Mandy Hager dodges Anne of Green Gables to reach for Paul Gallico.
Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris is a simple tale related in his unpretentious and somewhat “telling” style. Revisiting something well-loved from childhood or adolescence is always a risk, as it may prove diminished or dated or just plain bad. I’m still avoiding the end of the bookshelf that houses my treasured Anne of Green Gables collection. I attempted to read it aloud to my own children, only to discover the dense archaic language snaring my tongue and my mutinous audience groaning and rolling their eyes.
Wikipedia describes Flowers as “light”. With a word count that would today suggest a novella, it tells of flower-loving London charwoman Mrs Ada Harris, who, in the course of her daily grind, discovers two beautiful Dior gowns in the home of one of her wealthy clients. She is so moved by their beauty that she is swept by the desire to own one: “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 a woman.”
With unstinting dedication she begins to scrimp and save, until nearly two years later she flies to Paris for the day to buy her own Dior gown. Her guileless enthusiasm wins the hearts and minds of everyone she meets. She stays while her dress is created, and affects the lives of those around her. By the time she leaves for home with her beautiful one-off dress “Temptation” (which she knows she will never wear outside her own four walls), she has brokered one marriage and saved another, and gained an unexpected store of life-long friends.
On her return, she loans the dress to one of her social-climbing clients to impress a movie producer. It’s returned in ruins. But what she has gained from the experience is every bit as beautiful and fulfilling:
She stood there rocking back and forth, embracing her dress, and with it she was hugging them all, Madame Colbert, Natasha, André Fauvel, down to the last anonymous worker, seamstress and cutter, as well as the city that had bestowed upon her such a priceless memory treasure of understanding, friendship and humanity.
The sum of this story is greater than the value of its modest parts. What struck me again, as it did the first time I read it, is its warm-hearted generosity.
Gallico may depict his characters in easily recognisable brushstrokes:
Any knowledgeable London housewife who had ever availed herself of the services of that unique breed of ‘daily women’, who come to scrub and tidy up by the hour, or for that matter anyone English would have said: ‘The woman under that hat could only be a London char,’ and what is more, they would have been right …
But there is no sneering in his descriptions of Ada Harris or her fellow-char and dear friend Mrs Butterfield, only a clear-sighted fondness, wry understanding and recognition of the best of human worth.
Mrs Ada Harris is the quintessential big-hearted London char: hardworking and stoic, plain-living and frugal, with not a mean word or thought for anyone. Yet this is no lazy shorthand; this is Gallico proving that, while stereotypes undoubtedly originate from common recognisable characteristics, it is the uniqueness of private human longing and desire that separates one person from the next, no matter what the unifying factors most obvious to the eye. All the descriptors which could, at first glance, be seen as stereotyping, instead take on the sheen of dignity and grace.
I love this woman! She has a heart the size of London, and her longing for this one totally extravagant, impractical piece of haute couture surely resonates with women everywhere.
My parents owned a clothing factory, and I still cannot pass a dress shop without wandering in and touching the fabrics, looking at how they are cut, assessing their weight and how they fall. Some of my most magical memories of my mother were seeing her transformed from housewife to fairy queen by one of her beautiful one-off ball gowns. Exotic printed silks, hand-crafted lace, sophisticated beadwork, whole bolts of fabric used in their expert creation … .
I have some still, tucked away in acid-free tissue paper. Like Ada Harris, I will never wear them: the mere act of possessing them is enough. They link me to another time and place, to a love so warm it clothes me still.
This secret desire to possess something we consider beautiful is not merely a woman’s foible, nor is it restricted to the love of clothes. My husband yearns for an X75 motorbike with almost religious fervour; my friend for rare out-of-print books. Our dreams and desires fuel our creativity; they fashion the tiny pin-pricks of hope in the dark nights of our soul.
Wikipedia tells me that Gallico (1897–1976) and I share the same birthday and a parent of Austrian descent (in Gallico’s case his mother, in mine a father). Gallico started out as a sports writer but abandoned journalism for fiction in the late 1930s. Over the course of his life he wrote around 50 books, several of which were successfully adapted for screen, stage and television.
Among the list of his publications I spotted titles I hadn’t previously linked to Gallico yet which also hold special places in my heart. The Snow Goose, another deceptively simple tale about love and loss. The Small Miracle, conjuring up the best and most resonant stories of my childhood, many discovered during that magical time we’d huddle around the radio on Sunday mornings and sob over The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and The Small One.
When I realised Gallico was also responsible for the story of Thomasina, the film version of which had me sobbing again not so many years ago when my sister and I spent a nostalgic afternoon re-watching it, I was surprised … yet not. Again, at its heart is a message about tolerance and the power of love to heal. Even his most commercially successful film adaptation, The Poseidon Adventure, combined classic adventure with a commentary on the nature of heroism and compassion, with Shelley Winters’s character symbolising everything that is courageous and beautiful in everyday human beings.
It’s little wonder Gallico has been dismissed as lightweight and overly sentimental in our cynical gimlet-eyed world. As he himself once said:
I’m a rotten novelist. I’m not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories …. If I had lived 2,000 years ago I’d be going around to caves, and I’d say, ‘Can I come in? I’m hungry. I’d like some supper. In exchange, I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time there were two apes … .’
A summary outline of a Gallico story may sound uninteresting, even bordering on ludicrous; an individual quotation broken out of context falls flat; the essence exists only in the story’s entirety.
This is why I like him. This is why everything I have read of his moves me and has remained in my consciousness ever since. In another age Gallico would have been viewed as a master YA writer, because he understood that story is everything and literary pretension has no place. The ability to source emotional truth, encasing ideas in emotions, and telling the story with as much honesty as you possibly can … that’s what makes a YA reader want to stay the course.
For me, too, it is a desire to engage with the best parts of human nature, to reflect the kinds of values that might actually encourage others to rise to this challenge as well. Gallico understood this.