Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the bestseller of the publishing company Persephone, which I discovered last year and which I'm particularly interested in. Nicola Beauman, who created it in 1999, wanted to reprint forgotten books published for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century, mainly written by women and taking place for the main part in the domestic sphere. If the quality of the contents varies widely from book to book (some things should perhaps have been left forgotten if one looks at the racism and antisemitism of some books, like the second part of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett which allows for nothing less than outrage), Nicola also prints some true masterpieces, such as Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, a writer I particularly enjoy reading, but also The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a friend of Vera Brittain, as well as The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler, a very funny children's book, and Dorothy Whipple's collection of short stories.
Published in 1938, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day follows Miss Pettigrew, a governess full of common sense, through a uncommon day since she is hired by Miss Delysia LaFosse, an actress full of life who has great trouble making the choices of an adult. Persephone printed this short novel in a Persephone Original edition and reprinted it last year in its Classic edition, at a lower price with a different design. These Classics aim at being displayed in traditional bookshops (up till this year, Persephone books could only be ordered directly via Persephone).

The cover of the Persephone Classic edition, which borrows the grey "trademark" of Persephone for the title but uses a painting, here Blondes and Brunettes by Charles Mozley, exhibited in 1938, same year as the publication of the book.

This book very much reminded me of the Diary of a Nobody by Grossmith, since it is definitely part of a tradition of British comedies, with however an important difference: more than that, it reminded me of pre-code movies before the Twenties, before the appearance of the Code Hays. All in all, Winifred Watson reminded me of Lubitsch in such movies as the excellent Trouble in Paradise : it is almost the exact literary equivalent of such a film. The author brings on cocaine, free union, women of easy virtue, the world of the theatre seen through the eyes of a governess a little taken aback by a life she had never even imagined before. And yet the book is not moralistic : it's extremely funny and fresh, it reads today like a tribute to these bold movies that were made before the appareance of the Production Code in 1934, a successful attempt to show the disastrous plight of women just before the Second World War - throughout the whole book, Miss Pettigrew's hunger is a recurring theme : if she doesn't find a job quickly with Miss LaFosse, she simply won't eat anything during the whole day and Delysia is forced to become a kept woman for fear of losing everything and end up on the street. If you can get past the antisemistim of some comments (this work is unfortunately not flawless, as is often the case with Persephone), it's gay, funny and fresh, a real bottle of champagne put into words.

Ms Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) and Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams)

A very good adaptation was made this year : the movie, directed by Bharat Nalluri (who is also responsible for some episodes of the British TV show Life on Mars which is good but its spin-off Ashes to Ashes is downright excellent) stays pretty close to the original material even though important changes were made (most notably the end, changed for Hollywood standards). The casting is impeccable, Amy Adams has more or less the same part she had in Enchanted, Lee Pace (a really talented actor whom you should check in Pushing Daisies and the unjustly forgotten Wonderfalls by the same incredible director Bryan Fuller) is touching and if Frances McDormand embodies a Miss Pettigrew different from the one I had imagined reading the book, she is very convincing throughout (and by the way she recorded the audiobook of the book, available in CD format through Persephone). The soundtrack of the movie by Paul Englishby (dont you just love this name?) which contains some Cole Porter hits (the delicious Anything Goes, please do check Patti LuPone's version of the song on YouTube, I have it on repeat), the photography and the job done on the costumes are really worthy of your attention as well. I found the whole slower and less eccentric than the movie but it is still very good, better than most movies released this year (we were spoiled in 2007, such marvellous productions for TV and for the cinema *sigh*) despite some anachronisms that have to do with the little History put here and there in the production. The DVD zone 1 was released in North America (USA and Canada) and of course I highly recommend it. I'm still waiting to buy my copy as I don't want it to be caught in the holiday craziness and be lost.