Review of ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’ by Winifred Watson

I have a theory about this book: the story is one long daydream or hallucination of the prim middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, who has watched too many romantic movies. We are told early on that ‘her weekly orgy at the cinema’ is her one extravagance in an otherwise dull existence. The story would be too silly without this context. Actually it’s quite silly anyhow, but I’m sure that when it was first published in 1938, it provided amusing escapism from worries about war on the horizon.

The story covers almost 24 hours. A governess named Miss Pettigrew is accidentally sent to the wrong address by her employment agency and is immediately drawn into the glamorous world of nightclub singer Miss LaFosse. Miss Pettigrew has her first taste of alcohol, is given a fashionable makeover and is deliciously shocked by the affairs of Miss LaFosse, who cannot choose between three men. By some kind of miracle, Miss Pettigrew is totally accepted in the new circle of friends, manages to sort out their relationship problems and even catches a rich beau herself. The plot is very light and unsatisfactory, although there are some modern messages about women’s liberation.

This book certainly has a delightfully wicked charm, accented with naive cartoon illustrations by Mary Thomson. I dislike the character of Miss Pettigrew herself, whose views are racist and bigoted by today’s standards. It’s quite annoying how her behaviour veers between timidity, self-righteousness and breathless excitement. However, she had a religious upbringing and a difficult life as a poor spinster, so the reader can at least sympathise with this.

In summary, this book makes me a little nauseous but I can understand why it’s popular.

This edition was published in 2008 as a Persephone Classic.

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