Miss Pettigrew is a strait-laced, rather dowdy, down on her luck 40-year-old spinster governess in 1930s London (the book was written when it was set). An employment agency muddles up two addresses and sends her to work for a glamorous nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse, who’s got several boyfriends, one of whom has just stayed the night, does drugs, and is generally everything that Miss Pettigrew isn’t. The book’s set across a 24 hour period which sees Miss Pettigrew swept up into Miss LaFosse’s world, given a makeover, go dancing, be kissed by a man, and advise Miss LaFosse and her friends on their love lives.
I should have loved this, but somehow I didn’t. I think it was some of the attitudes in it.
I am really, really not one of these annoying people who shriek and have hysterics about how practically every book ever written contains remarks which would probably not be considered acceptable now. One would not realistically expect Ma and Pa Ingalls to be critical of white settlers taking over Native American land, the O’Haras and their fellow plantation owners to be advocates of black civil rights, or Julian Kirrin to be best chums with a working-class lad (whom I doubt would want to be friends with him anyway). But anti-Semitic remarks on page 6 of a book don’t make for the best of starts. The word “othering” was being used a lot over the Anne Boleyn programme: well, Miss Pettigrew was definitely guilty of “othering”. One of her comments, in particular, sounded just like something Jeremy Corbyn would say. Not to mention the references to oily Dagos … although, somehow, similar remarks don’t bother me in The Thorn Birds, because they’re in the context of tensions between different groups in a small town.
Miss Pettigrew’s a fair reflection of her time and background, and, as I’ve said, I’m really not the sort of person who expects people in different times not to hold views typical of their time and background. But I just found it rather off-putting, and that’s probably why I didn’t get on with the book. But I should have enjoyed it, because it was a cracking idea. Oh well. Some books work for you, some books don’t!