I’m almost ashamed to admit that I only recently became aware of the great joys provided by Persephone Books, although they have been publishing for many years. Fortunately, the very lovely LibraryThing Virago Group sent me in the direction of the Persephone Group there and I have been happily discovering many new works there. Partly this was prompted by the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary read-alongs and the need to read Nicola Beauman’s rather wonderful biography of Elizabeth Taylor. But a quick visit to the Persephone site soon convinced me that here were some wonderful, forgotten and not-so-forgotten books waiting to be rediscovered and enjoyed. The presentation and care that has gone into the production of these volumes is alone enough to recommend them, let alone the contents!

So, onto “Miss Pettigrew”. This isn’t the first Persephone I’ve read, but I was lucky enough to pick up a second hand ‘classic’ copy in my local Oxfam bookshop – which was shock enough on its own, as you don’t expect to find people parting with their Persephones! So I snapped it up, but have only just read it. I confess that I wasn’t sure at first if I’d like it – the write-ups I read gave the impression that it might be a little lightweight or fanciful. Well, how wrong could they be!

Image

The book was written and is set in the 1930s. The plot concerns Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, erstwhile governess, who is on her uppers. She doesn’t enjoy her job, is desperately looking for a new position (or else she will face the workhouse) and is mistakenly sent by a disinterested employment agency to the flat of a glamorous nightclub singer who is looking for a maid. At this point the story sets off into a glorious sequence of events set over one day in Miss Pettigrew’s life where she blossoms from caterpillar to butterfly. A lively array of characters – Delysia LaFosse, the singer, her friend Edythe Dubarry, a variety of cads and gentlemen – aid and abet her transformation and the book is illustrated with some beautiful line drawings.

I have to say that this book was a wonderful, compulsive read. The dialogue and repartee between the characters is rapid-fire and witty, the descriptions and atmosphere excellent and this has to be one of the most joyous books I’ve read for a long time. I literally grinned with delight most of the way through, actually laughing out loud with delight in places. The description of the book as something like a Fred Astaire film is not unjust, as there is the atmosphere of an old screwball comedy. But the book is surprisingly subversive – Miss Pettigrew goes from being a repressed, curate’s daughter to acting with a surprising amount of abandon by the end of the book and all her morals go out of the window. I imagine this may have been quite shocking when the book came out!

I alternated between wanting to finish the book quickly to find out what happened, and wanting to make it last because I was enjoying it so much – rather like a large box of chocolates! The ending was convincing and excellently handled and all-in-all it was a heart-warming and uplifting read.

Image

There is also a lovely introduction with the story of how the book came to be republished and some interview snippets with the author, Winifred Watson. Apparently this was the favourite of her six books and it’s lovely to think that she knew it had been republished and was being enjoyed by new generations.

Persephone are to be congratulated for bringing books like this back into the public arena – heartily recommended to anyone who wants a book that will make them smile.

Advertisements