Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
published 1938 chapter 7
[Miss LaFosse and Miss Dubarry – glamorous young things - are getting the older, dowdy Miss Guinevere Pettigrew ready for an evening of cocktails, nightclub and general dissipation.]
“Now!” [Miss Dubarry] said briskly. “The frock.”
“Are you sure you won’t have the green and gold brocade ?” asked Miss LaFosse wistfully.
“No I will not,” said Miss Dubarry firmly. “Much too elaborate for Guinevere. She hasn’t the right atmosphere for it. Not vulgar enough if you want the exact truth… Guinevere can’t just wear anything. She’s got to be right.”
“Anything you say,” said Miss LaFosse meekly.
“The black velvet,” said Miss Dubarry.
They put it on. For a breathless second they hardly dared look. But it fitted. Not perfectly, but enough not to notice.
“I thought she was about my figure” said Miss LaFosse with a sigh of relief.
“Thank heavens” thought Miss Pettigrew wildly and extravagantly “for short rations and no middle-aged spread”….
The rich black velvet of the gown was of so deep and lustrous a sheen it glowed like colour. An artist had created it. It had the wicked brilliant cut that made its wearer look both daring and chaste. It intrigued the beholder. He had to discover which. Its severe lines made her look taller. The ear-rings made her look just a little, well, experienced. No other word. The necklace gave her elegance. She, Miss Pettigrew, elegant…
This is the ultimate wish-fulfillment book, with the best of Cinderella transformation scenes. Sad, tired Miss Pettigrew is a poverty-stricken, unemployed nursery governess with no hope or joy in her life. By accident she gets involved with the lovely Delysia LaFosse, a singer and actress with a complicated life. They help each other during the course of a fairytale 24 hours – a day that leaves Miss Pettigrew’s future drastically changed for the better. Clothes, appearances, makeup, hair and corsets feature a lot in the book.
It’s a very old-fashioned book in one particular sense: there are about four racial slurs that could have been removed by a modern editor – would that be unwelcome censorship? Dunno. It is very modern, and positively immoral, in many of its attitudes – Delysia LaFosse leads a most irregular life, and is none the worse for it, while Miss Pettigrew realizes that her prim virtue and shockably ladylike ways have left her miserable and unloved. But she and Delysia can learn from each other, and the whole thing is a light-hearted romp, and shouldn’t have too many conclusions drawn from it. Except that this is a book you can easily read in a few hours, and you can pick it up and read it again next time you need a morale-raiser, and such books are rare and must be valued.
Apparently Winifred Watson wrote several other books, serious North Country dramas (has anyone read them – are they more Silas Weekley/ Cold Comfort Farm? – see blog entries here and here).
This book was a bestseller in the 1930s, then was republished a few years ago by the wonderful Persephone books and has been one of their bankers. It was made into a film in 2008 with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams – considerable liberties were taken with the story, and it is a nice film to look at but not a good representation of the book.
The photograph is from the state library of Queensland's collection, and is featured on Flickr.