There’s a wonderful, if slightly painful, moment in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac in which the central character, a romance novelist ironically named Edith Hope, explains the central myth of her books to her editor. That myth, which she calls “the most potent myth of all,” is the tortoise and the hare:
‘Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time.’
‘This is a lie,’ she continues:
‘In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically,’ she cries, her voice rising with enthusiasm,’ ‘Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the race. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation. Like the meek who are going to inherit the earth.’
Winifred Watson’s sweetly acerbic comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is, precisely, written for the tortoise market. Indeed, it is a near-perfect tortoise fantasy: it offers complete, self-indulgent wish-fulfilment as its dowdy, marginalized, self-deprecatingly spinsterish heroine discovers herself to be, in fact, witty, powerful, and desirable. What’s missing, happily, from Watson’s version of the myth is competition: while we know perfectly well the novel is not for Delysia (who surely never reads novels), it is never against her either. Here, the hare–charmingly, implausibly, absurdly, generously–becomes mentor to the tortoise, who in turn helps her manage the disruptive and potentially degrading effects of her manifold attractions. There’s no room for jealousy, no purpose in revenge, as Delysia’s starry-eyed endorsement of Miss Pettigrew’s hitherto unknown genius (unknown even to herself) lifts Miss Pettigrew into a whole new life.
It’s true that the rewards Miss Pettigrew so surprisingly, and surprisedly, reaps do nothing to subvert conventional expectations or standards of feminine success. This is not Jane Eyre, despite some superficial similarities (imagine Blanche Ingram falling on Jane with anything like Delysia’s appreciation! but also, imagine Miss Pettigrew refusing her makeover, as Jane refuses Rochester’s silks and satins…). But it’s Miss Pettigrew’s presence of mind that begins her transformation from ugly duckling into swan, and her refurbished exterior reflects as much as it creates her increasing confidence. Still, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day would be little more than feel-good pablum if it weren’t for Watson’s shrewd presentation of Miss Pettigrew herself. With the exception of one brief moment near the end, we experience the entire day pretty much from her point of view; we share her rapid vacillations between shock and pleasure, horror and enthusiasm, pain and pleasure. Always, around the edges of her accumulating triumphs, we see the shadow of her fear and vulnerability; against the sparkling comedy of Delysia’s romantic misadventures and Miss Pettigrew’s (often accidentally) brilliant interventions, we see Miss Pettigrew struggling to accept the warmth and love and happiness she had thought could never be part of her life. We begin, after all, with this sad description:
Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who know or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.
That’s a sober start to a comic novel, and the touching note of pathos continues through the novel, keeping it from floating quite away on a cloud of trivialities:
Miss LaFosse leaned forward eagerly.
‘Is everything all right?’
‘Absolutely,’ said Miss Pettigrew. ‘You can set your mind at rest.’
‘Oh, you darling!’ Miss LaFosse leaned forward and kissed her again, and there, right on Miss Pettigrew’s clasped hands, fell two drops of water and two more were trickling down her cheeks. Miss Pettigrew flushed a delicate pink.
‘I have not,’ said Miss Pettigrew in humble excuse, ‘had much affection in my life.’
‘Oh, you poor thing,’ said Miss LaFosse gently. ‘I’ve always had such a lot.’
‘I’m glad,’ said Miss Pettigrew simply.
After that they were friends, and Miss LaFosse, tactfully, ignored the tears.
As she gets drawn in, it’s not really the social whirl–the glitz and glamor–that lures her on so much as the unprecedented sensation of being wanted and valued:
She was thoroughly enjoying herself. She was in a state of spiritual intoxication. No one had ever talked to her like that. The very oddness of their conversation sent thrills of delight down her spine. Come to think of it, hardly anyone had ever troubled to talk to her about anything at all: not in a personal sense. But these people! They opened their hearts. They admitted her. She was one of themselves. It was the amazing way they took her for granted that thrilled every nerve in her body. No surprise: they simply said ‘Hallo,’ and you were one of themselves. No worrying what your position and your family and your bank balance were. In all her lonely life Miss Pettigrew had never realized how lonely she had been until now, when, for one day she was lonely no longer.
For me, this dark thread among the gossamer made Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day something more than what it undoubtedly also is, namely a witty, charming, deftly plotted Cinderella story. The novel made me laugh a lot, but it touched my heart too, probably because I’m a woman reader and thus (as Edith Hope understands) at least a little bit of a tortoise myself.