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.