Still in Bloomsbury mode (I took out every book of their’s I could find in the library) I read Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’ and, quite frankly, as far as I’m concerned, she can stay there. Better still, she should never have gone in the first place. I did say I had a feeling I’d read it before in the dim and distant past, but had no recollection of it, and I was quite right, As I turned the pages I remembered my mother borrowed a copy from her library years and years ago – when I was still at school I think – so I read it then, and promptly forgot about it.
I can’t say it made a better impression this time around. In theory the story of the London char who scrimps and saves so she can buy a Dior dress ought to tick all the right boxes. It’s a fairy story, in which widowed Ada Harris becomes obsessed by the exotic evening gowns in a client’s home and determines that she will have a beautiful dress of her own. Hitherto the only beauty in her life is provided by the geraniums she raises in two window boxes and an assortment of pots. She overcomes all obstacles in her pursuit of the dress of her dreams, and spends a magical week in Paris, where she is befriended by a wealthy marquis, a top fashion model, the manageress of the fashion house, and the firm’s accountant. In return she turns their lives around, and makes them think about what is really important in life – and at the same she herself finds ‘understanding, friendship and humanity’.
I know there are people who love this book, but it failed to charm me and Ada herself never seemed a real person (and the same could be said of the other characters). She remained a kind of cut-out, a cardboard figure created from Gallico’s idea of what a London char (recognisable the world over, as he keeps telling us), should be like: hard-working, comical, chirpy, with down-at-heel shoes, shabby clothes and the kind of Cockney accent rarely heard outside Hollywood films, and speech comprising largely of clichés.
Personally I found Gallico’s portrayal of Mrs Harris patronising in the extreme. His view of her, and of the other women in the book, is unsympathetic and really rather demeaning, but that could be due to the change in attitudes since the original publication more than 50 years ago. I can see Mrs Harris setting to and cleaning the house belonging to M Fauvel (the accountant), because that is what a good-hearted London char must do. And I can understand that model Natasha wants to be treated like a person, not an object, but does she have to yearn for bourgeois domesticity and see herself as being a proper woman if she is doing housework? “Oh, it is good to be inside a home again, where one can be a woman and not just a silly little doll,” she says. Pshaw say I. Piffle. Balderdash. Stuff and nonsense.
And that really sums up the way I feel about this tale. The characters were stereotypes, the storyline was twee, and I found Gallico’s writing style annoying – far too much tell and not enough show. I regret to say that having struggled through ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’, I couldn’t face the thought of reading ‘Mrs Harris Goes to New York’ and the book (it's a double edition) will go back to the library tomorrow.