Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is already fading a bit from memory, since immediately after it I read Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson, and the two books have some major similarities. They are both about English village life, they are both examples of the novel of manners, and they are both extremely readable with charming and gently ironic narrative voices. More on Mrs. Ames later.

Simonson’s book tells the story of Major Pettigrew and his friendship with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani woman who owns a shop in town. It’s the type of small town society we’ve all heard about if not lived in ourselves, where everybody knows everybody’s business and the life of the town revolves around social events and gossip. Being a novel of English small town life, it’s very much about class and also about race. As Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali begin to spend more time together, the gossip begins and some ugly attitudes emerge.

The novel is also about family dynamics. As the story begins, Major Pettigrew has just lost his brother Bertie; once the funeral is over, it’s time to start thinking about what will happen to Bertie’s antique Churchill gun, one of a matched pair, the other of which the Major owns. It’s no surprise to learn that while the Major’s father clearly wished the pair to be reunited upon the death of one of the brothers, the new widow is reluctant to give the valuable weapon up. Conflicts ensue.

The story is a pleasurable one; Simonson handles the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali very well, and she brings her characters together in entertainingly dramatic scenes. What I enjoyed most, though, is the narrative voice. Simonson is excellent at creating an understated, quiet, but nonetheless very funny satirical tone. The Major’s son Roger is particularly ridiculous: he is obsessed with appearances and social climbing and he and his American girlfriend (yes, the Americans in this book are the horrible clueless Americans of the stereotype) are self-absorbed, rude, and generally awful. For example, in this passage Roger asks the Major whether he will vouch for him as he and his girlfriend try to rent a cottage. Roger says:

“The issue is the widowed Mrs. Augerspier. She wants to sell the cottage to the ‘right’ people. I need you to come with us and be your most distinguished and charming self.”

“So you would like me to come and kiss the hand of the poor widow like some continental gigolo until she is confused into accepting your meager offer for a property that probably represents her entire nest egg?” asked the Major.

“Exactly,” said Roger. “Is Thursday at two good for you?”

Simonson is also particularly good at handling the issues of race and colonialism that underlie the story. The Major is a little out of his depth as he meets Mrs. Ali’s extended family, but his politeness gets him through his encounters with an unfamiliar culture. Mrs. Ali shows grace and patience as she deals with the clueless and rude townspeople who don’t quite manage to acknowledge her as a real person with thoughts and feelings. Simonson deals with the colonialism issue partly by having the Major and Mrs. Ali read Kipling together. As they discuss him, they delicately touch on the colonial legacy that shaped both of their lives:

“I used to consider myself a bit of a Kipling enthusiast,” said the Major. “I’m afraid he’s rather an unfashionable choice these days, isn’t he?”

“You mean not popular among us, the angry former natives”? she asked with an arch of one eyebrow.

“No, of course not …” said the Major, not feeling equipped to respond to such a direct remark …

“I did give [Kipling] up for many decades,” she said. “He seemed such a part of those who refuse to reconsider what the Empire meant. But as I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy. It’s so hard to maintain that rigor of youth, isn’t it?”

“I applaud your logic,” said the Major, swallowing any urge to defend the Empire his father had proudly served. “Personally, I have no patience with all this analyzing of writers’ politics. “The man wrote some thirty-five books — let them analyze the prose.”

The Major and Mrs. Ali are such charming characters. I’ll confess that I got some of the minor ones confused now and then, but the Major and Mrs. Ali are wonderful company to keep while reading a novel. There is much to admire and enjoy in this book, particularly if a quiet love story and a book about small town conflicts appeals to you. Simonson does an excellent job with her material.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

  1. So glad to hear you enjoyed this one. I am on the waiting list for it at the library after having read so many positive reviews. I admit I passed it up when I first heard about it because I thought it would be much of the same… but this might just be the antidote to my current bout of “Reader’s Rage”!

  2. RFW

    I read this when it first cam out and your review brings it all back – thanks. I enjoyed getting to know the Major under the veneer.

  3. I own this and am looking forward to it – saving it up for a rainy day!

  4. This is definitely going on the list, not only because I think I would enjoy the subject matter, but also, indeed mainly, because of what you say about the narrative voice. I love distinctive narrative voices, they make a book for me.

  5. I’ve seen this one popping up here an there and it sounds like such fun. Like Litlove, I will have to reserve it for a rainy (or snowy) day.

  6. Aw, this sounds lovely. I’m in need of quiet, enjoyable, “nice” novels right now.

  7. It’s been a while since I read it, so I enjoyed being reminded of it in reading your review. Now I’m curious about the other book you mentioned.

  8. I read a lot about this when it first came out and was never quite sure I would like it–it sounds like a story I would like but I’ve never been quite pushed to buy it or find a library copy. You do make it sound very appealing however! I’m also looking forward to hearing about the Benson–that is one I do have on my reading pile.

  9. I love stories about English village life, so I think I might put this on my list too. I’m sad though that Americans are painted as rude and clueless. We’re a big country with many different types of people, so why not reflect that in literature?

  10. I enjoyed this one too. I agree that Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali are charming, and since a “quiet love story and a book about small town conflicts” appeal to me, it was a nice read for a rainy day.

  11. I have this one on my Audible wish list. I think it’s going to be this month’s download. I can certainly relate to being an outsider moving into an English village, although without the added problem of race (then again, I was an idiot American).

  12. Steph — well, I hope you like it! I’d feel badly about contributing anything to your reader’s rage! It doesn’t do a whole, whole lot that’s new, but what it does it does well.

    RFW — I’m glad you enjoyed it! I like the Major’s character very much. He’s so traditional in a lot of ways, but also open-minded, much more so than many of the other characters, and that was appealing.

    Litlove — it’s perfect for a rainy day! Enjoy!

    Annie — I completely agree with you about narrative voices. That’s one of the things I care about most in a book, in fact. The gentle satire in this book is just perfect.

    Stefanie — I hope you enjoy it! It’s very good comfort reading — smart but not terribly challenging, in a good way.

    Emily — this would be perfect then. You read a lot of experimental and difficult novels, so I’m not surprised you’d need quiet “nice” books now and then!

    Lilian — I liked your review from a while back, and I remember what you said about this being a good novel about old people, of which there are too few. It was a good point about the book.

    Danielle — I’m hoping to post on the Benson soon (not quite enough energy today!). I think you might like Major Pettigrew, if you ever do decide to give it a try.

    Debby — I agree with you about portrayals of Americans. I have to say in defense of the book, however, that she draws on a lot of stereotypes of the British, and also of Pakistanis. She’s kind of an equal opportunity stereotyper! But she does it in a humorous and even loving way that didn’t come across as offensive, at least not to me.

    Gentle Reader — the book is so charming, it’s hard to see how people can resist it!

    Emily B. — ha, ha! I supposed the stereotype of the idiot American is there for a reason :) I’m sure I’d commit lots of social faux pas if I were in the right (or the wrong) context. I hope you enjoy this one!

  13. I received the ARC for this a couple years ago now and never got around to reading it. I think I’m in the mood for a book about small towns some time soon.

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