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.