Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

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I always wanted to taste whiskey,’ said Miss Pettigrew happily. I’ve never had it, ever, even when I’ve had a cold, as medicine.’

‘Where were you brought up?’ commiserated Michael.

‘Sip it slowly,’ begged Miss LaFosse.

‘Bottoms up,’ said Michael.

Miss Pettigrew sipped. She pulled a face. She slipped her class surreptitiously on the table.

‘Ugh!’ thought Miss Pettigrew, disappointed. Not what it’s cracked up to be. Why men waste money getting drunk on that, when they can get a really cheap palatable drink like lemon squash …!’

 

Laughing and thinking about this passage from Winifred Watson’s memorable novel ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ (1938).

I am reviewing this book as part of the #1938club, initiated by Simon David Thomas of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. To take a look at other books published in the same year, reviewed by other bloggers, please take a look at this blogpost and this one.

 

This Persephone Classic, recounts the events of the most remarkable day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew.  The day starts quite drearily with Miss Pettigrew desperately seeking a job to avoid being thrown out of her abode. Miss Pettigrew is mistakenly sent by the employment agency, to the apartment of young singer and aspiring actress Miss Delysia LaFosse.  Miss Pettigrew thinks she is applying for the post of a governess and Delysia requires a maid to keep her affairs in order.

In the misunderstanding that ensues, Miss Pettigrew exhibits immense presence of mind and efficiency in helping Miss La Fosse out of several scrapes, most of which involve young men. Miss Pettigrew is called upon to save Delysia from several precarious situations. She lies for the first time in her life, is called upon to show some acting skills (something she had not known that she had within her!) and also drink and socialize with Delysia’s group of friends.

For the first time in her life Miss Pettigrew feels needed, loved and competent. She undergoes a metamorphosis so dramatic and sudden that by the end of the day she is hardly the same person who had timidly knocked upon Mis LaFosse’s front door. It is a day that changes Miss Pettigrew’s life and the lives of several people she touches, forever.

Charming and funny and tinged with the naïveté of Miss Pettigrew’s unimpeachable character, it is a story that is laced with the wistfulness and regret of missed chances and opportunities of forgotten youth. However, there is great hopefulness in the novel. Miss Pettigrew reminds me in little subtle ways of Anne in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and she has the matchmaking tendencies of Austen’s Emma, only she is far wiser and manages situations much better.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a charming novel. It is book that will invoke giggles. I will most certainly be reaching out for it in a couple of years for a re-read.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

 

  • Excerpt: This is the story of a day in the life of the Thatcham family, in their English country house. It is however, no ordinary day in their lives. The eldest daughter of the family, Dolly, is to be married that morning. The house is inundated with quirky guests who say and do the most unusual things. A ex-beau, Joseph, is plucking up the courage to speak to Dolly. The bride is upstairs, liberally drinking from a tall bottle of Jamaica Rum while adjusting her toilette. As the time for leaving the house for the wedding ceremony approaches, we wonder what else might occur on this unusual wedding day.  Will Dolly make it to her wedding in one piece? Will Joseph be able to unburden his heart to Dolly?
  • Title: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
  • Author: Julia Strachey
  • Published: 1932 by The Hogarth Press, 2002 by Persephone Books Ltd. 2009 as a Persephone Classic
  • Location of the story: the Thatcham’s house in the English countryside near the Malton Downs.
  • Main Characters: Dolly Thatcham (bride, the eldest Thatcham daughter), Owen (the bridegroom), Mrs. Hetty Thatcham (widowed mother of the bride), Joseph (Dolly’s ex-beau), Kitty Thatcham (younger Thatcham daughter)…

This is the first Persephone Classics edition that I have read and I must admit this is the most peculiar yet most wonderful book! I cannot seem to get the characters or the events surrounding the wedding out of my mind. It is one of those books that you feel compelled to re-read almost immediately after you have set it down.

The book starts with our being introduced to the bride, Dolly Thatcham (23 years old) on the morning of her marriage to the Hon. Owen Bigham, eight years her senior and employed in the Diplomatic Service in South America. It is a quiet, small wedding taking place in the local church, conveniently located on the other side of the garden wall of the Thatcham country house.

After the reader briefly meets Dolly she repairs to her bedroom to dress and prepare for the two o’clock wedding. It is only nine o’clock in the morning but Mrs. Thatcham is fussing around with the domestic arrangements that are required to host, entertain and suitably feed a wedding party.

By midday the house is inundated with innumerable guests, friends and close members of the family. All the guests are asked to refresh and relax in the ‘lilac room’ by Mrs. Thatcham with little regard for the size and the accommodative capacity of the room. This poorly managed arrangement has quite a hilarious consequence as we discover later on in the story.

We find that ineffective management of events and household affairs is quite a hallmark of Mrs. Thatcham’s approach to the world. Her inconsequential fussing around the house is frequently interspersed with comments of:

“I simply fail to understand it!”.

Another comment that frequently graces her lips is the observation that the weather is uncommonly cheerful, even when, in fact, it is not.

“Oh, such a beautiful day for Dolly’s wedding! Everything looks so cheerful and pretty, the garden looking so gay. You can see right over across to the Malton Downs!”

As the guests gather together in the long hall at midday, we are introduced to them one by one.

There is the young cousin Robert, reader of ‘Captain’ magazine with

…eyes that were lustrous as two oily-black stewed prunes, or blackest treacle, and the complexion of a dark-red peach.

Robert is perpetually bullied by his older brother Tom and is asked to change his socks at frequent intervals.

“THESE ARE NOT PROPER SOCKS FOR A GENTLEMAN TO WEAR AT A WEDDING” said Tom, bending over the sofa.

To which we are treated to the short and memorable response from treacle-eyed Robert of-

“Go and put your head in a bag”

We meet Evelyn, the small, dark-haired friend of Dolly,  who makes jest of Mrs Thatcham’s habit of calling the most appalling weather conditions cheerful.

We also meet Kitty, the younger sister of Dolly, an innocent girl with romantic, if  somewhat unrealistic visions of life.

Then, there is the silent, brooding character of Joseph, an anthropology student studying in London and a previous beau of Dolly’s. Mrs Thatcham has her doubts about Joseph and the effect he has upon young, impressionable Kitty.

It seemed to her that he said deliberately disgusting and evil things in front of her young daughter Kitty

We are treated to just such an example of Joseph’s conversation with Kitty.

“How are your lectures going” asked Kitty…

“Very well, thank you” said Joseph and added:

“We heard about the practices of the Minoan Islanders upon reaching the age of puberty at the last one”…

“Oh really? How terribly interesting!” said Kitty.

“Yes, very. Like to hear about them?” offered Joseph.

“Kitty, dear child! Kitty! Kitty! Open the window  a trifle at the top will you! The air gets so terribly stuffy in here always! cried out Mrs. Thatcham very loudly.

We meet several other characters sequentially, all more wonderful than the other. Quirky, wonderful people with interesting things to say. The bridegroom, turns up unconventionally at the front door to announce that he is there to retrieve the bride’s ring (that she has taken for sizing and has not returned).

Meanwhile, the bride, Dolly,  is upstairs in her attic bedroom making adjustments to her toilette and surreptitiously swigging alcohol from a tall bottle of Jamaica rum.

She is interrupted by Joseph, who calls her from the stairs and asks her if she is ready yet. She avoids him by untruthfully saying she is not ready.

As the time for leaving the house for the wedding ceremony approaches, we wonder what else might occur on this unusual wedding day.  Will Dolly make it to her wedding in one piece? Will Joseph be able to unburden his heart to Dolly? He has never told her directly that he loves her.

Once, the previous summer at a large dinner party at a hotel in Malton, there had been a discussion about a crackly biscuit made with treacle, called a ‘jumbly’. Joseph, remarks to Dolly that she would adore them if she tried them.

But the point was, that through his face, and most especially his eyes, Joseph’s whole being had announced, plainly, and with a violent fervour, not “You would adore them,” but “I adore you.”

In ‘Cheerful Weather for The Wedding’ we meet a menage of unlikely characters. Many of them take an indirect approach to negotiating life. They often do not say exactly what they mean, what they say often detracts from the absolute truth, they have a roundabout, superficial approach to dealing with life’s little problems. Julia Strachey imparts great drama to the entire proceedings by interjecting these interactions with some very direct, candid conversations.

Like all good writers, she leaves you unsure of the actual circumstances and consequences of the story and compels you to re-read the story to fill in the details about the wonderful circus of characters she presents to you.