Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson
Persephone Classics (2000); 234 pp.
Everyone has their bad days. Guinevere Pettigrew has had a lengthy run of those. At the end of them, where we meet her in the beginning of Winifred Watson's 1938 novella, she's middle-aged, a poor governess (in all senses of the word poor), and is out of options. Determined to give it all one last shot, she goes on a last-chance job interview, and happens into what can only be called a glittery whirlwind of romance, hedonism and delight.

On what was to be the eve of World War II, the most popular novels of 1938 were tales of death and duty like The Yearling, The Citadel and Rebecca - about as depressing a collection as one could find. In contrast to these, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a near-subversive fantasy that dances and quips along like the Hollywood films of which Miss Pettigrew is so fond.

Upon meeting her would-be employer, Miss Delysia LaFosse (neé Sarah Grubb), Miss Pettigrew is immediately swept into Delysia's intrigues and many romances. In a single 24-hour period (the story is broken into chapters, denoted by time frames) Miss Pettigrew swears, drinks and takes delight in living, all for the very first time in her life. She is made-up and made-over by Delysia and dragged from party to party, all the while providing her employer with advise and a style of maternal friendship that Delysia has perhaps never experienced herself. It's a bit fantastical that both of these characters should be so generous and foolish all at once, but that's why it's a novel. Delysia is delightfully ditzy and grand in comparison to her new friend who, even without her muddy browns, can be so very grounding.

Published when it was, Watson could only have guessed at the declaration of war that would come only a year after its publication. As such, all of the characters leave the story in hopefulness with just a tinge of cautious sensibility. The film adaptation which was released in 2008, however, had the benefit of hindsight. Knowing what came next, the film treats Guinevere and Joe  as not just contemporaries, but twin survivors of the first World War who are wary of the future, but together. In both versions - though more so in the film - they serve as an anchor for the rest of the party who, but for them, would likely float away - a beautiful careless glittering in the night sky.


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