Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris - Paul Gallico

The Bloomsbury Group set of reprints remains, I believe, the best selection of reprints out there.  It doesn't have the range of Penguin or OUP Classics; it doesn't have quite the unifying ethos of Persephone or Virago, but there simply are no duds in their number.  Miss Hargreaves is obviously their finest publication, in my eyes, but as I work my way through the few I haven't read, I continue to marvel at the treats they've brought back to a new audience.

For some reason, Mrs. Harris has been sitting on my shelf for two years without me getting around to reading her.  I even had a copy of Flowers For Mrs. Harris (the original UK title of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris [1958]) before the Bloomsbury Group existed, but hadn't read that either.  How could I have waited for so long?  Mrs. Harris is a joy, and her little novel is bliss.

Mrs. Harris is a London char, whose job is to clean other people's houses.  She takes a deep pride in her work, is very good at it, and can pick and choose her clients.  She, and her good friend Vi, are much in demand, and when she decides that she has had enough of a client, she simply drops her key through their letterbox, and moves on.  Mrs. Harris is the dictionary definition of indomitable.  Nothing phases her, and she is an eternal optimist.  She also speaks somewhat like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, par example:

"Ow Lor'."  The exclamation was torn from Mrs. Harris as she was suddenly riven by a new thought.  "Ow Lor'," she repeated, "if I'm to 'ave me photograph tyken, I'll 'ave to 'ave a new 'at."
Now, although she is a wonderful character, it would be a lie to say that she has many layers of complexity and an inner introspection dying to emerge.  Gallico's novel is simple and sweet, and he doesn't overburden himself with psychological strife etc.  There is one central motivation of the novel, and that is Mrs. Harris's desire for a Christian Dior dress...
It had all begun that day several years back when during the course of her duties at Lady Dant's house, Mrs. Harris had opened a wardrobe to tidy it and had come upon the two dresses hanging there.  One was a bit of heaven in cream, ivory, lace, and chiffon, the other an explosion in crimson satin and taffeta, adorned with great red bows and a huge red flower.  She stood there as though struck dumb, for never in all her life had she seen anything quite as thrilling and beautiful.

Drab and colourless as her existence would seem to have been, Mrs. Harris had always felt a craving for beauty and colour which up to this moment had manifested itself in a love for flowers.
Yet now, flowers have been replaced by this longing for a dress that costs £450 - and in 1958, of course, that was an astronomical sum.  Coincidence, luck, and much determination (for Mrs. Harris is pretty much built out of determination) and three years later she is on her way to Paris...

It's such a fun story.  Scarcely a jot of it is realistic - Mrs. Harris's good humour and spirited nature act much in the manner of fairy dust, transforming all those she meets - but the novel is so enjoyable and light-hearted (albeit with occasional kicks) that the reader allows him/herself to be whisked along for the ride.  The contrast between shabby London char and elegant Parisian fashionista is, naturally, wonderful - and Gallico makes full use of the potential comedy in the situation.

Oh, it's lovely!  It certainly isn't very deep, even with an attempt for A Moral at the end, in the way that American sitcoms like to conclude events - but writing something sprightly and enjoyable is probably rather more difficult than writing something introspective and traumatic, and is certainly rarer.  Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is great fun, very short, and is a perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.


26 comments:

  1. You are right. It isn't deep but it is so lovely. I love how she transformed everyone she met.

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    1. It was just on the right side of Disneyfied! Because she wasn't sweet herself, it meant the novel wasn't too sickly.

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    2. I read Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris years ago and always loved the book. there are other books too- Mrs. Harris goes to New York and Mrs.Harris goes to Moscow- both highly recommended.
      Susan in Seattle

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    3. And Mrs. Harris MP! I have read Mrs. H goes to NY (also loved) and have the other two waiting.

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  2. Must get it off the shelf and read it!

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  3. I love this book. I never read any of the other Mrs Harris books but I lost count of the number of times I reread this in my early teens, finding it a perfectly delightful and comforting book for rainy lunch breaks in the school library. I still haven't read much else by Gallico - only The Snow Goose, I think - and I must try more of his books. But first I might have to revisit this one ;)

    Have you seen the film, with Angela Lansbury as Mrs Harris? It is charming and the dresses are even more lovely than Gallico described.

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    1. I haven't seen the film, but Verity is going to lend it to me. Angela Lansbury isn't at all my idea of Mrs. H, but I'm willing to give it a go!

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  4. I confess to never having read any Gallico - I was utterly devastated as a child to watch my big sister (who NEVER cried) weeping over 'the Snow Goose'. Such an unsettling event made me too scared to try him myself.
    Perhaps, now I am braver, I should give him a go!

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    1. Maybe you should! I should read The Snow Goose and see if I weep...

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  5. Nice to see another recommendation for this novel. I never seem to see the Bloomsbury Group reprints when I'm out - but they always sound like the most delicious stuff out there: Mrs Hargreaves, Kill Uncle, this...

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    1. It is such a good series! There's one bookshop in Oxford that proudly stocks them, face out, but they've dwindled in other bookshops here.

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  6. I think I can completely relate with the desire to own a Christian Dior dress ...that itself has me sold :) I should be reading this soon

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  7. Yes, it isn't deep but it is a perfect comfort novel. The other great thing about the Bloomsbury reprints is the attractiveness of the covers - lovely designs and colours.

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    1. The designs are great - and, what is even better, relevant to the story. I love the little details from the novels which find their way into the illustrations - a real care was shown by Penelope Beech.

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  8. I'm looking forward to reading this! And the summer seems to have arrived here in the north-east - at least for a few days.

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    1. well, it's the 3rd and 4th in the series that you'll be receiving, and I can't vouch for them, but I'm sure you won't be disappointed!

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  9. The Bloomsbury reprints look and sound so lovely that I've been moved to send off for Mrs. Harris and also Miss Hargreaves!

    But is it me, or is it very hard to find e.g. a list of the Group's titles on the Bloomsbury site??

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    1. It used to be very easy, but the new website favours their Bloomsbury Circus venture - for obvious reasons, I suppose.

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  10. £450 still sounds astronomical for a dress! This book does sound charming and from your review, it reminds me a bit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which is also a fun and comforting read.

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    1. I meant to mention Miss Pettigrew - it's very similar in some ways, and I think anyone who likes Miss P will like Mrs. H.

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  11. LOVE Mrs. 'arris (!). I found her several years ago when our librarian weeded the stacks for books that hadn't been checked out for years--any books she pulled were offered to students and teachers to take for free. You're correct--not much complexity ... But Mrs. Harris is a doll :)

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  12. I love Mrs. Harris since I have found her back in 1982... I don't know how many copies of this book I have already bought to give as a present (this book and Liv Ullmann's "Changing" are my ever green favourites to give as a present to dear friends). Why do I love it so much? Perhaps because of its lack of complexity and pretense and ambitions... Paul Gallico, like in many other stories oh his (most notably "The love of seven dolls") just tells a story... he allows to visit others worls, fly back in time and read thoughts of many, many different characters... Ada 'arris is a must for admirers of simplicity... Thanks for this lovely "posting"! Ricardo Leitner

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