrinths (ah - her name is Gilda Kuhlman. Isn’t the Internet convenient? Thank you, Gilda.). Labyrinths was one of many cherished books of my adolescence that I picked up solely by judging their covers. So while indeed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (and any other work of literature) may well live for more than a day regardless of the form of its presentation, I’m sorely tempted, whenever I write about a book, to include in my review, as did Paul Lukas in his now sadly defunct magazine “Beer Frame,” an assessment of the book’s physical attributes: the heft, the number of pages, the typeset, the quality of the paper, and perhaps most importantly in this physical realm, the quality of its cover design.

The high quality of the design of Persephone Books is noticeable immediately. They’re basically trade paperbacks, but the paper in these editions has a weight and solidly reminiscent of that one can find in pre-war books. Each volume also comes with a handsome grey minimalist dust jacket, discreetly hiding beautiful end papers drawn from old textile and wallpaper patterns. The one gracing the interior cover of Miss Pettigrew is a dress fabric dating from the year of the novel’s publication[1]:

Leaving aside these material attractions, Miss Pettigrew also won me over, even before I’d started reading it, by what must count as one of the great tables of content among all the works in my personal library:

Thus, one knows right away that the action of the book (at least up to the last chapter) unfolds in a single day. For all the certainty of this timeframe, the action is anything but determined, as it’s in fact built on one surprising adventure after another. These unexpected events allow for a flood of new experiences for Miss Pettigrew and new opportunities for Watson’s sharp observations on gender relations, class and social conventions, and the upkeep of appearances. They also draw out of Miss Pettigrew talents unknown even to herself, capabilities that - without, I hope, giving too much away (this is, after all, a classic ugly duckling story, so the direction of the plot, unlike the events that punctuate it, is fairly predictable) - begin their work of transformation by giving her greater confidence, self-respect, and liveliness.

“Liveliness” might describe the chief aesthetic quality of Watson’s writing. Though her novel is a something of a bagatelle, and takes minor faux pas in a few places (for example, elements in Miss Pettigrew’s interior monologues sometimes cross signals with the third person narrator, creating an unintended trick of narrative perspective that a magician might have trouble duplicating), the narrative sparkles, particularly in Watson’s whip-snap smart and crisp use of dialogue, which on occasion manages to incorporate so much unspoken communication that it comes across like a Mantan Moreland skit in which the characters know so well what one another will say that they don’t even need to completely articulate their thoughts.

That Miss Pettigrew calls to mind Hollywood is hardly accidental. Miss Pettigrew could, in fact, be considered a Hollywood novel despite its British setting and author. One need hardly learn that Guinevere Pettigrew’s chief source of amusement is the cinema to recognize that the novel is distinctly patterned after 1930’s screwball Hollywood comedies – like something penned by Philip Barry or directed by Howard Hawks or Leo McCarey - down to its star-like secondary characters and the glamorous life they lead in stark contrast to the banality from which Miss Pettigrew has suddenly emerged. And like the films on which it is patterned, Miss Pettigrew provides enough high-quality entertainment to allow one to live for a day – or at least for a few hours.

I loathe doing in a review what I’m about to do almost as much as I loathe finding in a book something like what I’m about to mention, but there’s a black mark against Watson’s novel, one of those faults so deflating as to impact one’s appreciation of the novel’s other eminently commendable qualities, and that is a perceptible anti-semitism made all the more unfortunate by its entirely gratuitous presence. It appears in only two brief instances, but one of them suggests a disheartening defense of racial purity. Given that the novel was written in 1938, three years after the Nuremburg laws and when the flight of tens of thousands of Jews from Germany was already well-known, the gratuitousness of this attitude is particularly galling. But this fault apparently didn’t keep Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day from becoming immensely popular upon its publication, and nor should a 21st century sense of political correctness keep today’s readers away.  Aside from the poverty barely kept at bay in the novel’s opening pages, this reactionary element may be the one revealing glimpse - in this impossibly romantic, perceptive, tremendously entertaining comedy - of the darkness lying just outside the novel’s bright escapism.

[1] Apparently, Persephone has also released Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in a “Persephone Classics” edition, which appears – from my squinting at the tiny image of it on the Persephone Books web site - to be marred by a prominent advertisement for the movie version of the book that came out in 2008.