It was reading MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY by Winifred Watson that got me thinking about this. It’s usually a derogatory term, but I, for one, would rather have one hit than none at all. Alain-Fournier is the classic example of this with LE GRAND MEALNES. Death in the trenches of WWI ended his career when he was only 27. He left behind just one much-loved novel, almost perfect in its evocation of adolescent love and longing. He would have gone on to other things, but what about Harper Lee (still alive as far as I know)? TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD came out in 1960 and the rest has been silence. That too dealt with childhood and adolescence. Maybe she had only one novel in her, or perhaps she felt that she couldn’t top that. It won a Pullitzer prize and has sold many millions world-wide. There are other writers who wrote a few other things, but only one major novel (CATCHER IN THE RYE, UNDER THE VOLCANO . . . ). Other writers have produced a whole body of work, but are only really remembered for one thing and that seems to be especially the case with comic novels, such as Stella Gibbon’s COLD COMFORT FARM and Jerome K Jerome’s THREE MEN IN A BOAT. Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. But maybe there is a problem with the idea of writing as a career, and a lot of second-rate novels are written because the writer has to write SOMETHING if only to put bread on the table. Maybe Salinger and Lee are to be applauded: they wrote the great novel they were born to write and pretty much left it at that.
So what about Winifred Watson? She did write other things, but MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY is the only one which has lasted. It came out in 1938 and was reprinted a few years ago by the estimable Persephone Press. It’s a delicious frothy fairy tale, a Cinderella for the 1930s. Poor downtrodden middle-aged Miss Pettigrew is almost at the end of her rope when she goes for a job as a companion and finds herself transported into a world of dazzling glamour. It’s narrated at breakneck speed, it’s witty, unputdownable and is the literary equivalent of knocking back a glass or two of champagne. Not a great novel, but great fun.
PS. If you are reading this, Deborah, I’ve got hold of Flannery O’Connor’s letters. It’ll be a while because I’ve got other things to read first, but watch this space.