The Real Miss Pettigrew

Priya Jain on the life and career of Winifred Watson, the British novelist who created Miss Pettigrew.

When Winifred Watson, a popular Newcastle author of bodice-ripper dramas, first approached her publishers with her third book, they were floored. Rather than the type of rural romance popular in women's fiction at the time, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a comic fantasy set in London, featuring nightclubs, cocktails and self-made men. "My publishers were horrified," Watson recalled years later in a letter. "I can remember to this day looking up at him and saying, 'You're wrong: Miss Pettigrew is a winner.'"

The book was published, of course (Methuen, the London publishing house, agreed to issue Miss Pettigrew if Watson wrote another sure-fire bodice ripper), and upon its release in 1938, Watson was proved right: Miss Pettigrew was a hit. Readers were delighted, copies were sold, but then, over the next sixty years, the book went out of print and became slowly forgotten. In 2000, however, Miss Pettigrew was rediscovered and reissued by Persephone Books, a small London publisher, and, once again, the book proved to be a surprise bestseller. Read today, the story of how this slim farce was published, fell into obscurity, and was resurrected has become as central to its pleasures as the winning charms of Miss Pettigrew herself. The story of Watson's novel is of the kind that's often described of as a fairy tale, but even though it began in 1938, it's a distinctly modern one about being resolutely one's own self, whatever that may be.

When the novel opens, the titular governess has lived for 40 years according to her curate father's rigid teachings on morality and virtue. It's a life of regret that's about to be corrected. Thanks to a mix-up at the employment agency, she finds herself stumbling from her grey-toned existence — in which "her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema" — into a part of London that resembles what she was used to seeing on the big screen: "an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers." The prospective employer in this case is a glamorous blonde nightclub singer named Delysia LaFosse, and though she seems to have little need for a governess, she quickly enlists Miss Pettigrew to help untangle her love life (a problem necessitated that morning by the fact that lover number one is overstaying his welcome, number two is on his way over, and number three has just gotten out of jail). Miss Pettigrew at first disapproves of Miss LaFosse's impropriety, but she quickly thrills to it, feeling the first stirrings of happiness when enlisted with the task of kicking out lover number one. "'This,' thought Miss Pettigrew, 'is Life. I have never lived before.'"

Given the plot, one might be surprised at its author; Watson, it seemed, didn't write what she knew so much as what she could imagine. "I haven't the faintest idea what governesses really do," she later said, and "I've never been to a nightclub." But she was, according to her son, Keith Pickering, "someone extremely happy with herself, and she lived her life on her terms." Born in 1906 in Newcastle, one of six children, she worked as a secretary and wrote her first novel on a dare: when her sister one day asked about the book she was reading, Watson replied that she could write better, and her brother-in-law told her to "go on, then." She did, and several years later submitted it in response to an agent's ad for manuscripts. Her first books, Fell Top (1935) and Odd Shoes (1936), established Watson as a writer of dramas in which murder is sometimes justifiable, romance is racy, and, most importantly, women have second chances. As Henrietta Twycross-Martin wrote in The Guardian, "She was interested in the development and resolution of sexual, family and class tensions in ways that might flout convention or the law, but allowed women to survive and flourish."

Miss Pettigrew shares that last value, and certainly sex creates the complications that the governess, over the course of the day, helps untangle. It also shares some themes common to women's fiction of the era: the focus on female characters prevailing against the odds, the sense of upheaval in gender identity caused by shifting attitudes after World War I, the active role that the setting plays in shaping the protagonist's transformation. But it was risqué, and in its lightness and urbanity it was curiously different. Nicola Beauman, who owns Persephone Books, says, "I wouldn't say it was a good example of women's interwar fiction — it's a bit of a one-off. There is a serious theme there, but not too serious."

In its difference, at least, it was successful enough to warrant an American edition in 1939. Reviews were enthusiastic: the Los Angeles Times warned that "women will find Miss Watson's novel more than diverting: they will 'lap it up,' as the vulgar say, with eager gulps." Universal Studios prepared to turn the novel into a musical starring Billie Burke (The Wizard of Oz's Glinda the Good Witch) as Miss Pettigrew. But then came Pearl Harbor. Film studios turned their attention to producing patriotic fare, and Miss Pettigrew was abandoned.

World War II intervened even more dramatically in Watson's life and career. One night in 1943, a bomb fell on her street, destroying the house next door. According to Pickering, bombs were so rare in Newcastle that it must have been a German pilot "who had been bombing something else, was on his way home and must have just wanted to lighten his load." At the time, baby Keith wouldn't sleep, and so Watson had brought him downstairs from his bed to be with her. When she heard the bomb approaching, she dived for Keith, and the force of the blast overturned the settee onto them. Keith's upstairs room was destroyed; the fireplace had been blown onto the bed. "If I hadn't been wakeful," says Pickering, "I'd have been killed." By this time Watson had six novels under her belt — including the bodice-ripper Upyonder (1938), the comic Hop, Step and Jump (1939) and a psychological murder mystery, Leave and Bequeath (1943) — but after that harrowing incident she had to move in with her in-laws, losing the space and time alone to write. Even later, however, when her living conditions improved she refused to return to writing, insisting that she was busy being a mother. Her husband and son encouraged her, but, says Pickering, "We couldn't get her to write again."

Between the war and Watson's early retirement, it seems, Miss Pettigrew was forgotten. But it retained loyal fans, like Twycross-Martin's mother, whose favorite book was the novel. She passed the book along to her daughter, who, in an echo of Watson responding to the agent's ad more than 60 years earlier, saw a notice from Persephone soliciting reprint suggestions and brought the book into the publisher's London store. And though Beauman responded warmly to the book (unlike Watson's original publishers), she was similarly caught off guard by the book's success. The initial print run consisted of 2,000 copies. "We didn't realize it would be such a success," says Beauman. "Now we've sold 23,000 copies" - a surprisingly high number for a publisher that distributes almost entirely through its London shop and by mail order. "We realized pretty quickly that it had a special quality."

That quality certainly fits in with our contemporary sensibilities: Miss Pettigrew, after all, is a woman who finds her true self amidst girl talk and female solidarity. And though she thrills at the romantic hi-jinks that are erupting around her, it's the relationships between the women that drive the narrative. As Miss LaFosse presses her for help with lover number two, Miss Pettigrew transforms. "For the first time for 20 years some one really wanted her for herself alone," Watson writes, "not for her meager scholarly qualifications. For the first time for 20 years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton." That focus on female bonding, as well as the book's frankness about sex, its ambivalent attitude toward marriage, and its insistence that self-actualization is the key to happiness echo much of women's popular fiction today. Beauman, however, doesn't think Miss Pettigrew's popularity rests on timeliness: "It's just hugely enjoyable," she says. "Everybody wants a good story."

Watson might have agreed. She died in 2002, and although she missed the chance to see her work on the silver screen, she lived long enough to enjoy Miss Pettigrew's rebirth. Her grandson, Jeremy Pickering, writing recently in the Sunday Express of the film version of the story, recounted Watson's reaction to her book's newfound popularity: "Perhaps typically, but with that secret joy only a few of us ever recognized, granny pretended that was only as much as Miss Pettigrew had always deserved."