I have been itching to read the Mrs Harris books ever since Claire talked about them so wonderfully a few months ago. This handsome bright pink paperback combines the first two Mrs Harris books, in which the London char lady with a heart of gold finds herself having unlikely adventures in two of the world’s most remarkable cities, Paris and New York. Mrs Harris has had quite a lot of exposure in the blogosphere of late, and normally I get annoyed when everyone is talking about the same books ad nauseum but this one really does deserve to be talked about, a lot. I seem to have hit the reading jackpot in the last couple of weeks; first Anne of Green Gables, which left me dancing on clouds of happiness and delight, and now Mrs Harris… , which has both restored my faith in humanity and left me dizzy at the possibilities of life. Like L M Montgomery, Paul Gallico has created a character filled with such life and warmth and laughter and tenacity that I closed the pages feeling like I had left a friend behind, and my heart and soul had been encouraged, uplifted and warmed by her presence. It’s a rare find to come across a book that can move and engage you so completely, and leave an impression that will change the way you look at the world around you. The Mrs Harris books are just that, and I urge you to read them!
Mrs Harris goes to Paris introduces the indomitable, apple cheeked char lady Mrs Harris, a Londoner of a certain age who ‘does’ for the wealthy residents of Belgravia (this is the area between Sloane Square, Hyde Park and Knightsbridge, by the way – think wide roads of tall white stucco houses and private garden squares that nobody apart from the very wealthy could ever hope to afford). She lives two doors down from her fellow char and best friend Mrs Butterfield, who always imagines the worst of everything and has no desire to leave the comfort of her small flat and her tea kettle. The two women love their jobs, and what they love best is the gossip they pick up from their glamorous clients about the rich and famous people they mix with.
One day, Mrs Harris spots a beautiful Christian Dior dress in the wardrobe of one of her clients, and decides that she must have one. To Mrs Harris, the dress represents everything she has never had; glamour, sophistication, beauty; a window into a way of life that she could never dream of experiencing. She finds out that the cost of such a dress is £450; a fortune to a woman who earns £1 a week. Despite the impossibility of such a sum, once Mrs Harris has made her mind up about something, there is never any going back. Mrs Harris decides she will go to Paris and buy herself a Dior dress, no matter what it takes. Through a spot of luck and sheer willpower, she does eventually amass the necessary cash after two years of scrimping and saving, and heads off to Paris to achieve her dream.
On arrival, Mrs Harris finds herself swept into the lives of staff and customers of the House of Dior, who are all enchanted and inspired by her strength of character and good heart. Mrs Harris’ presence and the fairytale quality of her journey from London slum to Paris couture showroom seems to bring a new sense of hopefulness and joy to the lives of those she comes into contact with. By the time she leaves to go back to London, no one is the same, including Mrs Harris. Her desire to obtain the Dior dress doesn’t turn out with the exact results she expects, as there is a nasty twist that teaches Mrs Harris a valuable lesson, but the positive effect Mrs Harris’ adventure has on everyone involved is far more valuable than the dress she has saved so hard for. It is this realisation of the value of friendship, positivity, self belief and taking joy in the simple things, that is the true treasure Mrs Harris brings back from Paris.
I LOVED Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, and while Mrs Harris Goes to New York is also very charming, it didn’t have quite the same magic; it’s very much a sequel and wouldn’t stand alone, as it implies a knowledge of the events of its predecessor. Even so, as a follow on from Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, it is a welcome continuation of the lives and adventures of several favourite characters. The basic plot revolves around a young abandoned boy who lives next door to Mrs Harris and regularly gets beaten by his foster parents. The product of an illadvised liaison between an American GI and a flighty waitress, he was dumped in Battersea by his mother when she got a new partner, and Mrs Harris is of the belief that if only the boy’s father could be made aware of his predicament, then he would want his son to live with him in America. Mrs Harris therefore decides she will go to America and find little Henry’s father, and, as luck would have it, an American couple whom Mrs Harris ‘does’ for, the Schreibers, need to move back to New York for work reasons as the book opens. Mrs Schreiber wants to take Mrs Harris with her to help her set up her new home, and Mrs Harris agrees, if she is allowed to bring Mrs Butterfield too. Plans are then made to smuggle little Henry along with them, and handily, an old friend from Paris is also onboard the boat to New York to help with the difficulty of getting the smuggled child through immigration. Many misunderstandings, difficulties and surprises ensue during the journey to find Henry’s new father, and Mrs Harris also gets to enjoy the many sights and sounds of New York, learning a fair few life lessons for good measure along the way. Charming and heartwarming, it also made me very excited to arrive in New York!
These books are lovely, life affirming reads that will encourage you to believe in everyday miracles in your own life. Mrs Harris is a wonderful heroine who you’ll be rooting for all the way, and Paul Gallico manages to weave stories that have a moral heart without being saccharine or twee. I felt exhilarated after reading these, and reminded that ordinary life can become extraordinary, if only we are prepared to be brave enough to make it so. I can’t recommend Mrs Harris Goes to Paris and Mrs Harris Goes to New York enough; they are not to be missed!