Friday, 18 January 2013

Flowers for Mrs Harris - Paul Gallico

To continue with my holiday stash, I had a lovely re-read of Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico. Somewhere - and I'm hoping beyond hope that it is in one of the storage boxes - I have a lovely old hardcover edition of this book with dust-jacket. I've dropped an image of that, and the next in the series, at the end of this post. This new paperback edition has been renamed Mrs Harris Goes to Paris - presumably to fit with the next book, Mrs Harris Goes to New York, which is included in this edition.
It's a very long time since I read this book, but I was struck by just how timeless it, and most of Gallico's writing, is. It was originally published in 1958, but it reads so freshly now that its vintage isn't very obvious. Mrs Ada Harris is a London char, as is her good friend Violet Butterfield. They are unalike in temperament and build, but are the best of friends, meeting up for tea most days after they've spent hours cleaning people's houses. They have a routine of regular recreational diversions - the odd movie, the local now and then for a drink, occasional visits to the greyhound racing - but, given their straitened means, their lives are very simple. Mrs Harris indulges her love of colour and beauty by cramming her small house with potted geraniums, Mrs Butterfield's is full of knick-knacks.

And then, one day, Mrs Harris sees, in the house of one of her clients, a Dior evening gown. Well, she sees two - the client has them out trying to choose which she'll wear to a function that night. Mrs Harris is entranced - she's never seen such beautiful dresses - and from that moment on, despite being told how much they cost, she's determined that she too will own a Dior dress. So begins a period of scrimping and saving to acquire the four hundred and fifty pounds it will cost, plus a fare to Paris. When she wins a hundred pounds in the football pools, she takes it as a sign that it's meant, and re-jigs her whole budget to save what she can from her meagre income. Mrs Butterfield thinks she's quite mad, but curtails her own socialising so as not to leave Mrs Harris, who forgoes outside pleasures in order to save, so that she can keep her friend company. She loses fifty pounds betting on a dog, acting on a hunch. Mrs Butterfield tries to make her give up the project, but Mrs Harris just sees this as another sign that she has to achieve her heart's desire by her own hard work - one win was her ration.

Eventually, the grand day arrives. She spends some of her hoard acquiring a passport. Aided by an American client, she sidesteps the laws restricting the movement of British money between England and France by converting her pounds to dollars - little realising that she's still breaking the law! She flies to Paris, is taken by taxi to Dior, and then comes to her first roadblock - access to the showing that afternoon. She hits the manageress, Mme Colbert, on a bad day. While she is initially confused as to exactly where Mrs Harris fits in the social strata, she eventually works it out and when faced with Mrs Harris' obdurate refusal to be turned out - she has the money for a dress after all - she cracks when Mrs Harris finds a chink through to her underlying unhappiness...and they bond, woman to woman. Consequently, Mrs Harris finds herself in the front row, in prime seating, to view the collection - which has far reaching consequences.

This is just a delightful read. Mrs Harris 'does' for a wide range of people, rich and not so rich. She has learned, over the years, that people are just people, regardless of their situation. She understands all too well that having money and position aren't necessarily all it takes to make a person happy. In her forthright and disingenuous way, she finds her way into the lives of the people she encounters. Unexpectedly - for her at least - she has to remain in Paris for the week it takes to make the dress. She is offered accommodation by one of Dior's accountants, and befriends the young woman who modeled the dress she chooses. She meets the grand gentleman who had been seated next to her for the showing a few days later at the flower market - for him, she is a memory of his university days in England, and the char who 'did' his rooms. Over the course of the week, Mrs Harris experiences Paris in a way she'd not expected, and when she heads back to London, leaves good friends behind. 

There is an unexpected twist to the the end of the story, and I would encourage anyone looking for a lovely weekend read to go out and get a copy to find out what it is. The bonus of this edition is that it comes with the next story, when Mrs Harris and Mrs Butterfield go to New York as housekeeper and cook for the American couple who helped Mrs Harris with her money. My original hardcover is a stand alone, as is my copy of Mrs Harris Goes to New York, which is in the bookcase - hopefully I will find its companion when I am able to get the rest of the books out of storage again.

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