Saturday, 25 June 2011
I’ve just finished reading a delightful book from Persephone Books who publish forgotten classics by (mostly) women writers. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson was first published in 1938, then forgotten about for many years by all but a few, and then, on the back of its being re-published by Persephone Books in 2000, was made into a ‘major motion picture’ in 2008.
Seventy years after it was penned by a secretary from Newcastle, and six years after her death at the age of 96, Miss Pettigrew grossed $17 million at the box office. Maybe that’s not that much in movie terms these days, I don’t know, but what I do know is that if something I’d written grossed $17 million ever in a million years, I’d be thrilled over the moon. Although of course poor old Winifred was dead by then, so thrilled was probably out of the equation, but nonetheless, my point stands.
And my point is this: I’m always expecting in life that if I do the graft then the payoff will shortly follow. I think actually that’s what we’re taught to expect, but I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’m finally coming to understand that you must put in the graft and that you must then let go of it and, crucially, you must also let go of any expectation of a payoff from it. The payoff may well come, or it may not, but to plan for it is a mistake.
Particularly in producing anything creative, too fixed an idea of any particular end result is a fatal error. For where is the heart to enter if the head has already closed every door? And without the heart what have you created? Nothing more than an intellectual game; nothing of depth or integrity; nothing of meaning. In short then, nothing at all.
If you let the head rule the heart, if you imagine you can think your way through life, you may well dull some of the pain, but you will also numb the joy, and you will never, ever be truly creative. Because creativity comes through the heart, not the head.
But, as usual, I’ve allowed myself to waffle far from the point I had in mind. What I was wanting to say was that I wondered if Miss Pettigrew was perhaps the first ever piece of chick lit. Although I’m aware the term probably isn’t a great compliment and I’m not even entirely sure what it means, I do love Bridget Jones – I read it every time things go a bit stinky in life, and Miss Pettigrew seems like something of a go-girlfriend style precursor.
As well as its ahead of its time post-feminist over tones, Miss Pettigrew is also of that very time specific and very English genre of novel that’s one of my favourites - 1930’s Waugh-esque posh kids lounging about sipping cocktails, going to non-stop glamorous parties in diaphanous gowns, driving their cars far too recklessly just for a giggle, using phrases like “cheese it” and having elaborate conversations that go round and round in circles making no rational sense whatsoever, which is absolutely my favourite kind of conversation.
It must be said though that Miss Pettigrew does lack Waugh’s dark subtle underbelly, but she more than makes up for that absence by the fact that absent too is the Smurfette effect, i.e. that world common to literary fiction wherein the reader finds herself amongst a group of blokes with no more than one or two token women who constitute simply the love interest. Miss Pettigrew on the other hand is written from the girl’s perspective with the fellows taking up the romantic bit parts. Delicious.
What’s more I was over-joyed to find stated in serious literary print that has withstood the test of many decades of time passing, a truth that I have long known but never quite had the stomach to say aloud: that a girl’s most essential tool for successful navigation of the world at large is indubitably her face powder.
“Miss LaFosse and Miss Dubarry powdered their noses.
“Come along now Guinevere,’ said Miss LaFosse. ‘You must powder your nose again. It isn’t done not to. Last gesture before entering a room – powder your nose. It gives a sense of confidence.’
With trembling fingers, nervous, clumsy, contented, for the first time in her life Miss Pettigrew powdered her nose.
‘Do you know,’ she said happily, ‘I think you’re right. It does add a certain assurance to one’s demeanour. I feel it already.’
‘Attaboy,’ praised Miss Dubarry.”
Yes indeed girlies, it’s all about the heart. Without too much in the ‘thinking’ department I find one can manage perfectly well in life, but without the nose powder… one isn’t even off the starting blocks!