Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2017

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938), by Winifred Watson

The title looked familiar when I saw this book on display at the library, so I brought home Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (1906-2002).  It’s a reprint by Persephone Books who specialise in reprinting neglected 20th century women writers, (similar in spirit to the Text Classics series which specialises in out of-print Australian classics).   I mention this because both publishers spruce up the text for a contemporary audience with an introduction by an eminent critic, but those in the Text Classics series that I’ve read are infinitely superior to the introduction for Miss Pettigrew by Cambridge scholar Henrietta Twycross-Martin.  Hers is merely biographical, and attends very little to the issues raised by the book.

I discovered after I’d finished reading the book and went to list it as ‘read’ at Goodreads, that I’d marked it as one of the 1001 Books that I’m supposed to read before I die.  The Cinderella theme mentioned by Twycross-Martin in the intro seemed a bit lightweight for 1001 Books, especially since she mentions Winifred Watson’s novels in the same company as Catherine Cookson’s, with common themes of women having second chances, adapting to change, moving on.  But no, that’s what 1001 Books says too, more or less, in a contribution from a Dr Meg Jensen from Kingston University, wherever that might be.

Well, yes, Miss Pettigrew is, superficially, a lightweight confection.  First published in 1938 and set in the interwar years, it tells the story of a ‘spinster’: a poor, plain, dowdy, middle-aged, unemployed nursery-governess who is mistakenly sent to answer a job advertisement as a housekeeper in the home of a glamorous actress called Delysia La Fosse.  There she stumbles into situations in which her naïveté and innate strength of character make her invaluable to Miss La Fosse, and, powdered and primped and dressed in borrowed finery, she ends up attracting a Nice Rich Man as well.

But that’s not all there is to the story.  In amongst the froth and bubble, the escapades, the witty repartee and the glamour of an entertaining farce, there is also social commentary.

Miss Pettigrew – daughter of a curate – is one of the genteel poor.  But her genteel poverty is unlike that of the handsome, well-dressed young aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Pygmalion.  He’s still living a comfortable, idle life, moving effortlessly in society and handicapped only by his poor marriage prospects.   She is thin (not elegantly slender) and her complexion is poor because she doesn’t have enough good food to eat.  She’s an unemployed governess because she’s had no education or training and she’s no good at it, each position she’s had being worse than the last.  She’s facing eviction because she hasn’t got the rent for her room, and her inner thoughts reveal more than once that if she doesn’t get the job at Miss La Fosse, the workhouse is her only option.  She’s actually desperate. 

Surely not, weren’t the workhouses – designed to be harsh to deter the able-bodied poor – a 19th century phenomenon?  Well, no, not exactly.

As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals. Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new appellation of Public Assistance Institutions under the control of local authorities. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law disappeared, and with them the workhouses. (Wikipedia, viewed 26/12/17)

And, wasn’t there some kind of social safety net?  Again, not exactly.

The Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 created the dole system of payments for unemployed workers. The dole system provided 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to over 11 million workers—practically the entire civilian working population except domestic service, farm workers, railroad men, and civil servants. (Wikipedia, viewed 26/12/17.  The underlining, showing that governesses were exempt from this largesse, is mine.)

Surely there is more than irony in this exchange about marriage, between a wealthy, successful chanteuse with more boyfriends than she can coordinate, and Miss Pettigrew who had no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether [she] was alive or dead?

‘I have never,’ said Miss Pettigrew, ‘been loved in my life.  I want to know.  I’ve always wanted to know.  There are hundreds like me want to know.  Is it worth it?
‘Yes,’ said Miss La Fosse, ‘to me.’
Miss Pettigrew sat down.
‘I am older than you,’ said Miss Pettigrew; ‘I am a stupid woman.  I haven’t your brains, nor your beauty, nor your cleverness.  I don’t advise marriage from virtue or custom, but from experience.  I have no friends, no money, no family.  I only wish to save you from that.’  (p.162)

The truth of this Cinderella story is that it is always Miss Pettigrew who needs to be saved, and the narration that allows the reader to know her innermost thoughts is a constant reminder that this fragile day of delights is entirely contingent on her mistaken identity.  And without her ‘fairy godmother’s’ impulsive interventions — none of which are acts of genuine empowerment, but always – though friendly and kind, mainly for Miss La Fosse’s whims and advantage – Miss Pettigrew had a very bleak future indeed, and as the text says, there are hundreds like her.

English social class is changing in this era after WW1, and the snobbery about nouveau riche money is shown to be passé.  Miss Pettigrew, while acknowledging the social power of her parents’ view of the world, adjusts her ideas about Joe, who has made his money as a wealthy corset manufacturer:

She stole a look at him.  Big, bluff, hearty, a hint he could be a little brutal maybe, but also kind and considerate.  He was not a gentleman.   Her mother would have been shocked by him.  Mrs Brummegan might have cut him, if she had not first heard of his money.  Her father would definitely not have admitted him within the circle of his intimates.  She was lowering her dignity as a well-bred gentlewoman in accepting his attentions, but she had sunk so low in one short day she simply didn’t care whether he was vulgar or not. (p.204)

What I would have liked to know from the fairy-floss introduction is whether Winifred Watson was intentionally writing social novels like the Fabian George Bernard Shaw or the socialist George Orwell.  Was she perhaps adding her voice to the clamour for social welfare improvements that were finally introduced by the Labour government after the war?  Or was Watson really just, as it says in the introduction, writing stories that deal with the development and resolution of sexual and family tensions in ways that may flout convention and the law, but that allow women to survive and ultimately flourish? 

However, I would also have liked the introduction to attend to some disconcerting dialogues:

[I apologise for any offence or hurt this quotation may cause, but I can’t deal with it without quoting it].

‘Now the first one, he was kind too,’ said Miss Pettigrew earnestly, ‘but well, my dear. I wouldn’t advise marrying him. I don’t like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn’t quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage it’s safer to stick with your own nationality.’
‘Certainly,’ said Miss LaFosse, demurely. (p.162)

Was Winifred Watson anti-Semitic?  Or is she deliberately exposing anti-Semitism with this dialogue?  Either way, the decision to reprint the book with an introduction that makes no mention of this invites judgement, IMO.  Twycross-Martin interviewed the author in the year 2000: she could have asked Watson about this troubling passage, and whether she felt differently about it being in her book after the horrors of the Holocaust.  Times change.  It’s not good enough, in the 21st century, to turn a blind eye to discrimination of any kind, in any context, and any contemporary editor would attend to this kind of casual anti-Semitism as part of the editorial process, removing it not only as unnecessary but also an entirely inappropriate flaw for a character who is meant to be viewed sympathetically.  Leaving it in the reprint, as an authentic part of the original text that reflects its era requires comment in the introduction.  It cannot be ignored.

Similarly, noting also that Miss Pettigrew suspects that Joe might be a little brutal, reprinting this statement by one of the male characters, without editorial comment is problematic too:

‘Now Delysia’s a little devil and there’s times I could flay her alive, and obviously she needs a little physical correction, but I’m the only right man to do it’. (p.154)

Sure, Watson is only a minor author, but someone who’s read her entire oeuvre of six novels would (presumably) know whether this endorsement of domestic violence is an aberration or not.

Other reviews: Kim’s at Reading Matters, and Max’s at Pechorin’s Journal.

Author: Winifred Watson
Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Publisher: Persephone Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781906462024
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I think Jason Steger on The Book Show once said how much he had enjoyed this and so I reserved it from my local library. I thought it would be something rather like Cold Comfort Farm which is one of my favourites. How wrong! I disliked everything about this novel and for many of the reasons you have identified. I found it an unpleasant reading experience. Thanks Lisa for your analysis and criticism of the Introduction; the publishers did a poor job.


    • Well, I can see why he might enjoy it, but surely, he must have seen its flaws? Kim and Max enjoyed it, but they didn’t ignore the problems with it.


  2. Don’t know about the book, but that is a gorgeous cover. Actually, I would be interested to read the book because of the era in which it is set, but I probably won’t ever get to it.


    • Yes, it is a lovely cover – that’s what attracted me to it.


      • Covers do play a role don’t they?


        • I am a sucker for a well designed cover, and I like nostalgia ones like this best of all.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you entirely about reintroducing forgotten texts. Just recently I went to read Ada Cambridge’s Sisters and the so-called preface was just a few biographical details and a re-hash of the plot which meant that I had to put off reading until I’d forgotten it (doesn’t take long!). You read it as social commentary, Kim as fairytale. I wonder what was intended.


    • Yup, that’s the question that the introduction should have answered!


  4. Yes the ABC book club reviewed it in May this year and if I recall rightly they all loved it. I usually trust Jason Steger’s recommendations.


    • I see that the Book Show is another victim of the changes at the ABC. I didn’t watch it much, but I think it’s a pity it’s gone, along with The Movie Show…


  5. I bought this edition recently in a charity shop, having read some good things about it, but also harboured some doubts that you’ve voiced here (thanks for not spoiling the plot) – doubts about the depiction of a woman in straitened circumstances and what her limited options were – a theme that dominated any writing involving the fate of women for .. what, hundreds of years? I suppose it’s necessary to read the way those options are presented in the context of the times – same with the casual racism – but it doesn’t excuse despicable attitudes – then or now.


    • Yes, that’s what I think. I remember encountering casual racism in a library copy of Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, and being very disconcerted by it. H he was a Nobel Prize winning author and anti Nazi too, and he had ample opportunity to revise it after the war, but didn’t – just as the publishers (Knopf) in 1994 had an opportunity to attend to it in an introduction, but they didn’t.


  6. I agree that there are elements of the text that are problematic (and that leaving them in requires some context) however I did read this book as social commentary and I loved it.

    Have you seen the film? It’s as charming and well worth a look.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *chuckle* Not my sort of film, I think! Not much tempts me out to the cinema, but to give you some idea, the last film we went to was the Czech film, The Teacher.


  7. Excellent points made, here. I read this a few years ago, and, though I found it mostly quite lovely, that whole “physical correction” thing, and the anti-Semitism, was a bit of a WTF-moment.


    • Yes, exactly, one minute you’re having a good chuckle, imagining the book as the film it eventually turned out to be, and then you are brought up short thinking, gosh, what on earth am I reading here?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I absolutely adored this book when I read it a decade ago (thanks for the link to my review, BTW), though I, too, was troubled by the anti-Semitic comments. (I missed the bits seeming to condone violence against women.) I’ve read several Persephone Books (I have a treasured little collection) but don’t tend to read the introductions (I don’t read them in Text Classics either) because they generally have plot spoilers, but you’re right: they should probably explain why (or posit a theory as to why) this kind of commentary is in the book even if it’s just a cover all “product of its time”.


    • Well, the Text intros, (which I mostly read after I’ve read the book, unless something in the book prompts me towards wanting an explanation of something), while not off-puttingly scholarly, usually place the novel in the context of its time and of the writer’s whole body of work. I can’t imagine a text intro not dealing with attitudes ‘of their time’ towards Aborigines, for example, and that’s really what I’m calling out here: the failure of the publisher and the writer of the intro. If they’re going to specialise in books of the era that had all kinds of problematic attitudes, they owe it to the authors they are resurrecting as well as their readers to attend to it.


      • Yes, agreed. Mind you, my Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Shiralee makes no mention of the casual racism in it.


        • There’s quite a bit of violence too, if I remember rightly. A lot of spanking…


      • Yes, totally agree Lisa. I always read Text’s (and most) introductions, but always after I read the book. And I agree that they should address “dated” issues in a book – but never excise it. If it’s worth re-publishing it must be done whole.


  9. I saw a review (probably Kim’s) and thought about reading it. I had enjoyed the movie, played for a fairytale as I recall it and had reservations about whether the book would satisfy. I think the movie worked for me because of Frances McDormand and Amy Adams and the fact it just lasts two hours. I am curious about how much editors scrub offensive parts from reprints. It seems like an obvious choice in this case as that was a gratuitous bit.


    • I read somewhere that the film does change quite a few things for a modern audience and I think that’s quite ok. It’s a film, it’s a different product created in a different era.
      However I don’t think that modern editions of classic or forgotten works should scrub offensive bits away, because that denies the reader the opportunity to make valid judgements about the work. And where would we end up, taking Shylock out of the Merchant of Venice … and not having that powerful speech that has echoed through the ages: “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
      Better I think to have the unsanitised book as it was written but with acknowledgement of its flaws so that the reader can realise an unpalatable truth i.e. that these attitudes were prevalent and need to be guarded against. It could be as simple as a publisher placing a warning at the beginning of the book that there are attitudes expressed which are not those of the publisher and that they apologise for any hurt or offence that is caused by the authentic text.


  10. I loved this when I read it.

    I don’t agree with you about the need of introductions. Most French editions of books don’t have any and I don’t think all books require one.
    A book should stand on their own two feet without explanation and a reader should be allowed to read a book without someone else’s filter.

    When I read this novel, I also noted the quote you mentioned and took it as the marker of the times and as a proof that, if it’s so casually mentioned in a deceptively sugary book, it only means that European societies were a lot more anti-Semitic than what we’d like to think. Little passages like this remind us that fact, as unpleasant it is to face it.

    I don’t think we have to expurge or comment on all offensive quotes in literature otherwise there’s no end to it, especially when it comes to the treatment of women or children or coloured people. We cannot judge past times with today’s values. The fact that we are shocked by these quotes proves that things have changed for the best.


    • Well, most of my Australian books don’t either. But I like it when a classic book has an intro: I learned a lot about French society in the C19th from the intros in the Oxford editions of Zola’s books, and I also learned about his kooky inheritance-of-character theories which today would be called eugenics. It enhanced my enjoyment of the books to know these things:)


  11. Excellent review, and very interesting on pulling out the wider social issues.

    Regarding the anti-Semitism and domestic abuse elements obviously it’s a book of its time, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t (as you do of course) recognise that those elements are present. It’s odd when those aspects are simply ignored. I watched Battleship Potemkin the other day, and it’s easy to see why it’s still taught in film schools (or at least referenced). I was surprised though by a scene where a mob spot a cliched Jew laughing at the working classes and beat him to death – I’d read a fair bit about the film and never seen that section mentioned.

    Is Potemkin invalidated because of that scene? Of course not, and nor should it be excised from the film, but ignoring it is also I think wrong. It’s a great film which has one scene which is intentionally and explicitly anti-Semitic.

    Pre-welfare State British literature often deals in the threat of “ruin” as it was once called. I think it’s hard now to understand how real the threat was of utter destitution even for the middle classes. Well, save that we’ve gone back there to some extent. It’s an undercurrent to a lot of period fiction isn’t it? That fear that if things don’t work out there is no safety net, nothing to catch you if you fall. Just a descent into squalor, hunger and misery without end in sight.


    • We are of one mind about how to deal with these things:)
      But re your last para: yes, you are spot on. There’s a wonderful book by Eliot Perlman called Three Dollars, set here in Australia in the 1990s the time that the new economics started to bite here. A middle class man finds himself in exactly that situation. IMO books (both popular and literary) need to be representing it more often, because the middle class is being squeezed all over the world and yet many have their heads in the sand. That scenario is happening to more and more people, exacerbated by the fact that most people no longer have survival skills that used to be commonplace: they don’t know how to cook or sew, or repair things any more.


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