Miss Pettigrew’s bodice

[asa book]190646202X[/asa] There’s an article in PW about the revival of interest in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel first published in 1938, reissued by Persephone Books in 2000 and about to be reissued again. It was also made into a movie starring Frances MacDormand.

There are many very good things to celebrate about all this,. To start with the publisher:

Persephone Books reprints forgotten classics by twentieth-century (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of seventy-five books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are ideal presents or a good choice for reading groups.

The books are beautifully edited and produced, from the period-appropriate cover art to the quality of the paper. Persephone was started by Nicola Beauman nine years ago but Miss Pettigrew is the first of the list of seventy-five to really take off, which certainly has something to do with the movie release. The story is, in a word, wonderful, and the film does it justice.

People like to talk about the madcap movies of the 30s with great affection and nostalgia, when in fact many of those films haven’t aged well. Miss Pettigrew, lost to obscurity for more than fifty years until Ms Beauman brought her back to life (and Stephen Garrett produced the film), is everything such stories are supposed to be: stylish, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, with an underlying thoughtfulness you can ignore if you’re so inclined. In this case, the contrast between those who lived through and survived WWI with those who are rushing blithely toward WWII.

Another good thing: Persephone Books are just now starting to be distributed in the States. The company was founded as a primarily mail-order establishment, but has grown into something bigger. For my own part, I’m hoping they might have a look at The Moonflower Vine, another truly excellent, out of print and forgotten novel written by a woman who went unnoticed for most of her life. (More on Jetta Carleton’s Moonflower Vine here).

And now the bad. As I began to write this post I was angry, and I’m angrier now than ever. This has nothing to do with Persephone or Miss Pettigrew. It has to do with the author, Winifred Watson. Or more exactly, it has to do with the way she is presented to the world by some outlets.

Winifred Watson, 2000Watson was born in 1906, into a very well to do family in the north of England that fell on hard times during the Depression, when she went to work as a typist. Watson’s obituary in The Independent tells the story of how she turned to writing and made a success of it, and why she gave it up. When Persephone Books reissued Miss Pettigrew in 2000 Ms Watson was still alive, and the book’s success shone a light on a surprised but gratified ninety-four year old. ((A more recent article in Chronicle Live notes that the film of Miss Pettigrew came too late for its author. ))

These and other obituaries and articles about the Watson’s rediscovery draw a picture of a woman who led a full life, someone of great character. Someone with a sense of the absurd, a keen understanding of human foibles, and a wicked sense of humor not stifled out of existence by social conventions. I certainly would be interested in knowing more about her. Which is how I stumbled on Anna Sebba‘s article dated November 13, 2000 in The Times. The title:

Bodice-ripping fame at 94

First, please note that I only found this article because its title was included in the Amazon.com information for Miss Pettigrew. And that’s all that was included. From the original interview by Sebba:

Winifred Watson has just been rediscovered – at the age of 94. But she thinks she may be just a little too old for the celebrity circus that she has suddenly been plunged into.

“Well, it’s rather nice, and most heart-warming,” says the Newcastle author, who was famous once before, in the 1930s. “But it’s not the same as when you’re young. I’ve got past all that being excited.”

Watson had six novels published between 1935 and 1943, mostly bodice-ripping rustic sagas about life in the North East – long before Catherine Cookson had published a word.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this makes me so angry. Here we’ve got one interviewer, a woman. She’s got the chance to sit down with someone who survived two world wars, who wrote six novels and then went on to raise a family, who has reached ninety-four years of age. And what does the reporter do with this opportunity? She reduces that woman’s work and trivializes it with that most overused, cliched catch-all, bodice ripper. A term that has no equal in terms of negative literary connotations. A term that encourages the reader to dismiss the book in question with a snicker without reading a single page. You know what this is about, is what that term says. It’s tawdry and silly and it’s below you. Do not bother.

All six novels, dispatched with one stroke.

Here’s a question: did Watson even write romances? And another: What does that have to do with anything at all? Does it matter what you call her novels?

I’ll tell you what matters to me: that (especially) a female journalist show respect and thoughtfulness in an interview with one of the women who struggled to be published in a far more difficult era. That she not trivialize books she has mostly likely never even read. And if she has read them, and if Ms Watson herself declared them romances, that she not delegate them to the literary trashbin with a careless flick of the finger. Jane Austen wrote romances, too. And Ms Watson deserved better.

Shame on Anna Sebba and shame on her editors at The Times.