Miss Pettigrew, the unsuspecting heroine of the 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is a middle-aged governess whose seemingly only remarkable trait is that she “had never had the wicked thrill of powdering her nose” at the ripe age of 50. In a mere 24 hours time however, Miss Pettigrew is mistakenly placed under the employment of the night-club singer Miss Lafosse instead of a family with children. And in those 24 hours, the two women find themselves learning quite a lot about what it means to be a woman. While Miss Lafosse teaches Miss Pettigrew of the finer things in life, giving her a makeover, a new wardrobe, and sudden confidence with a new-found pleasure in beauty, Miss Pettigrew teaches Miss Lafosse of the inner power of feminine agency. Though Miss Lafosse has all the appearance of glamour, power, and confidence of a “new woman,” it is actually the fainthearted Miss Pettigrew who reveals her feminine independence and wisdom about a changing world when Miss Lafosse is constantly browbeaten by the men in her life. Written during a time where females were beginning to enter the workforce by storm, throw off old notions of a woman’s place being strictly “in the home,” and wear makeup and lingerie without being considered risque, Miss Pettigrew and Miss Lafosse represent what I believe the author Winifred Watson was trying to urge, or rather warn, the women of her time that, out of the exciting new opportunities for women in the 1930’s, there was emerging the potential of two very dangerous types of women:
- TYPE ONE: Miss Lafosse: a playgirl who had twisted the idea of the “new woman.” Though she had built a successful career, dressed how she desired, did not marry, and did and said what she pleased, she was still entirely dependent upon men and had no knowledge of what a good man was. She entertained any and every man who was attracted to her, yet could not stand on her own two feet and was miserable.
- TYPE TWO: Miss Pettigrew: conversely, Miss Pettigrew was a woman who was wholly independent. She worked hard yet could not find her place in this new world that had begun to value only superficiality. Lacking the money and what she called the “courage” of standing up among the burgeoning new culture of fashion and leisure, Miss Pettigrew was in danger of becoming extinct, and with her would evaporate the wisdom, poise, and sense of morality she upheld.
By the conclusion of the novel, Miss Pettigrew learns how to navigate Miss Lafosse’s superficial world, discovering that even governesses can benefit from a lace robe and a bubble bath. Similarily, Miss Lafosse rediscovers a new attraction to marriage and learns from Miss Pettigrew how such an archaic “institution” still fit, and made better, her modern world. For Valentines day, I think Miss Pettigrew would elect to stay in and channel a bit of Miss Lafosse’s self-spoiling. One thing both Miss Lafosse and Miss Pettigrew learned, was that thinking and doing things for oneself is the greatest power on earth, one to gain the respect and admiration of the best of men. If you don’t have plans yet for the 14th, do what Miss Pettigrew did and learn to love spoiling yourself for…just yourself. Besides, Winifred Watson says that “a woman’s first duty is to her face.”
– <3 A.
source: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a day, watson, persephone books
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