History: This book originally published in 1958. In the United Kingdom, it was published as Flowers for Mrs Harris. It was the first in a series of four books about the adventures of a London charwoman.
Plot: The plot revolves around Ada Harris, who is so enchanted by her employer's couture wardrobe that she becomes determined to go to the House of Dior in Paris to purchase an evening gown of her own. She achieves her goal with the assistance of a French marquis, who is instrumental in getting Mrs. Harris an invitation to the design house and becomes a long-term friend as do a series of other characters revealed to have hidden hearts. The comic tale takes on a final poignant overtone when the dress is loaned to an up-and-coming actress, with disastrous consequences to the dress. Initially devastated, Mrs. Harris reflects that the experiences she acquired in pursuit of the dress had their own worth.
Review: Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.
Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity. A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.
One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.
When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.
All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.
Opening Line: “The small slender woman with apple-red cheeks, graying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount morning flight from London to Paris.”
Closing Line: “She stood there rocking back and forth, holding and embracing her dress, and with it she was hugging them all, Mme. Colbert, Natasha, Andre 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.”
Quotes: “The love affair between herself and the Dior dress was private.”