Monday, 20 October 2008

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're scrimping and saving


Now that an age of austerity has returned, and spendthrift ways must be abandoned, I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite books, a dog-eared second-hand copy of ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’ by Paul Gallico. It was written in 1957, at a time when post-war hardship was not yet distant history, and tells the story of a widow whose life has been one of endless drudgery.

Mrs Ada Harris lives in a basement flat in Battersea, earning three shillings an hour cleaning for clients in Belgravia: ‘She worked ten hours a day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks in the year.’ After her bills are paid, she hoards the leftover pennies for plants, lovingly tending a window box of geraniums, and occasionally ‘a single hyacinth or tulip, bought from a barrow for a hard-earned shilling.’

One day, in the course of her duties for the fashionable wife of a wealthy industrial baron, Mrs Harris sees two beautiful Dior gowns, and is seized by the desire to own a similar dress. The cost is astronomical -- £450 – and in order to save a sufficient amount from her meagre earnings, she embarks on a lengthy period of self-denial (walking to work instead of taking the bus, mending the holes in her shoes with newspaper), boosted by a modest win on the pools. Finally, after two years, seven months, three weeks and one day, Mrs Harris has scraped together the price of the dress and her airfare to Paris, and sets off for the House of Dior.

Her journey involves several mishaps, but Mrs Harris prevails, and at last takes possession of her heart’s desire: a Dior dress with the apt label of ‘Temptation’, a creation of ‘wondrous, frothy foam of seashell pink, sea-cream and pearl white’. Back in London, however, it catches fire and is ruined on its first outing, after the charlady lends it to a selfish young actress. Grief-stricken, Mrs Harris weeps for the loss of the dress and her dreams, but finding solace in the flowers sent by new-found comrades in Paris, she – like the reader – is reminded of the pleasure and treasure of friendship, humanity’s saving grace when material assets go up in smoke.

9 comments:

oxford-reader said...

Thanks Justine! That's almost as good advice as 'what to read when you've just resigned cos you hate your job and to hell with the credit crunch'.
I've never read the book, but the film with Angela Lansbury makes me cry every time. Sadly, because I'm scrimping and saving, I can't read this, as I don't have a copy, but at least I know what to ask my sisters for for Christmas now!

Kerry said...

I found a hardcover copy of the same edition (or at least same dust jacket) at a book sale earlier this month for $2. I bought it just because the cover was so pretty. I'd read one of your previous endorsements of the novel, but didn't make the connection between my new book and the one you'd mentioned until later. What a great surprise! And the book was wonderful.

Justine Picardie said...

Kerry -- you found yourself a bargain with that edition; if it's the first edition, it'll be quite valuable.
Oxford-reader -- you need (and deserve) an equally lucky find. And good luck with the job hunting...

a Cupcake near you! said...

My goodness, you get a lot of comments! I have just stumbled on your book and now your blog -- here's a link to a quick advance piece re: Daphne. I can't wait to meet her through your eyes. Meanwhile:

http://talkingcupcakes.blogspot.com/

Best wishes from this side of the Atlantic, where we're thinking scrimping is going to come in handy.

Edie Powell

Justine Picardie said...

Welcome to the blog -- I am a big fan of cup cakes; indeed, was baking some at the weekend. Hope you enjoy Daphne.

oxford-reader said...

Thanks Justine. It's complicated, as I'm only giving up a portion of my work (I have two jobs), but at least have more time for reading now!

Justine Picardie said...

One job is probably better than two; and it will also give you time for writing, as well as reading.

Lou said...

I have just bought your book DAPHNE.Do you think I should reread REBECCA first,Justine?(To get the most out of your book)I remember reading Rebecca as a teenager but that's a long time ago!(I'm a big fan of yours from Melbourne, Australia)

Justine Picardie said...

Lou -- I don't think you need to re-read Rebecca before 'Daphne'. It's such an archetypal story -- second wife haunted by first wife, like Jane Eyre -- and I know lots of readers have enjoyed 'Daphne' without ever having read du Maurier, or the Brontes. Thanks so much for your comment, and I hope you like the book, as well as the blog!