‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson
Ever since I discovered Persephone Books back in 2010 during my London days, I have been wanting to read their break-out republication hit, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Their catalogue is often overwhelming in its breadth and diversity, but Miss Pettigrew seemed like a good fit for me: a long-forgotten and charming transformation tale with mistaken identity, romantic intrigue, mid-century “bright young things” glamour, and a healthy dash of humor. It may have then taken me four years to actually get my hands on a copy, but I’m very happy to report that Miss Pettigrew did not disappoint.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is probably the most plain old fun book I’ve read in a long time. Indeed, it most reminded me of Wodehouse as its two main characters—the flighty, but sweet Delysia LaFosse and the stern, but loving Guinevere Pettigrew—have distinct echoes of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. There’s a generation between the two authors, but Watson absolutely nails the light-hearted fun of any Jeeves and Wooster story.
But Pettigrew is also more substantive than Wodehouse and manages to keep up its bubbly exterior while also touching upon much more serious topics, namely the “Great Slump” in pre-war England and its attending unemployment. With its female protagonists, Miss Pettigrew is also able to comment more naturally on “women’s issues” of the period. For all her silliness, Delysia is a career woman and Miss Pettigrew is also trying to make her own way as a single woman. Their poorly defined place in society is a constant source of concern throughout the book and one which they discuss repeatedly.
Watson’s book also has the unusual distinction of having a fabulous film adaption to go along with it. There was a page-to-screen roundtable here on Nantucket a few weeks back and one of the panelists there said that the only way film adaptions of books work is when one is so different from the other that they are almost unrelated. This, he suggested, mostly happens when a bad book is made into a great movie.
Miss Pettigrew is one of those rare cases where you can have a fun, terrific book and a fun, terrific movie without sacrificing quality on either end. To the benefit of both book and movie, the film version is admittedly quite different from the book—it keeps the main events, characters, and plot, but chooses to look a more closely at the historic moment of the book with lots of impending World War II references. It also modernizes a few of Delysia’s romantic options, so instead of ending up with a wealthy “self-made man” who owns a department store (over another man who, in a cringe-worthy moment for modern readers, Miss Pettigrew is sure “has a little Jew in him”), she ends up with a penniless, but dashing, piano player with whom she can literally make beautiful, beautiful music. Miss Pettigrew’s ending is also substantially different from the book, although she ends up blissfully happy in both.
But, for all the changes, both film and book manage to keep the exact same sense of magic and fun, which is what is most enjoyable about the book anyway. Accordingly, you get that rare moment where the film adaptation complements the book perfectly and visa versa. They’re almost a continuation of each other, rather than either being an adaptation. If you’re still craving more at the end of either one, just turn to the other!
On the whole, reading (and/or watching) Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a totally lovely experience—somehow bubbly and serious by turns and just perfect for unwinding at the end of an epic work day. Highly recommended.