Sunday, February 27, 2011

Persephone Weekend

I've spent the last few days taking a hint from Allie and giving myself a little personal readathon time. I've immersed myself in contemporary books: one wonderfully funny twentieth-century novel--which I will discuss today--and two brand new novels, both referring to classic authors. I'll be returning to Homer's The Odyssey for a few additional posts about the original bard soon.

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I've become intrigued by the recent republication of books by Persephone Books.  Most (but not all) were written in the early twentieth century by English women writers and aimed primarily for a female readership.  Every time I glance through the press's catalog, I wind up putting more titles on my list of books to read during vacation.  Persephone says their books "are designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget."  So many readers I admire love these books for their cozy, smart entertainment.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics)Somehow, though, despite the fact that the Persephone books appeal to me so much in theory, I am only now reading my very first one.  Thanks to this weekend's celebration of Persephone books organized by Verity and Claire, I finally opened Winifred Watson's delightful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

This book seemed like a perfect introduction to Persephone for me since Miss Pettigrew was one of the stories that helped me discover the world of book blogs in the first place.  When I saw the film adaptation of the novel (starring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew), I fell in love with it and immediately googled the title to find more about the book upon which the movie was based.  And voila: I found this amazing conversation going on online between book bloggers writing about what they read --this book and of course many many others. Since I had just started planning a big reading challenge for myself, I was thrilled to find a community of readers, thinkers, and writers to learn from.

The book version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is more charming than the movie, if anything.  Although both the plots and characterizations vary slightly in the novel and its film adaptation, both convey a similar mood of joy, humor, adventurousness, and tremendous hope.

One thing that struck me is how this book both mirrors and shifts the terrain of P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves books.  Like Wodehouse, Watson gives us a picture of somewhat irresponsible but charming wealthy employers and their serious and wise domestic servant who help smooth over their employers' scrapes.  While Wodehouse explores the relationship between a gentleman and his "gentleman's gentleman," Watson turns to explore a similar relationship between a wealthy woman and her female employee.  Where the difference is most pronounced between Wodehouse's and Watson's books, however, is not in the gender of the characters but in their growth.  Wodehouse casts Wooster as the playboy who needs saving by the inimitable Jeeves.  Watson expands this scenario: the monied Miss LaFosse is saved by the resourceful Miss Pettigrew, but Miss Pettigrew is saved by Miss LaFosse as well.

The development in the character of Miss Pettigrew gives surprising depth to this book.  What is most fascinating to me is how much--and how believably--Miss Pettigrew matures and changes over the course of the single day the book recounts.  She opens to the world, not discarding her own moral compass but nevertheless allowing herself to imagine the moral universes of other people.  It is a story that carries the book beyond sly wit or simple diversion.

All in all, this book is a wonderful read.  I am very much looking forward to many more Persephones in my future and hope you'll try them out with me.


  1. Hurrah for your first Persephone! The film adaptation was also how I began blogging and Persephone Books how I discovered blogging before that.

    I love the Jeeves & Wooster comparison and had never considered the novel in that light before.

    Thank you for joining us for our Persephone Reading Weekend.

  2. How wonderful, PR! I didn't realize it was the beginning of your blogging career. Thanks so much for organizing the celebration.

  3. So glad you found out about book blogging! Miss Pettigrew is a favourite of mine, too, and I was a bit worried about what the film would be like, but I enjoyed it. (But, like you, not quite as much as the book.)

    And what an interesting comparison with Jeeves and Wooster. (Also great favourites!)

  4. I still need to finish this one. I love the characters so far in the book. They are just adorable. I hope to watch the film when I finish reading it in order to compare the two.

  5. Penny: Isn't Miss Pettigrew lovely? U can imagine reading it again and again whenever I need a pick-me-up.

    Vivienne: I do hope you like them both as much as I do! Enjoy.


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