‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel’ by Helen Simonson
It’s one form of colonization: Some British authors have inherited their forebears’ ability to make a reader long for simple village life. No matter how small, how petty, how isolated, they manage to whip up nostalgia for something the reader never even had.
No one understood this better than the late, great E.F. Benson, author of the “Lucia” series published in the 1920s and 1930s. These delightful novels were set, like Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” in a village in Sussex. There are only six, and they have been mined for television and radio and collected between covers and read and reread. It is safe to say that Simonson has inherited the mantle.
This is escapist fiction that does not involve detectives or dead bodies, though it does feature guns -- a pair of Churchills, sporting guns that were given to Maj. Pettigrew’s father by the maharajah as a reward for courageous service during Britain’s eviction. One gun was left to Maj. Pettigrew, the other to his brother Bertie, who has just died when the novel opens.
Maj. Pettigrew, 68 and recently widowed, is not a covetous person. He has great disdain for money, greed, gaudiness, commercialization and America. He loves his home, Rose House, in the quiet village of Edgecombe St. Mary, with its yew trees and cottages and even the nosy neighbors. (Benson’s Lucia lived in Lamb House, based on his own home, which once belonged to Henry James.) He enjoys his routines, including his walk to the local market to buy tea and other sundries. On the day his brother dies, the owner of the shop, the elegant, soft-spoken Mrs. Ali, appears at his door to collect money for the newspaper delivery. It is pretty much love at first sight, though it takes the major a while to realize it, and the length of a novel to act on it.
There’s more than a bit of “Romeo and Juliet” here -- Mrs. Ali is Pakistani, and while some villagers pretend to have jettisoned class and ethnic snobbery, it is hopelessly woven into the fabric of their lives. When Maj. Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali begin their Sunday walks and regular afternoons reading Kipling, the neighbors take note.
And then there is the problem of family: Mrs. Ali’s nephew is a devout Muslim and even more overtly disapproving of the friendship than the major’s neighbors. Her extended family in the north of England wants her safe in the family fold. But widowed, she has had a taste of freedom, and she is torn between her devotion to family and her need for independence. Pettigrew’s son Roger, a boorish financier and social bounder, eschews anything that threatens his status and his career. He and his flashy American girlfriend have rented a weekend cottage not far from Rose House.
The old ways must change (must they?), and things come to a head at various events: a shooting party (where local animal lovers organize a protest against the killing of ducks), the unveiling of a plan to develop Edgecombe St. Mary into a sort of Olde England-style theme park (complete with McManors for sale) and a local club dance (where the theme is, thoughtlessly, the glories of the British presence in India).
A reader really does grow to love Maj. Pettigrew -- moral fiber and all. He’s the best of the past in spite of (and because of) the thick layer of proper behavior that keeps him from following his stellar instincts now and then. And in spite of his feelings about Americans: the “assault of American vowels and the flash of impossible white teeth,” their propensity for “publicly humiliating one another” and their poor sartorial habits. “There’s nothing more corrosive to character than money,” the major tells his son in a heated moment.
That might well be the main message of Simonson’s quiet novel. The true enemies of human progress are money, racism and religious fanaticism. Played out on the smaller stage of rural village life, it is easy to see their corrosive effects on individuals and communities. Maj. Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali are worthy of our respect, and it is a great pleasure to spend time with them.
Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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