Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – a Persephone favourite

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Of all the splendid Persephone republished books, this is probably a favourite of many readers. A delightful book which was a little shocking in 1938 when it was first published, its survival was remarkable and a testament to the insight of Persephone books who republished it in 2000 to great popularity. Today it is still a little shocking in   terms of its subject matter of a nightclub singer with a variety of lovers and suggestion of drug use. In a way more shocking is the subject of Miss Pettigrew, downtrodden governess, still bound by the conventions of a strictly moral upbringing, with low expectations of life. She has attained the age of forty without any form of relationship, not unusual for a generation of women who had been young at the end of the First World War whose potential husbands had not returned from the battlefields. She has been bullied by employers as she is probably not a natural teacher, and being an employee living in other people’s houses she has never enjoyed much freedom. She has never had much money to buy clothes or other necessities of life, and her parents made her nervous of using cosmetics as they symbolised moral decadence. This Cinderella type tale of an older woman finding a new life is a parable for conflicting class and lifestyles in the pre Second World War period. I recently chose this book for our book group, and despite it being very different from many of the books we have read, it was very much enjoyed and discussed.


The book opens with the desperate Miss Pettigrew approaching an employment agency for a new position. Her landlady has threatened her with eviction that day if she does not get a job, and she knows that a lowly nursemaid role will now be her only hope. So she goes to an interview in the desperate hope of a job, only to be caught up in a whirl of confusion as the door is opened by a Miss LaFosse, who is being romantically pursued by at least two men. As Miss Pettigrew spontaneously takes control of the various situations that occur during the day, she comes to realise that her moral certainties are less than central, and that she can for at least one day become a different person. As she is taken out for different events and is even lent clothes and make up, she discovers that she has a whole new view on life. 


This book reveals much about the life of women in the interwar period and the limited opportunities for them in employment. Women like Miss Pettigrew would have rejected a life in domestic service, but she was not educated enough for other careers. This is an enjoyable, funny and interesting book in which it seems as if a poor woman has achieved her dreams for one day, and that she will have these memories if nothing else for the rest of her life. There are grim moments when she realises that the workhouse is her only alternative to clinging onto a job, even if she finds the work beyond her. There are some points that may shock today’s reader, as there are some comments about race that may disconcert, but it is a book of its time. It is a joyful book, about a change of an entire life for a day, and the creation of hope. The other characters are well drawn, and there is much humour in the dialogue. It is a cheering book, and can be read and enjoyed by many people.   


Today Northernvicar and I were interviewed on Radio Derby about our graduation which takes place very soon. Arranged by the University Communications department, we were talking about how we returned to University to study for an MA in Public History and Heritage together! It was a bit more relaxed than I imagined it would be, and she asked some very interesting questions….