I shall never forget the shock of seeing, for the first time, a grown-up in tears. She was the mother of my nursery-school friend Lottie, and she’d been away from home over the birth of a new baby. When she saw Lottie again, after a separation of perhaps a week, she wept with happiness. It was astonishing to me that a grown-up could cry, and more than astonishing that anyone should cry for joy. The memory came back to me a few weeks ago, as I reread, with my 9-year-old daughter, Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris. For Gallico, most fondly remembered as the author of The Snow Goose, was a master of the bittersweet, of the mysterious kinship between suffering and joy. He knew how to fold together humour and poignant detail in just the right proportions to prevent his prose from curdling into mawkishness and sentimentality.
And, in bringing out Flowers for Mrs Harris towards the close of 1958, he displayed also a canny sense of timing. For Englishmen nervous of change, the past year had been unsettling. It had seen the last debs presented at Buckingham Palace, and the first stretch of motorway opened. Notting Hill had been set ablaze – literally – with race riots. What better moment for Mrs Harris – dauntless, reassuring, lion-hearted – to step on to the scene? ‘This is, if you like, a fairy tale,’ reads the dust-wrapper on the charmingly unassuming English first edition. ‘But of its enchantment, humour and pathos there can be no doubt, and we predict that it will be welcomed this Christmas and loved for many years to come.’ And welcomed it was – so warmly, in fact, that Paul Gallico went on to write three sequels: Mrs Harris Goes to New York, Mrs Harris MP and Mrs Harris in Moscow.
Mrs Ada Harris (or ‘Mrs ’Arris’, as she introduces herself: the American edition had the ghastly title Mrs ’Arris Goes to Paris) is a London char. Small and slender, with ‘apple-red cheeks, greying hair and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes’, she ‘does’ for clientele in Chelsea and Belgravia, moving from house to flat to mews, letting herself in with latchkeys on relentless, silent scenes of rumpled beds, dirty dishes, scummy baths. She works for 3 shillings an hour, 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, and half a day on Saturdays. She is widowed and lonely, but self-pity is not a part of her nature, and life has its perks. She has a friend, stout, dependable Mrs Violet
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