The Bloomsbury Group set of reprints remains, I believe, the best selection of reprints out there. It doesn’t have the range of Penguin or OUP Classics; it doesn’t have quite the unifying ethos of Persephone or Virago, but there simply are no duds in their number. Miss Hargreaves is obviously their finest publication, in my eyes, but as I work my way through the few I haven’t read, I continue to marvel at the treats they’ve brought back to a new audience.
For some reason, Mrs. Harris has been sitting on my shelf for two years without me getting around to reading her. I even had a copy of Flowers For Mrs. Harris (the original UK title of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris ) before the Bloomsbury Group existed, but hadn’t read that either. How could I have waited for so long? Mrs. Harris is a joy, and her little novel is bliss.
Mrs. Harris is a London char, whose job is to clean other people’s houses. She takes a deep pride in her work, is very good at it, and can pick and choose her clients. She, and her good friend Vi, are much in demand, and when she decides that she has had enough of a client, she simply drops her key through their letterbox, and moves on. Mrs. Harris is the dictionary definition of indomitable. Nothing phases her, and she is an eternal optimist. She also speaks somewhat like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, par example:
“Ow Lor’.” The exclamation was torn from Mrs. Harris as
she was suddenly riven by a new thought. “Ow Lor’,” she repeated, “if
I’m to ‘ave me photograph tyken, I’ll ‘ave to ‘ave a new ‘at.”
Now, although she is a wonderful character, it would be a lie to say that she has many layers of complexity and an inner introspection dying to emerge. Gallico’s novel is simple and sweet, and he doesn’t overburden himself with psychological strife etc. There is one central motivation of the novel, and that is Mrs. Harris’s desire for a Christian Dior dress…
Drab and colourless as her existence would seem to have been, Mrs. Harris had always felt a craving for beauty and colour which up to this moment had manifested itself in a love for flowers.
Yet now, flowers have been replaced by this longing for a dress that costs £450 – and in 1958, of course, that was an astronomical sum. Coincidence, luck, and much determination (for Mrs. Harris is pretty much built out of determination) and three years later she is on her way to Paris…
It’s such a fun story. Scarcely a jot of it is realistic – Mrs. Harris’s good humour and spirited nature act much in the manner of fairy dust, transforming all those she meets – but the novel is so enjoyable and light-hearted (albeit with occasional kicks) that the reader allows him/herself to be whisked along for the ride. The contrast between shabby London char and elegant Parisian fashionista is, naturally, wonderful – and Gallico makes full use of the potential comedy in the situation.
Oh, it’s lovely! It certainly isn’t very deep, even with an attempt for A Moral at the end, in the way that American sitcoms like to conclude events – but writing something sprightly and enjoyable is probably rather more difficult than writing something introspective and traumatic, and is certainly rarer. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is great fun, very short, and is a perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.