91. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson
I’ve been trying to write about this book since I finished it back in October, but I keep getting sidetracked into a movie/book comparison. I can get sniffly just thinking about Frances McDormand talking about her beau, who died in the mud in France, and who smiled whenever he saw her… anyway. The movie’s one of my favorites.
So I’m having trouble talking about the book.
Miss Pettigrew is a middle-aged gentlewoman without fortune, family or friends. She is looking for work as a governess when Miss LaFosse is suggested as a possible employer. When Miss Pettigrew arrives at Miss LaFosse’s home for an interview, she is immediately pressed into service to manage Miss LaFosse’s (ahem) somewhat chaotic life.
The book is a bit less serious than the movie—or perhaps the seriousness is just directed in a different way—in the movie, stuff starts to get real when the planes fly overhead, and you are reminded that all of the frantic partying of the rich and leisured is redirecting or sublimating some really horrifying fears about the coming war.
The seriousness—what there is of it, anyway—in the book comes not from the threat of war, but from the threat of poverty. Miss Pettigrew’s interview with Miss LaFosse is the last step between herself and the ultimate degradation, the workhouse. Even though she is somewhat shocked by Miss LaFosse’s life, she perseveres because of her straightened circumstances.
Ultimately, neither the very conservative Miss Pettigrew nor the very liberal Miss LaFosse remains the same. Each gains a bit of the other’s character—restraint or confidence—and is made happier by the change.
I liked the book, it reminded me a bit of P. G. Wodehouse with the focus directed to the female characters instead of inevitably bumbling male characters. But even as much as I liked it, I think the perspective that the movie was able to utilize—the knowledge of the coming war—made it perhaps a bit better.
ETA: I’ve still been thinking about this after posting yesterday, and I think my trouble with the book is that everything that makes the movie stand out for me was added by the movie. That’s a rather inept sentence. Anyway. I like the froth of a 1930’s nightclub, which the book presents, the fancy dresses and the debonair gents–but I love the bits of WW 1 personal history that the movie puts in–Frances McDormand’s beau and Ciaran Hinds’ classmates. And Lee Pace’s Michael– obviously eating his heart out over Delysia (that song!) but still making the awful choice to give up and go home while his pride and his life can still be repaired. Those are the things that I liked in the movie–several characters make decisions to change what isn’t working, to stop the merry-go-round and live life more deliberately. And none of that is really in the book. I think my comparison with Wodehouse was apt–I can’t think of another book that so reminds me of his style and setting. And in my opinion, Wodehouse is fluff–I read him, at times compulsively, but I never care deeply about any of his characters. Even their problems–an uncooperative lady or an unfortunate day at the races–can generally be solved by a visit from Aunt Agatha. The books are comic, but not really human. (Though I do love them. But mostly for Jeeves.) And this book–even though it’s a trifle more serious than Wodehouse (actual money problems) is still more comic than human.