Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico

"Lady Dent did not know that at that instant Mrs. Harris had made up her mind that what she desired above all else on earth, and in Heaven thereafter, was a Dior dress of her own to have hanging in her closet."

Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris is a delightful fairy-tale type story set during the late 1950s and is divided between London and Paris. Mrs. Harris or rather, Mrs. 'Arris, a widow in her late 50s spends her days as a "charlady" cleaning up after the rich and famous and her nights in the simple pleasures of a film or a pint with her pessimistic, but loving friend, Mrs. Butterfield. Mrs. 'Arris is very content with life and could want nothing more than to keep this quiet existence and maybe obtain a new flower or new geranium for her flower pots at home... until she sees the two gowns in Lady Dent's closet -- gowns made by none other than Christian Dior and from Paris!

But how is a anybody to get that much money, the dresses are at least 450 English pounds ($1400 American). While this might discourage any other woman, not Mrs. 'Arris. She scrimps and saves (and even dabbles a little with the football lottery and some gambling, the latter of which she later regrets) and finally the day comes when she has enough.

The rest of the story entails the adventures of Mrs. 'Arris as she travels to Paris and faces many surprises including lessons learned, unexpected friends and a surprise twist ending.

Although not intended as a tale of morals I couldn't help catching a few lessons -- unlike most people you read about in the news today, Mrs. 'Arris scrimps and saves to reach her dream. It never crosses her mind to simply borrow the money to have immediate gratification. And clearly the realization of her dream is all the sweeter for the sweat and time she poured into getting there.

The other lesson has to do with people. How often do we make assumptions about strangers or acquaintances only to find out later that they are not what we first thought them to be. Mrs. 'Arris realizes this many times over in the story, first with "them foreigners" of Paris and then also with her own natives. By the end of the book even Mrs. 'Arris is not the same person.

I truly enjoyed this story. I first became familiar with it when it was made into a Television movie in 1992 staring Angela Lansbury as the title role. The movie holds faily close to the book, though there are a few minor changes at the beginning and the end, but the spirit of the story remains.

Sadly, like so many beautiful stories printed years ago, Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris is out of print. My library doesn't own a copy, but a friend found a copy at hers, so you might get lucky. I, meanwhile, had to hunt down a used copy. My first attempt resulted in receiving the wrong book -- a sequel(!), but at long last I received an old library edition. Published in 1957, Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris is the first of five books about the lovable charlady written by Paul Gallico. The copy I own is 157 pages and includes some rough sketch-like illustrations throughout the book. It is a very fast read, only taking me two evenings to finish.

(As an interesting side note, Paul Gallico is also the author of The Poseidon Adventure, which has been adapted at least three times to film, first in 1972 and then later in 2005 and 2006.)


Carrie said...

I saw the Angela Landsbury adaptation too and I've wanted to read the book ever since! You reminded me of it. It sounds fantastic and I liked hearing about the lessons you drew from it (or, the contrast from modern day society). I'll look a little harder for a copy! =)

Shana said...

This sounds like a very unique book.

Thanks for the review.

I may try to track this one down.