I have been wanting to read this novel ever since I watched the adaptation of it, starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. It’s a lovely story about once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and making the most of those opportunities. It was first published in 1938, and the story itself is set a few years prior to that – I’m no historian, but I guess it would be somewhere in the late twenties/early thirties, when the glamour of nightclubs and high living was prevalent. At least, that’s how it seems in the novel.
Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged vicar’s daughter, works as a governess, minding the bratty children of wealthy parents in London. The only problem is, she’s actually not very good at being a governess and each new position that she acquires only proves to be worse than the last. Paying her rent becomes something of a problem, and when the novel opens Miss Pettigrew is pretty much on her last legs, so to speak. She is told that a Miss LaFosse is in want of a maid, and with nothing better coming her way, Miss Pettigrew is adamant that she will succeed in her new position.
Watson’s subtle delivery of humour is absolutely brilliant. There’s a simplicity and poise to it that I couldn’t help but find appealing. When Miss Pettigrew knocks on Miss LaFosse’s door, she expects a mature woman with a ward in need of care. Instead, she finds a very young, and very distressed starlet, whose only need is that the man in her bedroom disappear quickly before the man who owns the apartment returns. It’s a farce; misunderstandings abound, and as a reader, all you’re required to do is sit back and chuckle. Which I did plenty of.
Miss Pettigrew, whose life so far has been nothing but drudgery and regularity, is thrown into the deep end, where drama is a way of life, and she finds herself doing and saying the most atrocious things in order to help out her new client.
“All the terrible things she had done crowded into Miss Pettigrew’s mind: the lies she had told, the drink she had taken, the swear words she had used.
‘I’ve never sworn in my life before,’ wailed Miss Pettigrew.
‘No?’ marvelled Miss LaFosse.
‘Never. Not even in my mind. Our Vicar once said that to swear in your mind was just as bad and even more cowardly than to swear out loud. He did neither.’
‘What a man!’ said Miss LaFosse in awe.
‘He was,’ agreed Miss Pettigrew.
‘But I didn’t hear you swear,’ consoled Miss LaFosse.
‘You must have been too upset. I said “damned” and “hell” and meant them . . . in that way.’
‘Oh!’ said Miss LaFosse with a reassuring beam. ‘They’re not swear words. They’re only expressions. I assure you, fashions change in words, same as everything else. I think they’ve quite come out of the sinful category now. There now, what you need is another drink.”
To her amazement Miss Pettigrew finds that she is actually among people who treat her as a friend, and don’t let her background affect their relationship with her. This was the most heart-warming aspect of the book. As a reader you come to learn that prior to the novel Miss Pettigrew has led a life of loneliness, and to be accepted for who she is, without question is quite a novelty to the poor woman.
“Come to think of it, hardly anyone had ever troubled to talk to her about anything at all: not in a personal sense. But these people! They opened their hearts. They admitted her. She was one of themselves. It was the amazing way they took her for granted that thrilled every nerve in her body. No surprise: they simply said ‘Hallo’, and you were one of themselves. No worrying what your position and your family and your bank balance were. In all her lonely life Miss Pettigrew had never realized how lonely she had been until now, when for one day she was lonely no longer.”
I don’t think there was anything I disliked about this novel. Everything about it from the characters, and the setting, to the witty dialogue was vivacious and charming. It’s a very light, frothy and quick read, and one that I found myself immersed in very easily. It’s definitely a feel-good novel about friendship, love and life.