A short novel calls for a short review. No preamble this time. Here it is – my final review for the 1950s!
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris
by Paul Gallico // Published in 1959
It’s a tale as old as storytelling itself: the story of the poor, suffering soul, plucked from obscurity and whisked away to a better life. From Cinderella to Pretty Woman to Harry Potter – not to mention practically every reality television show ever conceived – this tried-and-tested formula forms the heart of so many of our most beloved stories.
In Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico introduces us to an unlikely Cinderella figure. Ada Harris is a middle-aged widow; a London charwoman who cleans the homes of the rich and not-quite-famous for a mere three shillings per hour. It’s an injustice that never seems to have occurred to the rosy-cheeked, indomitable Mrs Harris.
However, Mrs Harris’ sense of her own place in the world fundamentally shifts the moment she discovers two exquisite Christian Dior gowns while cleaning Lady Dant’s bedroom. Looking at the exquisite dresses hanging in the wardrobe, Mrs Harris realises they’re the most beautiful things she has ever seen in her life.
Ada Harris makes it her life’s mission to travel to the House of Dior in Paris and buy a Dior gown of her own. Never mind that a Dior gown costs over four hundred pounds, or that London charwomen simply aren’t meant to buy designer gowns, or that she’s never left England – Mrs Harris has discovered her heart’s desire. Finally, after years of sacrifice, Mrs Harris finds herself walking through the doors of the House of Dior. However, owning the Dior gown of her dreams isn’t going to be as easy as Mrs Harris would have thought.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is an updated fairy tale of sorts; a Cinderella story complete with a spoilt, would-be actress in the place of an evil stepsister and the faint echo of a glass slipper on the stairs as Mrs Harris enters the House of Dior.
“She mounted the imposing and deserted staircase, it then being half past eleven in the morning. On the first half-landing, there was but a single silver slipper in a glass showcase let into the wall…” (p. 46)
However, like all fairy tales, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris has a rather unsubtle moral; a warning against the perils of temptation and pride. Gallico even goes to far as to name the dress Mrs Harris selects from the House of Dior “Temptation” – just to make his point blatantly obvious. Both the reader, and the characters all part ways at the end of the novella having learned a valuable lesson.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris takes aim squarely for the heartstrings, but misses rather spectacularly. The moments of the novella that are obviously intended to pack an emotive punch instead feel clumsy and needlessly over the top.
However, it needs to be acknowledged that Gallico doesn’t exactly set himself an easy task. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris wobbles awkwardly on the line between tragedy and comedy, and Gallico presents the eponymous Mrs Harris as the target for both. The reader is expected to empathise with Mrs Harris, yet at the same time, Gallico uses Mrs Harris for comic relief, parodying her working class accent, her ridiculous hat, her intense dislike of the French and more. Balancing these two opposing forces – comedy and empathy – requires a level of skill Gallico simply doesn’t seem to possess.
It’s clear that Gallico cares deeply about his characters. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is driven by Gallico’s considerable character-building skills. However, Gallico sketches his characters with a too-heavy hand. When, in a scene that forms one of the most anticipated moments of the novel, Mrs Harris finally enters the House of Dior, looking for “(w)here it is they ‘angs up the dresses for sale”, the very first person Mrs Harris encounters is Madame Colbert, Dior’s manageress. It’s at this point that Gallico derails the narrative momentarily to introduce us to this new character. Five pages of pure exposition later, we’re deposited back in the story, feeling a little disoriented.
While I admire Gallico’s talent for creating clearly defined, memorable characters, he simply goes too far. Rather than merely hinting at his characters’ inner lives, Gallico takes all the mystery of his novella away by explaining everything.
While Gallico’s writing is often overstated, there’s one instance in which the novella is frustratingly underdeveloped. Gallico gestures briefly, almost carelessly toward a more profound preoccupation lurking beneath the novella’s surface, but refuses to develop it further.
The dress Mrs Harris selects from the House of Dior is a black gown called “Temptation”. Here’s the moment when Mrs Harris lets Madame Colbert know of her choice:
“Mme Colbert smiled a thin, sad smile She might almost have guessed it. ‘Temptation’ was a poem created in materials by a poet of women, for a young girl in celebration of her freshness and beauty and awakening to the mysterious power of her sex. It was invariably demanded by the faded, the middle-aged, the verging-on-passé women.” (p. 72)
Ever so fleetingly, Gallico introduces the idea that Mrs Harris’ sudden yearning for a Dior dress; a desire she can barely put into words, is really a search for her lost youth, for sex. As she wears Temptation, Mrs Harris thinks back to the early days of her marriage, when “life in that sense had not passed her by”.
I’d have forgiven Gallico’s other mistakes, if only he’d taken the time to explore this theme just a little further.
Like an unflattering dress, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris does nothing for me. It’s made with the finest of intentions, but there’s so much about this novella that doesn’t sit right. It’s showy when it should be subtle; it’s vague when it should be bold.
Though I’m sure many would consider Mrs Harris Goes to Paris a charming, heart-warming novella, I’m sorry to say it’s a little twee for me.