Thursday, 18 February 2010

Mrs Harris, Monsieur Dior, Mr Lagerfeld and Bonne Maman






I've written before about Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico (also known as Mrs Harris Goes to Paris in an American edition), which is one of my favourite books; a kind of fairytale, but oddly true-to-life in the atmospheric details of a journey made by a London cleaning lady in search of a Dior dress. First published in 1958, it's been out of print for far too long -- despite my efforts, and those of others -- but hurrah, a new edition is coming out this summer from Bloomsbury. They're also reprinting the subsequent Mrs Harris novels (in which Mrs Harris goes to New York and Moscow); and I hope that other readers will enjoy them as much as I do. I've just re-read my battered paperback copy, on the train to Paris earlier this week, along with Christian Dior's memoir ('Dior on Dior), whilst eating a packet of Bonne Maman galettes -- the most delicious biscuits, although not to be recommended if you want to fit into any of those outfits (pictured above) from the Dior resort 2010 collection, inspired by Monsieur Dior's svelte muse in the 1950s, Mitzah Bricard.

But I like to think that Mrs Harris would have enjoyed the biscuits, as well as the Dior collection; and she was very much on my mind this week while I was waiting to interview Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Of course, Gallico has her going to Dior, rather than Chanel, but I could equally imagine Mrs H making her way to Rue Cambon, and up the mirrored staircase to the elegant couture salon on the first floor. The morning after I saw Mr Lagerfeld (who was clever, urbane and intriguing, as always), I woke up very early, to a beautiful blue sky and sunshine; a perfect Parisian dawn. I walked along Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, past the hôtel particuliers, the palatial mansions and embassies, and then to Avenue Montaigne, where Mrs Harris visits the House of Dior. The front door was still closed, but it looked just as Gallico described it in the 50s: 'The great grey building that is the House of Christian Dior occupies an entire corner of the spacious Avenue Montaigne leading off the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysees.'

Standing there, knowing that inside there would still be the scent of riches that Mrs Harris once smelt -- 'compounded of perfume and fur and satins, silks and leather, jewellery and face powder' -- I wondered if I had got it wrong when I wrote about the novel before. At the risk of repeating myself, here's what I've said, when I recommended it in October 2008, as a bibliotherapy on what to read when you're scrimping and saving. On second thoughts, I should have recommended reading it with a packet of Bonnes Maman biscuits on the side (only 99p; yet utterly luxurious).


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 adventures and misunderstandings, 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 is ruined on its first outing, after the kindly charlady lends it to one of her clients, a selfish young actress. Grief-stricken, Mrs Harris weeps for the loss of the dress and her dreams, but when her basement is filled with 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.




12 comments:

kairu said...

As I write this, there is a single fading hyacinth stem in a glass on my dining table (bought with the last $3 from a trip to the farmer's market two weeks ago), its fragrance fast slipping away, leaving only a memory.

I bought my own old copy of Flowers for Mrs. Harris (I think it is the American version, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris) as well as Mrs. Harris Goes to New York (Did you know Paul Gallico also wrote "The Poseidon Adventure"?) after your last column. I don't remember what else was going on in my life then, but I remember weeping over Mrs. Harris and poring over my catalogue of Dior gowns from the Dior exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly fifteen years ago. How much my life has changed since then, how lucky I feel when I look at the dying flowers still clinging to their pale green stem.

I love reading these little glimpses of your travels. I've never been to Paris, but I hope to someday.

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

I've got that "Dior on Dior" book too. I bought it when I was going in to the hospital for a procedure and then never felt like reading it. Time to dust it off? Perhaps.

Justine Picardie said...

Kairu, lovely piece, as always. I do hope you get to go to Paris soon!
Tessa -- why not try the Dior book again -- it makes a good companion to Mrs Harris.

Cornflower said...

I'm so glad Bloomsbury are reprinting Mrs. Harris; I read it on your recommendation and loved it.

KAG said...

I too love Flowers for Mrs Harris, and look forward to the other Mrs Harris novels being reprinted. Also love Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day, which is in the same vein. Really enjoy your blog, Justine, although I'm fairly new to it.

Justine Picardie said...

Cornflower, I'm so glad to hear that you liked Mrs Harris. I was just talking about you and your blog yesterday, and wondering how far it was from where you live to Tillypronie? The garden will be open there again on the first weekend of June.
KAG -- thanks for the comment, please do keep coming back to the blog. I like Mrs Pettigrew too!

A Bookish Space said...

I've not read the Mrs Harris books, although I have read a few reviews about these (including the one you quoted above) and am looking forward to these being reissued.

kairu said...

Am reading Mrs. 'Arris Goes to New York (can't find the other book) tonight.

I love the part at the end of Flowers for Mrs. Harris, with all the flowers arriving at her tiny flat. I've always loved the idea of masses and masses of spring flowers, sent by friends, lovers, and admirers in florists' boxes. It reminds me of Mrs. Dalloway getting ready for her party, or Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Or of the markets clustered around the metro stations in St. Petersburg selling bouquets of lilies-of-the-valley (to Dior as the camellia was to Chanel, no?) and lilacs, sending their fragrance floating down into the subterranean palaces of the subway.

Sarah Standalone said...

It sounds wonderful. I have just been away and I took I Capture the Castle in my pile to read, but my nearly 13 year old daughter nabbed it... and adored it.

Tricia said...

Will hunt out both the book and the biscuits, as the both sound wonderful. Eating biscuits on the way to a meeting with Karl Lagerfeld - that made me smile!

jaywalker said...

I've just finished reading the biography of the Garman sisters (The Rare and the Beautiful) as mentioned earlier on here. An utterly fascinating read. Amazing how Mary (married to Roy Campbell) and Kathleen (mistress then wife of Epstein) always claimed to be terribly poor but could somehow always be found in glamorous designer evening dresses and pearls at the Cafe Royal. Kathleen wore her hair Egyptian style all her life regardless of fashion. The strongest memory Lorna's son has is of her leaning over his cot in satin, pearls and Chanel No 5, saying good night to him before she went out to meet her current lover. They were utterly neglectful mothers but still inspired love and devotion. Perhaps a reminder that being the ever present and perfect mother is not as necessary as we think.

Carmina said...

I have read some og your stuff on Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico and you really persuaded me to read it, I will read it after I finish reading a Steward Sildenafil 's book.