Winifred Watson was a bestselling author when she gave up writing in 1943 to raise her son; 57 years on she is back in print. Interview by Anne Sebba
Winifred Watson has just been rediscovered – at the age of 94. But she thinks she may be just a little too old for the celebrity circus that she has suddenly been plunged into.
“Well, it’s rather nice, and most heart-warming,” says the Newcastle author, who was famous once before, in the 1930s. “But it’s not the same as when you’re young. I’ve got past all that being excited.”
Watson had six novels published between 1935 and 1943, mostly bodice-ripping rustic sagas about life in the North East – long before Catherine Cookson had published a word.
She was feted by her publishers but then gave up writing to became a full-time wife and mother. Now one of her books is being republished and she is rather bemused by all the attention. As we look through her cuttings scrapbook at the glamorous woman in a hat and veil, she says: “It seems like a different person in there, a different life… One completely forgets what one looked like when young.”
Last month a BBC crew came to her small terraced house to film an interview with the author, who has become something of a local star. But such are the pitfalls of fame in your nineties that Winifred never got to see the programme; on the day it went out she forgot to switch on her television in time. A few weeks before that a confidence trickster had “insinuated himself into my front room” and made off with her purse full of newly delivered pension money. She is still suffering from the shock.
The book being reissued, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, was written more than 60 years ago in six weeks flat. It is a light-hearted, frothy but touching novel about a spinster gentlewoman approaching middle age who has been working as a governess to make ends meet. Because of a mix-up at the employment agency, she is sent for interview with a glamorous but dissolute cabaret artiste who is seeking a new maid. The action takes place over 24 hours and includes scenes at a nightclub, a succession of men visiting a lady’s flat, and the discovery of cocaine. By the end of the day both women’s lives have been transformed. “I didn’t know anyone like Miss Pettigrew. I just made it all up. I haven’t the faintest idea what governesses really do. I’ve never been to a nightclub and I certainly didn’t know anyone who took cocaine,” she says with a laugh. The dialogue, she insists, just came into her head as she was drying the dishes and she typed it out only after she had finished at the sink.
“My publishers were horrified when they first read it, and they rejected it,” she recalls. They feared it was too risque and wanted another strong drama about life in Weardale a century ago – then considered an original setting for a novel – to follow her previous two successes, Fell Top and Odd Shoes. Fell Top was adapted as a BBC radio play and, to mark the publication of Odd Shoes, Methuen hosted a literary lunch at a smart Newcastle restaurant where their glamorous young author was presented to the Sheriff of Newcastle – “The first time that London publishers have given a novelist a send-off lunch in Newcastle,” wrote a contemporary gossip columnist. But then they dug in their heels over her third book.
“I can remember to this day looking up and saying to the publisher: ‘You’re wrong.’ I really cared about it and I knew it would be a winner. But he just looked stubborn. In the end I was proved right.” She smiles at the memory of her triumph.
In fact, a compromise was struck; if she agreed to write another rustic story they would publish Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day some months later. A further, more delicate, negotiation was required as Winifred had been planning to marry Leslie Pickering, the manager of a local timber firm, in June 1936. But she persuaded her future husband to bring forward their wedding to January, arguing: “If I had to write a serious book I knew I had to be married and not have a job as well but have someone to look after me.”
Upyonder was published in May 1938, followed by Miss Pettigrew in October that year. It was an immediate hit. Critics described it as “the type of book that will bring joy to every woman’s heart”. Another said it was “jolly deliciously naughty and frolicsome”.
The Daily Independent called it “a glorious bit of fun”. It was sold in America, Australia, Germany and France. Then Universal bought the film rights and got as far as casting Billie Burke – one of their star actresses and later the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz – as Miss Pettigrew. But just as Winifred was about to make the big time, the US entered the Second World War and the film was never made.
Winifred was born at Whitley Bay in 1906 and has lived almost all her life in Newcastle. Her father owned four shoe shops but by 1930 times were hard and Winifred became a typist to support her parents. She had a fertile imagination and wrote her first novel in odd moments at work, goaded by a brother-in-law’s idle remark.
“I was holding this book in my hand and Joe asked about it and I said ‘Oh, it’s just tripe. I could do better.’ He said ‘Why don’t you, then?’” The book was swiftly written but then put away. It was only several years later, when her older sister spotted an advert asking for manuscripts, that she dug it out and sent it off. Methuen offered to publish it and asked her what else she had written. She told them there was another in the pipeline – and immediately settled down to write it.
Winifred was always an immensely hard-working writer and spent hours researching at Newcastle library. She once told an interviewer: “Forget all this talk about inspiration. If you wait until you’re inspired you won’t get far. You must sit down and make yourself write at a set time every day.” She wrote six novels in all. The last, Leave and Bequeath, was published in 1943, but after that nothing. Why?
“There are only six things in life you can write about and then you’ve said everything,” she says. But the truth may be more prosaic. In August, 1941, her only son Keith was born and, a few months later, while working downstairs alone one night, she decided she could no longer bear to hear him cry and, uncharacteristically, went to fetch him. Minutes later the street was bombed, demolishing the house next door and bringing down the fireplace in Keith’s
bedroom. The Pickerings moved out to live with their in-laws and Winifred’s peace disappeared overnight.
“I just quit,” she says. “It became impossible to write in a strange house with only one room for us all and my mother living with us too. All my creative energy went into Keith.” All her savings too, as the money she had made from her writing paid for his education right through to university. “There was just enough left over to help me to buy my first car,” says Keith.
Even after the war, when she moved into the house where she still lives today – coincidentally, around the corner from Catherine Cookson’s home – she could not be tempted back into writing. Keith Pickering says his mother told him she had never wanted children. “She was happy with her life as a writer but once I came along she wanted to be as good a mother as possible.”
No matter how hard he and his father tried to persuade her back to the typewriter, it was no good; that was a past life as far as Winifred was concerned. That is, until the phone call earlier this year from Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, which specialises in reissuing forgotten gems for a new generation of readers.
“I had completely forgotten the story,” says Winifred. “But most authors have a special fondness for one of their characters and I admit I always had a fondness for Miss Pettigrew.”
Maybe this time round the story will, after all, be filmed. “Several production companies have shown interest,” says Beauman. “I have a fantasy that Emma Thompson would make a marvellous Miss Pettigrew.”
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is available from Persephone Books, 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street London WC1N 3 NB price £ 10 including p&p,020-7242 9292 or
‘I’VE NEVER BEEN KISSED BEFORE,’ SAID MISS PETTIGREW
“What matters?” asked Miss Pettigrew.
“A Kiss matters,” said Joe tentatively. “Oh!” said Miss Pettigrew. She became bold.
“I’m not so sure.”
“Then, suppose we try it.”
They tried it. Inexpertly, it is true, on Miss Pettigrew’s part, but Joe’s tuition was sound, his technique polished.
When Miss Pettigrew at last left Olympus and came back to earth, she was a changed woman. She never need hang her head again. She could now speak with
authority. She was inexperienced no longer. She had been kissed soundly: with experience, with mastery, with ardour. Her face had such radiance Joe felt humble. “I’ve never been kissed before,” said Miss Pettigrew. “Then I’m a lucky man,” said Joe. “I shall make up for lost time.” From Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day