Miss Pettigrew is an inspiration

Earlier today I finished Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and oh oh what a delightful concoction it is! Like a strawberry champagne cocktail. It’s the best example of both the wonders that Persephone Books has republished and a delightful wonderful forgotten classic from the 1930s. Unfortunately I did not engage in my usual practice of dog-earing the pages I liked best (horrible I know, but handy) because this is my only Persephone! (although I have just ordered another for my birthday) Such a delight to touch! I couldn’t possibly! and so it’s hard to refind my favourite bits now. But it has such a sparkling upbeat view of life, it gets a jazzy happy tune running through the blood. Here’s a bit that had me in giggles:

Miss Dubarry retired with her drink. Hastily Miss Pettigrew filled a glass with soda and just coloured it with sherry to give it a look of authenticity. She returned to her seat.

‘Mud in your eyes,’ said Miss Dubarry.

Miss Pettigrew knew no happy rejoinders, so she made one up.

‘Wash and brush up,’ said Miss Pettigrew.

They drank.

For sheer enjoyment and pleasure and good writing too, this is the best book I’ve read this year.

And it’s got me thinking of more books I want to read, from the Edwardian era to WW2 and realizing that I’ve actually been interested in a lot of things from that time period already. Like music, I loved swing music when it was popular about ten years ago and love Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James more than mopey indie music. I love the clothes from the time period, the men’s suits, and I got to dress up as a flapper in a high school play with pin curls and all, delightful, darling! I really like the movie Gosford Park and golden age mysteries are all so wonderful to read (last year I went through a lot of them), my favourite of the mystery genre. I’ve collected almost everything by both Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf and I so rarely do that, especially when I hadn’t even read many of their books, I was just drawn to them. I’ve also had a long interest in the world wars, especially WW1. In university I wrote a short play about a WW1 soldier for a playwrighting class and it was performed with a student director and cast, one of my proudest moments.

I’ve been wanting to write a historical novel of some kind for years (one of my first ideas was a WW2 romance) but haven’t been able to find a time period and a place I was deeply passionate about and also interested enough in researching for a sustained period of time! I tried 1860s Paris, too depressing, then moved to the Victorians but they’re a teensy bit too dull. But early 20th century Britain has enough old fashionedness mixed with jazz and historical change to satisfy me I think and as I say, I’ve liked a lot of things about this time period for a long time, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.

Part of the reason for all my reading is that I’m on the hunt for examples on how to write a good novel, to find books that really speak to me and to find a time period I can fall in love with. (Obviously I also just love great books and literature, but I’ve also got the itch to write. Book blogging is a way to satisfy that itch, but doesn’t entirely do the trick. I’ve worked on a novel before for a year, about adultery in a present day theatre setting, but it just didn’t quite feel right. I really prefer the past.) I think the search is over, I used to read a wide variety of things, trying to find what I liked, to broadly see what was possible, but lately I’ve been settling into this era and not leaving. Plus there are more lesser known women authors from the ’20s and ’30s to check out! Escaping Into a Book is talking about a reading project that coincides with this, and I’m excited to look into some history books about the time period.

Any suggestions on books or authors? (And yes, this is a very jumbly slap-dashing piece of a write up, but I’m just excited!) Also, what are the ’20s and ’30s called, the inter-war period?

28 thoughts on “Miss Pettigrew is an inspiration

  1. Study Window says:

    I made the mistake of buying one of the notebooks that Persephone sell bound in that same beautiful grey. Do you think I could write in it? Of course I couldn’t. How could I desecrate something as exquisite as that?

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh, that would be hard. Although I think I would be tempted to get one, I love beautiful notebooks. I’d probably tell myself I could only use it for writing Very Important Things and then of course wouldn’t use it much… At this stage, there’s so many Persephone books I want, I don’t think I’ll be buying the notebook yet.

    • Carolyn says:

      I just looked on the cover of the movie and one reviewer calls it a ‘champagne cocktail’ — I swear I didn’t copy it! (I couldn’t, the library sticker partly covers it!)

  2. bookssnob says:

    I’d love to write a novel too, but where is the time?! I don’t have any spare!

    The interwar period had some marvellous female writers – Rose Macauley, Dorothy Whipple, Rosamund Lehmann, Katherine Mansfield, Enid Bagnold, F M Mayor, Angela Thirkell, E M Delafield…I could go on. Then there are obviously the equally superb male novelists – Evelyn Waugh, J B Priestley, D H Lawrence, R C Sherriff, Denis Mackail, E M Forster….you’re spoilt for choice!

    • Carolyn says:

      I think you would make a wonderful writer, Rachel, you already are! When I was in the ‘writing zone’ a few years ago, I wrote an hour a day, usually in the morning in a coffee shop. It gave a nice feeling of accomplishment to the day (which I’ve been missing). If you really want to do it, I say give it a shot!

      And thanks for such a great list of authors, some of them I hadn’t heard of before. (I wish it was easier to find obscure British authors in secondhand bookshops here!)

  3. Penny says:

    Carolyn, our tastes in books are so simialr! I have a small collection of Persephone books and loved Miss Pettigrew. Did you know they’ve made a film of it with Frances Dormand (Fargo) as Miss P? (I know! She’s American! But she’s a good actor, I think.)
    I don’t know Etta James, but love Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, particulary the slow songs…
    Gosford Park is one of my favourite films…
    I could go on, but I won’t! πŸ™‚
    I’ve added a ‘Fellow bookworms’ blogroll to my own blog and you’re on it. I’m planning to write more about what I’m reading in future blog entries…

    • Carolyn says:

      I watched the Miss Pettigrew movie last night, after writing this post. It was delightful, especially all of the music, and even my husband liked it (perhaps partly because of Frances McDormand, as he likes the Cohen brothers).

      Etta James sings this big romantic song ‘At Last’ (At last my love has come along, my lonely days are over and life is like a song…), you might recognize the tune if you heard it. I had that song playing at my wedding.

      (Thanks for including me on your blogroll, I look forward to reading about your reading. :))

      And don’t worry about typos, I try to edit mine too but they happen to everyone!

  4. Penny says:

    I’ve just proof-read this (after clicking ‘send’!) Sorry for the typos! I’m usually a stickler for that sort of thing and typos embarrass me horribly!

  5. Eva says:

    Ana tends to review lots of 30s lit and her minichallenge might be a good source for ideas! πŸ™‚

    I saw the movie of this, which I understand changes quite a bit of the book, and love it so much I’m afraid to read the novel now.

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, I was looking through her blog and the challenge reviews on it just last night.

      I watched the movie last night and it’s sweet too, but the book only enhances that sweetness because there’s more of it! There are a few plot changes to fit the movie format, which I think were well done to build tension, but overall it’s the same wonderful story in either version and I’d highly recommend the book to make the experience even better!

  6. Christina says:

    Isn’t Miss Pettigrew delightful? It’s definitely going in my comfort-read rotation now!

    I like what you said about searching for a time period that you can really get interested in. For me, it’s Regency England. πŸ™‚ But I like your early-20th-century period too! For recommendations, I would add Stella Gibbons to the other great authors mentioned — Cold Comfort Farm is wonderful!

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, it’s always so nice to find more authors to go into that comfort category. I wish Persephone would republish more of her books! I read Cold Comfort Farm a few years ago and enjoyed it and am now wanting to find a copy of Nightingale Wood. I sometimes wondered why I never got more into Regency England, I know a lot of Jane Austen fans do. I’m interested in checking out Georgette Heyer’s 1920s mysteries now though!

  7. Aarti says:

    I have this to read and I’m excited it’s like champagne!

    I think this inter-war period (that’s what I call it, anyway) is very in-vogue now! Have you seen the Bloomsbury Group book offerings? Many are from that period.

    • Carolyn says:

      Read it when you need some cheering up, it’s delightful.

      Yes, and I’m so glad that this time period is becoming popular, with Nancy Mitford’s books being reissued with lovely retro covers too! I have 3 of the Bloomsbury books and really love them, there’s so many forgotten classics that I wish would be republished!

  8. Nymeth says:

    Yes! I love the period too for all the reasons you list. The mix of an old-fashioned atmosphere with little modern touches really appeals to me for some reason. Best of luck with your writing!

    Have you read Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons? It just might be my favourite 1930’s discovery.

  9. Helen says:

    I read this last week and I enjoyed it too. It was my first Persephone and I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Good luck with your writing!

  10. Linda P says:

    Now that I have more time to read and write I’ve been thinking how I can be in control of my choices whilst at the same time allowing for organic diversions. I love authors that write novels with ‘a Great House’ setting and I’m fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group and would like to read more from the pre WW1 and inter-war period.
    Persephone Books are a great resource as well as beautifully presented.
    I hope that you continue to include poetry on your blog as I find your chosen poems an enjoyable addition.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m definitely going to keep including a poem a week, the only problem is keeping it to only one poem! I binge on poetry from time to time, usually without finishing a whole book of it, but now all week I’m thinking, what about this one, or that?

      I love the Bloomsbury Group republished books too, I love all the retro covers that are coming out!

  11. Alison says:

    You know what – I’ve been thinking the exact same thing about this period and how it would be perfect to set a novel in! For one homework in my sixth form A-Level English course we had to write a first chapter, as a way of assessing what makes first chapters work or not, and I set mine in this period (had just been reading Rebecca and it shows…) so thinking should continue it and my project could then be classed as ‘Research’!

    I got really hooked on this period after reading Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out – have you read that?

    • Penny says:

      Alison, I LOVED that book and it has stayed with me since I read it. (I have a ‘thing’ about the First world War.) I subsequently bought her Down Among the Bohemians, which I’ve still to read.

    • Carolyn says:

      Sorry I took a few days getting back to you, Alison… I haven’t read Singled Out yet, but I’ve got it from the library along with Uncommon Arrangements and Among the Bohemians, so who knows what I’ll get to first! I started a sci-fi story once that had a reference to Rebecca even though I’ve never read the whole thing… I’m saving it up for this fall when I’ll want a gently spooky read. I hope you do continue with your writing project, it sounds interesting.

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