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I had been told by other readers that I would find Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson absolutely delightful and I did but I also found it rather bittersweet, which I had not anticipated.  In the course of one wonderful, whirlwind day Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a forty-year old down-trodden governess/maid-for-hire finds herself swept up in the wake of the glamourous Miss LaFosse and, as a result, Miss Pettigrew’s entire outlook is radically altered.  It pure fairy tale, fantastical and wonderful, but, as with most fairy tales, there are dark shadows lurking at the edges.

Miss Pettigrew’s life, prior to this fateful morning, has been a dull regime of doing what is proper and what must be done, of living virtuously and unquestioningly and so, so alone.  Her future is bleak:  no family, no children, no wealth, no home even to shelter her as she grows older.  Cinderella, let us remember, had her youth at least (not the mention her looks) and the optimism that youth invariably possesses (however misguided): Miss Pettigrew may have had that once too but life has taught her to be less fanciful.  And then, by a quirk of fate, she suddenly has a chance to be reckless and to act out against all the rigid commandments that have shaped her life.  She wears silk under things and makeup, drinks cocktails and dances at a nightclub.  She is a woman awakening to the sensual pleasures of life and a delicious hint of sin lingers in the air, thrilling her all the more.

I found the following to be one of the most resonant passages in the book, as Miss Pettigrew reveals that, until today, she had never been tempted off the path of virtue.  This seemed inexplicably sad to me (though, at the same time, a voice in my head that I recognize as my grandmother’s wonders if virtue untested is really virtue at all). 

Simply and honestly she faced and confessed her abandonment of all the principles that had guided her through life.  In one short day, at the first wink of temptation, she had not just fallen, but positively tumbled, from grace.  Her long years of virtue counted for nothing.  She had never been tempted before…She could not deny that this way of sin, condemned by parents and principles, was a great deal more pleasant than the lonely path of virtue, and her morals had not withstood the test. (p. 135)

Can one day, however magical, really alter the habits and values of a lifetime?  Relax them, perhaps, as most experiences will, but in Miss Pettigrew’s case, in the situation she is facing at the end of the book, to continue would suggest that she live every day with the same indulgent spirit as she had just the one.  Would she still find pleasure in such behaviour or would repetition dull the excitement?  It seems that much of the joy of the day comes from the pleasure of rebellion, allowing Miss Pettigrew to feel quite wicked for the first time in her life.  Does that ever last?  Even the title seems melancholy: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  It is finite, suggesting that there is a limit to the delights and pleasures she may discover.

It is a charming work and I like it all the more for the questions it raised in my mind and for the darker themes that lurked behind the fantasy.

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