Monday, August 2, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and Miss Buncle's Book

My first two Persephones.  (Sighs blissfully).

Of course, many of the book lovers in the blogosphere have already been initiated into the Cult of Persephone.  Well, better late than never.  For those of you who are not familiar, Persephone Books is a London publishing company which reprints neglected fiction, mostly 20th century works by British women writers.  It includes novels, memoirs, cookbooks, short stories, etc.  A lot of them are from the early part of the century, which is a period that I just love.

My first Persephone was Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson.  It's probably the most well-known, due to the delightful movie adaptation.  Even if you have seen the movie, the book is so worth reading.  Set in 1930s London, Miss Pettigrew is an aging governess on a downward spiral -- if she doesn't get a job quickly, she'll be thrown out of her apartment with nowhere to go.  An employment agency sends her to the glamorous apartment of Miss Delysia LaFosse, a flightly torch singer who is torn between various men.  Desperate for a job, Miss Pettigrew jumps in and acts as a sort of governess to Miss LaFosse, though she's had little experience with love, and meanwhile Miss LaFosse draws Miss Pettigrew into her glamorous world for twenty four hours.  Miss Pettigrew throws all caution to the wind and decides to live it up.

This passage describes Miss Pettigrew's reaction upon meeting Delysia's friend Miss Dubarry:

The subject of the conversation still eluded her, but she didn't care.  She was thoroughly enjoying herself. She was in a state of spiritual intoxication.  No one had ever talked to her like that before.  The very oddness of their conversation sent thrills of delight down her spine.  Come to think of it, hardly any one had ever troubled to talk to her about anything at all: not in a personal sense.  But these people!  They opened their hearts.  They admitted her.  She was one of themselves.  It was the amazing way they took her for granted that thrilled every nerve in her body.  

This is a really fun, light read, perfect for a vacation.  It's been described as a Cinderella story, but in my opinion Miss Pettigrew is both Cinderella and fairy godmother.   I suppose it's really just classy chick lit but it is so witty and charming!  The dialogue is wonderful and the Persephone edition includes charming illustrations.  It reminded me of another recent read, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and its sequel, Provincial Lady in London.  Sadly, none of Winifred Watson's other books are in print, but I have already emailed the Persephone folks and begged them to reprint more of her books.

The original cover to Miss Buncle's Book
I've been collecting other Persephone books simply because I've been so intrigued by all the online raves, and I now have four other Persephone classics waiting on the shelves (though their catalog currently consists of 88 books, only ten are easily available here in the U.S.).  My love of Miss Pettigrew inspired me to check my library catalog for other Persephone titles.  Since nearly every one in their catalog had fallen out of print, there are tragically few in my local library.  I felt fortunate to get a battered 1983 copy of Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson, which I checked out immediately after returning home from my vacation.  I think I like it even more than Miss Pettigrew!

Miss Buncle, like Miss Pettigrew, is an aging spinster fallen on hard times.  She lives in a tiny English village called Silverstream, and her income has dried up (the worldwide economic depression is only mentioned as general hardships facing various people in the village). Out of desperation, Miss Buncle has written a thinly veiled portrait of the charming eccentrics in her village, with a somewhat fantastical ending.  She is lucky enough to find a publisher, but all hell breaks loose when the book is comes out and the village residents quickly recognize their fictional counterparts in the novel (which are frequently unflattering).  Their reactions and the results are pretty hilarious -- I found myself racing through the book and frequently laughing out loud.  I wish this book were widely available here in the U.S., as I'm sure I would purchase multiple copies and give them as gifts.   Like The Diary of a Provincial Lady, Miss Buncle's Book is full of wry British humor and gently pokes fun at quaint village life.  

I was surprised to read in the author's online bio that D. E. Stevenson wrote more than 40 books and sold more than 7 million copies in the UK and US combined!! She was a hugely popular writer -- why aren't her books more widely available?  It's so sad.  Well, I am lucky to have a public library with quite a few of her books, so that will keep me busy for a while.  And I just received an email from the kind Persephone folks who have informed me they are publishing the sequel to Miss Buncle next year!

And now I have 86 more Persephone titles added to my to-read list!  Oh, dear.  If you've read any Persephone titles, please give me recommendations.  They all look wonderful and I am overwhelmed with choices.


  1. I've never read a Persephone book, though I do own one that I know is put out by Persephone. My copy is not the Persephone copy, and ironically, the book is written by a man (Leonard Woolf).

  2. Miss Buncle's Book sounds so neat, and since I'm moving to San Antonio later this year I'll be able to get my hands on it. ;)

  3. Amanda -- let me know if it's any good. I don't know anything about LW, just Virginia. I also have a copy Flush by VW, but not the Persephone edition.

    Eva -- they have a whole bunch of books by D. E. Stevenson, including the sequel to Miss Buncle! You will have plenty to choose from. When are you moving?

  4. My mother loves DE Stevenson and owns all of her books, but for some reason I've never read them. I read part of Miss Buncle's Book, and then my mother demanded it back because seeing me read it made her want to read it too. :p Hopefully I will get another crack at it later this year!

  5. Jenny, that's really funny! I was just thinking how much my mother would love this book. I think she needs her own copy. I'm probably going to buy one for myself and she'd probably end up borrowing it anyway.

  6. I worked in public libraries here in the UK for years. I remember D E Stevenson having a devoted following. Thanks for sharing these reviews. I had meant to read Miss Pettigrew, having heard the book reviewed on the radio. You have reminded me, thanks!

  7. Welcome to the wonderful world of Persephone! I haven't read these two yet, but I've no doubt I'll love them as much as you did :)

  8. Miss Buncle's book has to be one of my favourite Persephones - I'm a big fan and have read ALL of them! (see my blog for previous Persephone reading weeks back in May and last September/August...)

  9. Christine -- it's so good to hear that D.E. Stevenson had a following -- I'd never even heard of her until I started looking at the Persephone list. She needs to be rediscovered! Luckily my library has quite a few of her books, though they're all out of print here in the U.S.

    Nymeth -- which are your favorites so far? I have so many I want to read!

    Verity -- I have been reading all your blog postings about the Persephone week back in May. So sorry to have missed it! I'm sure I'll be participating the next time around and that I'll have lots of titles on my shelf in anticipation.

  10. The public library which I worked in (Scotland) also had a lot of avid D E Stevenson readers. They tended to be quite old ladies,and that put me off, so I've never read any. It seems they knew a thing or too though. It was the same with Georgette Heyer who is now so popular.

  11. I'm glad you've enjoyed your introduction to Persephone. I think you'd enjoy Dorothy Whipple, especially High Wages & Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost. I'm glad they're going to reprint the sequel to Miss Buncle next year, I'll look forward to it.

  12. Katrina -- I'm sorry it took me so long to respond to your comment, but I was thinking about how it's so great that some of these forgotten classics are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. I didn't know Heyer had fallen out of favor. I read one of her mysteries for the Classics Circuit this spring.

    Lyn -- I'm having such a hard time choosing my next Persephone. I'm going to see what I can ILL from my library. A lot of Persephone fans seem to love Marghanita Laski so I'll definitely look for those.

  13. Miss Buncle's Book is already on my wish list; you are reminding me to move it up to a higher spot. Do you read Barbara Pym? I greatly enjoyed her Excellent Women.