Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico ~ 1958. Originally published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris, and alternatively titled Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. This edition: International Polygonics, Ltd., 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55882-021-3. 157 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
I’d read this before, long ago in junior high school – I have a memory of sitting reading it at one of the small round tables tucked in the back of the library early in my Grade 8 year, my refuge from the crowded cafeteria at lunch hour - and at least once in the years since then, and the re-read brought me no new revelations. A decidedly sweet (just this side of saccharine) novella. “Charming”, and “Adult fairy tale”, two terms beloved of this minor classic’s many reviewers, suit it well.
The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, graying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount morning flight from London to Paris. As with a rush and a roar the steel bird lifted itself from the runway and the wheels, still revolving, began to retract into its belly, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay heart’s desire.
London charwoman Mrs. Ada Harris is bound upon a great adventure, ten British pounds and a stunning one thousand four hundred American dollars tucked safely into her shabby imitation leather handbag, along with the return half of a round-trip ticket to Paris. What could she be up to?
We are soon to find out, when Mrs. Harris firmly directs her Parisian taxi driver to transport her with the utmost speed and efficiency to the Avenue Montaigne; more specifically, to the House of Christian Dior. Mrs. Harris is about to buy herself A Dress.
Now, how, do you ask, can a 1950s’ London charwoman, billing herself out at a modest three shillings an hour - roughly the equivalent, at the exchange rate of the time, to a little under fifty American cents – manage to come up with the incredible amount needed to purchase an original Dior creation? And, most urgently, you must be wondering why?!?
The how (this is a “fairy tale”, don’t forget) is quite easily explained by our author. There was a substantial win on the football pools; that got Mrs. Harris a quarter of the way to her goal. Scrimping and saving, going without her beloved weekly movies and occasional visits to the pub and cutting down on her lavish consumption of tea took her to the halfway point. A disastrous attempt at gambling on the dog races was a setback, but Mrs Harris soldiered on. It took her three years, but she did it; the cash is in hand. Now for the dress.
But, again, why a Dior dress? What on earth could be possessing this humble woman in setting her aspirations on such a worthlessly extravagant item? Well, it all goes back to a little incident at one of her employers’ houses, a certain fashionable and extremely wealthy Lady Dant.
Opening up Lady Dant’s closet in the discharge of her tidying up duties, Mrs. Harris discovers something marvelous. Not one, but two astonishing garments, the like of which she has never seen in real life before, though she has sighed briefly and appreciatively over such creations in the discarded fashion magazines which frequently have come her way. And she’s always loved beautiful things, though that love has hitherto only expressed itself through the more readily accessible medium of flowers; the geraniums she grows with such marvelous success, and the cast-off bouquets which come her way and which she nurses along until the vestige of any beauty is completely faded.
But now as she found herself before the stunning creations hanging in the closet she found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty – an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman…There was no rhyme or reason for it; she would never wear such a creation; there was no place in her life for one. Her reaction was purely feminine. She saw it and she wanted it dreadfully…
Oops, there goes Paul Gallico expounding on the childishly weak nature of femininity again, a tendency he demonstrates fairly frequently, and which annoyed me so much in another one of his folksily frothy novellas, 1962′s Coronation. But steeling myself, and soldiering on, I allow myself to be caught up in the saga of Mrs. Harris and her Dior dress.
She does indeed reach her goal and attain her wonderful garment – the description of which appealed deeply to my own feminine soul, and left me feeling a yearning-for-loveliness sister to Ada Harris – but while she is going about it she also proceeds to magically make several unlikely friends connected with the House of Dior, and to change several lives, and to generally act as an unlikely catalyst to events beyond her daily sphere. For in Paul Gallico’s fictional world, a heart of gold and a cheeky smile can move mountains, cutting through the sneering superiority of the wealthy and snobbish, and bringing some down-to-earth sensibilities into the most artificially fabricated situations.
Mrs. Harris is our hero(ine) of the moment; her eternal wisdom sees through the superficialities of social class and fancy dress, to the eternal desires for “something higher” trapped within every human soul.
Oh, Paul Gallico. I do enjoy your work, but there is always just a little hesitation in my own occasionally cynical soul which stops me embracing your fables fully…
Mrs. Harris gets a pass, however, and a generous one; the unlikeliness of her quest puts this tale on a plane of its own.
Next up, three more fables concerning our charwoman with a flair for the extraordinary. Gallico followed up the phenomenal success of Mrs. Harris’s Parisian escapade with equally fantastical trips to America, to the British Houses of Parliament, and to Soviet Russia. I haven’t read any of these yet, but I am in possession of two of them, the America and Parliament capers, in the 1967 collection of novellas under one cover, Gallico Magic. My husband read that collection a year or so ago, and finished it off wit the comment that it was a bit much to take all together; he was completely Gallicoed out by the end. I may approach with more caution, judiciously choosing only one or two of the novellas and leaving the others for another time. I will be sure to report back on Mrs. Harris, though. I’m quite curious as to what further tangles she’ll untangle with her golden “common touch”!
Oh – and I can’t leave you without a comment on the edition of Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris which I’ve just read. It has to have some of the ugliest illustrations possible inside; an absolutely perfect example of generic illustration lite. I shan’t share; it would be too painful, but a glance at the cover will give you a clue as to the horrors within. As an antidote, and to soothe my own ruffled sensibilities, I include several much kinder covers below. (Query: Who or what is International Polygonics, Ltd., and why did they ruin their otherwise nicely produced edition of this book - good paper, lovely font – with these pedestrian pictures?)
Ah, well. Moving on (at last!), here are several nice reviews to peruse.