Wednesday, 20 August 2014
Mrs Harris MP - Paul Gallico
When I went to the Lake District a while ago, I took a range of books - some that benefited from a long, uninterrupted read on a train, and some that would fill gaps between dashing off on multiple buses to get to a wedding, get on a train, etc. And I turned to Mrs Harris MP (1965) by Paul Gallico when I was tired from the long journey and sitting on a bench waiting for a lift (that eventually didn't come... but that's another story).
Anybody familiar with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (also published as Flowers for Mrs Harris) and Mrs Harris Goes to New York will doubtless already know and love the redoubtable Mrs Harris. A London char, she is a wonderful mix of no-nonsense and fairy tale. Her greatest dream, in the first book, was to own a Paris couture dress; in the second she heads off to New York on a quest, and in the third she wishes - as you may have guessed from the title - to become an MP.
The novel opens with Mrs Harris and John Bayswater the chauffeur disagreeing over a political broadcast. She thinks it's all two-face hogwash, and that she could do better herself... which isn't long off happening. 'Live and Let Live' is her political mantra, and it is tangled up with an argument about giving working people a chance, not being teddy boys, and above all not lying. She makes, still - perhaps more than ever, quite an appealing prospect in the world of politics. She is not interested in spin and self-promotion; she wants to stand for the little people. And Mrs Harris is so full of vim and character that the bland, careful politicians don't stand a chance.
Except things are a little more complicated than that. In all his novels, to some extent or other, Gallico seems to offer a sting in his fairy tale. Sometimes that sting is extremely dark (as in the very brilliant Love of Seven Dolls), sometimes it's fey (Jennie), but it's always there. In Mrs Harris MP it appears in the machinations of her supposed political ally... and appears perhaps more subtly in the after-effects of Mrs. Harris' political campaign.
Like the other novels in this series, Mrs Harris MP is light and frothy and completely enjoyable. All of which means that it was probably very difficult to write. Mrs Harris is a wonderful creation - and perhaps equally wonderful, in my eyes, is her timid but loving friend Mrs Butterfield. It's all quite silly, with (in this one perhaps more than the others) a note of the serious - and if you are sick of deceitful or boring politicians, or of a government that sidelines the poor, then this might provide some much-needed respite.