Excerpt from Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Read the start of Winifred Watson's 1938 novel and you see why people love this book.

Winifred Watson was 29 when she finished her third novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Her two previous works -- Fell Top and Old Shoes -- were greeted with some critical and commercial success. But when she brought her publishers her third novel, about a governess and wild-living singer/socialite, they were taken aback and refused to publish it. Only after much wrangling and compromises did Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day see the light of a book store window. Popular when it came out and then again some sixty years later, the novel had become a timeless comic fable.

The current publisher Persephone Books Ltd. has provided the first few pages of the novel to see why no one could put Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day down.



9.15 a.m. - 11.11 a.m.

MISS PETTIGREW pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine. She had, as usual, very little hope, but to-day the Principal greeted her with a more cheerful smile.

'Ah! Miss Pettigrew. I think we have something for you to-day. Two came in when I had left last night. Now let me see. Ah yes! Mrs. Hilary, maid. Miss LaFosse, nursery governess. Hmn! You'd have thought it was the other way round. But there! I expect she's an aunt with an adopted orphan niece, or something.'

She gave Miss Pettigrew particulars.

'There you are then. Miss LaFosse, 5, Onslow Mansions. The appointment is for ten sharp this morning. You'll make it nicely.'

'Oh thank you,' Miss Pettigrew said weakly, nearly fainting with relief. She clutched the card of particulars firmly in her hand. 'I'd nearly given up hope. Not many of my kind of post these days.'

'Not many,' agreed Miss Holt, and, as the door closed behind Miss Pettigrew, 'I hope that's the last I see of her,' thought Miss Holt.

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.

Miss Pettigrew went to the bus-stop to await a bus. She could not afford the fare, but she could still less afford to lose a possible situation by being late. The bus deposited her about five minutes' walk from Onslow Mansions, and at seven minutes to ten precisely she was outside her destination.

It was a very exclusive, very opulent, very intimidating block of flats. Miss Pettigrew was conscious of her shabby clothes, her faded gentility, her courage lost through weeks of facing the workhouse. She stood a moment. She prayed silently. 'Oh Lord! If I've ever doubted your benevolence in the past, forgive me and help me now.' She added a rider to her prayer, with the first candid confession she had ever made to her conscious mind. 'It's my last chance. You know it. I know it.'

She went in. A porter in the hall eyed her questioningly. Her courage failed at ringing for the lift so she mounted the main stairway and looked around until she discovered No. 5. A little plate on the door said Miss LaFosse. She looked at her watch, inherited from her mother, waited until it said precisely ten, then rang.

There was no answer. She rang again. She waited and rang again. She was not normally so assertive, but fear gave her the courage of desperation. She rang, off and on, for five minutes. Suddenly the door flew open and a young woman stood in the entry.

Miss Pettigrew gasped. The creature was so lovely she called to mind immediately beauties of the screen. Her golden, curly hair, tumbled untidily about her face. Sleep was still heavy in her eyes, blue as gentians. The lovely rose of youth flushed her cheeks. She wore that kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing-gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films. Miss Pettigrew was well versed in the etiquette of dress and behaviour of young women on the screen.

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. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace négligé. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.

But Miss Pettigrew knew fright when she saw it. The young woman's face, when she opened the door, had been rigid with apprehension. At sight of Miss Pettigrew it grew radiant with relief.

'I have come...' began Miss Pettigrew nervously.

'What time is it?'

'It was prompt ten when I first rang. The hour you named, Miss...Miss LaFosse? I have been ringing for about five minutes. It is now five-past ten.'

'My God!'

Miss Pettigrew's surprising interrogator swung round and disappeared back into the room. She did not say come in, but for a gentlewoman to face destitution was a very serious crisis: Miss Pettigrew found courage, walked in and shut the door behind her.

'At least I shall ask for an interview,' thought Miss Pettigrew.

She saw the whisk of draperies disappear through another door and heard a voice saying urgently,

'Phil. Phil. You lazy hound. Get up. It's half-past ten.'

'Prone to exaggerate,' thought Miss Pettigrew. 'Not a good influence for children at all.'

She now had time to take in her surroundings. Brilliant cushions ornamented more brilliant chairs and chesterfield. A deep, velvety carpet of strange, futuristic design, decorated the floor. Gorgeous, breathtaking curtains draped the windows. On the walls hung pictures not...not quite decent, decided Miss Pettigrew. Ornaments of every colour and shape adorned mantelpiece, table and stands. Nothing matched anything else. Everything was an exotic brilliance that took away the breath.

'Not the room of a lady,' thought Miss Pettigrew. 'Not the kind of room my dear mother would have chosen.'