Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Mrs Harris goes to New York by Paul Gallico

published 1960





‘Oh dear,’ said Henrietta Schreiber suddenly, ‘I wonder if I’ve done the right thing?’ She was sitting in front of her mirror in her cabin, putting the final touches to her face. Beside her lay an engraved card of invitation which stated that Pierre René Dubois, Captain of the s.s. Ville de Paris, would be honoured by the company of Mr and Mrs Joel Schreiber for cocktails in his cabin at seven-thirty that evening.




They emerged from their cabin, where their steward waited to guide them. He took them as far as the private stairway leading to the Captain’s quarters, which they mounted, to be received by another steward who asked their names and then led them to the door of the huge cabin from which emerged that distinctive babble of sounds that denotes a cocktail party in full swing.




The Captain, a handsome man in dress uniform with gold braid, said, ‘Ah, Mr and Mrs Schreiber. So delighted you could come,’ and then with practised hand swung the circle of introductions - names that Mrs Schreiber only half heard until he came to the last two, and no mistake about those: ‘ - His Excellency the Marquis Hypolite de Chassagne, the new French Ambassador to your country, and Madame Harris.’


observations: This is the follow-up to Mrs Harris goes to Paris, and it’s not quite as good as that simple fairytale. Mrs Harris and her friend Vi cross the Atlantic with the Schreibers, whom they worked for in London, to help them as they move to what Vi thinks of as ‘Soda and Gomorrow’. (There is an interesting description of Mrs Schreiber not wanting Eastern Europeans to work for her – these days in London the East Europeans would be the star employees.)

Mrs Harris lives next door to a family with a foster-child, and this child, Henry, is being badly-treated, after being apparently abandoned by first his GI father and then his mother. Mrs H knows that the father went back to the USA. So (this is not a realistic book) she smuggles the boy on board ship with them, takes him to New York, then tries to find his father. If you can’t see the exact form of the happy ending coming a mile off, you probably haven’t ready many books before.

They are both very jolly books, adding to the sum of human happiness, but if I were an Amazon reviewer I would be saying in that snooty way they like so much: ‘Did Paul Gallico never do creative writing 101? We were always told SHOW NOT TELL.’ Gallico rarely shows, always tells: he is oppressively, unrelentingly keen on telling you what to think about every character, he never leaves anything to chance, or to the reader’s imagination.

In the section above, Mrs Schreiber – in first class – is worried about Mrs H in Tourist, and then finds her at the cocktail party, wearing one of her own cast-off dresses (not the famous Dior dress from the first book…), and accompanied by His Excellency the Marquis, who has popped in from the other book.

Mrs Harris mentions in passing that the villainous family next door were like the Jukes family – a reference that meant nothing to me, so I looked it up, and I highly recommend that everyone should do so – it’s a fascinating, mind-bending, real-life story about sociological research, nature vs nurture, genetics, and eugenics.

The description of the voyage reminded me of the Atlantic crossing in the 1981 TV version of Brideshead Revisited: so these are screenshots of Celia Ryder, played by Jane Asher, her cabin, and a cocktail party on board. I wrote about Brideshead in the Guardian and on the blog over Xmas.


8 comments:

  1. Moira, Paul Gallico has always struck me as a writer of "jolly," even humourous, books and I know I'd do well to return to this fine writer.

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    1. You can't fault him for entertainment value Prashant....

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  2. Moira - I know exactly what you mean about stories that are not realistic. Still, I do love the shipboard setting of this one. There's just something romantic about that context. And sometimes, a light, 'happy ending' sort of book can be fun. But I do think Gallico's prose can get a little burdensome, as you point out. Still, the Mrs. 'Arris series is fun.

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    1. Yes, Margot, you have to admire his positive take on life....

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  3. Are you done with Gallico or is there more to come....haha......does kind of sound like a book that would cure insomnia, but I'm possibly being over-harsh. I'll bear it in mind if I have trouble sleeping,

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    1. Well it keeps you from adding more books to your lists doesn't it?! No, I think that's the end of the line for now. I am not just now planning on following Mrs 'Arris on any of her other trips.

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  4. Sounds like it would be interesting except that I don't deal well with unrealistic plots. But maybe someday.

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    1. This is real fairy-tale territory, but short and entertaining.

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