Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. 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 knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.



  1. January 28, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    I tried watching the film version and gave up. I think it spoiled me for the book.


    • January 28, 2017 at 9:34 pm

      This is not your kind of book. Too much romance in it.


      • January 28, 2017 at 10:28 pm

        OK it’s good to know as after I start reading a number of positive reviews I wonder if I’m being grumpy.


        • January 28, 2017 at 11:59 pm

          I just watched the film. No surprise there, the book is better.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. January 28, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    I’d love to read this – everyone has such high praise for it!


    • January 29, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      It’s a great book to indulge in if you need to cheer up, to forget about the outside world or simply if you need a change after a difficult book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 29, 2017 at 9:37 am

    I have to skip your review as it is high on my piles.


    • January 29, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      I understand. I’m looking forward to reading your review.


  4. January 29, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Lovely review, Emma. I’m so delighted you enjoyed this one – it’s petty hard to resist, isn’t it? Interesting to read about the English translation of the French title too.

    I decided to give the film a miss in the end. Much as I admire Frances McDormand, I couldn’t quite see her in the role of Miss P. It’s a shame it was never made into a movie in the ’40s or ’50s – Howard Hawks would have been a great choice of director.


    • January 29, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      It was great reading moment, really.

      Frances McDormand was good as Miss Pettigrew, I think. The problem is that they tweaked the story a bit and it’s difficult to give back to the screen some of the humour and fun conveyed by Watson’s style.


  5. January 29, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    I loved this to bits. Definitely one of my favourite feel-good reads. And I loved your reference to Captain Haddock (I adore Tintin).


    • January 29, 2017 at 10:11 pm

      I see I’m not the only one who loved it. Captain Haddock is a great creation.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. January 29, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    I loved this book it’s so charming and tender and so hopeful!


  7. January 31, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    I’m glad you liked it too. It is tremendous fun. Jacqui’s right, Howard Hawks could have done marvels with it.

    And I also loved the reference to Captain Haddock. Blistering barnacles!


    • January 31, 2017 at 11:22 pm

      It’s light and fun. I loved the dialogues, her style, the contrast between Miss Pettigrew and Delysa.
      I’m glad I watched the film, at least now I know how to pronounce Guinevere.


  8. February 4, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Too bad my local foreign-languages library doesn’t have it, it sounds like a good piece of fun. The start of your review made me think of The lonely passion of Judith Hearne, though that one is very sad (but still very good). Poor lonely spinster-governesses, where would literature be without them?


    • February 4, 2017 at 5:12 pm

      It’s great fun. It’s available in ebook, if you want.

      I’ll have a look at The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

      Re: spinsters and literature. Don’t forget clumsy proposals!


  9. May 17, 2017 at 8:40 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed your book review.. I am really keen on reading it


    • May 17, 2017 at 8:12 pm

      Welcome! I’m glad my billet was useful. Please come back when you’ve read it and leave a comment. I always like to know what other readers thought of a book I’ve read.


  1. August 9, 2017 at 9:22 am
  2. September 22, 2018 at 11:32 am
  3. December 15, 2019 at 1:08 pm

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