After reading the delightful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I thought again of the fantastic movie from 2008. Then I realized the monumental difference between the two. In the book, Miss Pettigrew is able to continue her fantastic new life through the guarantee of employment within Miss Pettigrew’s house. In the movie, however, Miss Pettigrew’s happiness lies solely through her marriage to Joe, being closed off from Miss LaFosse through her elopement with Michael.
The varied conclusions to Miss Pettigrew’s story only highlights the patriarchal narrative of marriage for women and its reinforcement through Hollywood. It’s been noted by several journalists that Hollywood regards women as a niche audience. Blockbuster films are primarily created for the male 18-25 demographic, as can be noted by the Transformers series and the never-ending parade of action films with less than substantial stories and characters. Hollywood can champion the hero, but the heroine is typically trapped within her relationship to the man. Even within the film version of Miss Pettigrew, the film focuses on Miss LaFosse’s parade of men rather than the community of women that embrace each other free from any imposed narrative for their gender.
The very poster for the film shows Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse framed behind two pairs of seemingly nude legs, clad only in sheer hosiery. Open-mouthed and seemingly shocked by the scandal, the poster frames them in a narrative of exposure to indecency which is ultimately resolved by confining them both in marriage–the ultimate cure-all.
While the film is a fun romp through the ’40s, it pales in comparison to the book in regard to its embrace of the feminine. I can’t recommend the book enough; the movie, however, fails to achieve any measurement of success for the female community.
A combination of events limited my Persephone reading to one book, but oh what a book. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is my first Persephone Book, and I was so thrilled to find it within my public library. I had seen the movie a year ago and thought it was delightful, which drew me to the book even more.
I have to confess. When I first viewed Persephone’s catalog of books, I thought most of them sounded like trite stories involving middle-aged housewives talking of the most boring things while they went through events comparable to any soap opera on the air. Domestic drama–hardly. I culled only a couple of titles I thought I could endure for this weekend, and dismissed the rest. I don’t believe I have ever been more mistaken.
How refreshing to read of three women who actively engage their emotions and their circumstances, not in a judgmental way but to analyze their reactions and find the best course for themselves. As Miss Pettigrew notes, conventional morality would classify Miss LaFosse as a slut (a word used in the book but as a discription of slovenly living rather than promiscuity–interesting) or whore. Even Ms. Dubarry brings in the hierarchal world of cosmetics, perfection and alteration but without any categorization of ugly versus beautiful. Cosmetics are classified as clothing, necessary for the climate (social/physical), not as a tool to acquire and trade men. Men seem to flock naturally to the young women, not reeled in or solicited as often seen in romance novels.
These heroines lead unapologetic lives. Ms. Dubarry is a business owner, one who married into ownership and now that she has it recognizes others attempting to do the same. The practice is removed from judgment, as many of theirs are, and instead the characters offer an analysis of how their choices can create a better life for themselves, as judged by themselves.
Miss Pettigrew’s own manipulation of the men in their lives is done naturally, without any elaborate scheme of feminine codes. When asked to speak to Ms. Dubarry’s beau, Miss LaFosse insists rather emphatically for Ms. Dubarry not to scheme or direct Miss Pettigrew: “‘No instructions,’ said Miss LaFosse hastily. ‘She works better alone. She’ll think up something when she gets the right cue. That’s her way. We mustn’t muddle her.'” It’s refreshing to find women who coexist in support of one another, without any hierarchy or competition existing between them. Miss Pettigrew is often in wonder of the same, finding it simply magical to be among people who take her for granted as a human being instead of devaluing her through class or dress.
The only insistence of Miss Pettigrew upon one of Miss LaFosse’s choices is to marry Michael, but only when she has been allowed to help Miss LaFosse choose. Ultimately when the moment comes, Miss Pettigrew directs Michael to act, giving Miss LaFosse the freedom to choose, free of the sickening manipulations of Nick.
Personally I believe Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day embodies the politics of feminism in granting the characters and the reader the power to choose. Rather than instruct as romance novels do, this novel creates a universe of open-ended possibility, limited only by the characters’ whims. Readers cannot help but feel beautiful, powerful, and able to accomplish anything at the end of the novel. And through that self-empowerment, their desires shall naturally come to them.
As more English programs and their alumni turn to blogs to chronicle the adventures of reading, I’d like to do the same, primarily as incentive to simply read more. I’ve been enamored with all the reading challenges floating about, and they seem the best way to jump into such a flourishing community. Unfortunately, most challenges float between the too specific and the predominantly white, male canon–either British or American. Too avoid most of those pitfalls, I’ve made my own list, with titles culled from other eminent lists through the internet (Including Jezebel’s 75 Books Every Woman Should Read, The Modern Library Top 100, TIME’s 100 Best English Novels and 50 Best Novels in Translation, depending on taste and previously read titles. I’m not an orderly person either, and most orders seem to contradict my mood or taste at the moment, leading me to forsake the discipline. On a sidepage, you can see I’ve ordered mine alphabetically (aside from the Gothic list which is for a later pet project) as I’ll be dipping into it based on the moment rather than the sequential order. Suggested additions are very welcome. I’m not claiming it’s complete in any way.
I’m rather excited about this weekend. Not only will there be a showing of the gender-bending cult-classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it’s Persephone Books’ Reading Weekend. Brought into the fold by the blog Paperback Reader, I’m very excited about the opportunity to focus solely on women writers. I managed to track down a copy of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (not enough time to order from the press itself, although I intend to soon) from a branch library. From there, I’d like to go on to Irène Némirovsky’s Dimanche and Other Stories although I’m not sure which selection will be my third. I’ve read a couple of Némirovsky’s short stories before so I’m very excited about being reacquainted with her style.
This weekend I also hope to find a copy of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual so I can participate in Conversational Reading‘s Spring Read starting March 1st. It’ll be my first time reading along with the blog, and again I’m very excited.