Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Whimsical Literary Review


    The annual shoot at the local estate is by itself worth the price of a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, published by Random House. Lord Dagenham, a worthy variation on P.G. Wodehouse’s eh-wot-oh-rather-don’cha-know Lord Emsworth, is a somewhat down-at-the-Rolls Royce noble who rents out much of his ancestral home to a private school and who is selling some of his lands to an American real estate developer.

       The last annual duck hunt in the doomed countryside ends as a menace to the humans more than to the ducks. The hunters, mostly English and American bankers playing at being squires for a day, are on the firing line when suddenly the field of fire is occupied by: (1) ducks, lots of ducks, (2) the schoolchildren, who raised the ducks as a science project and who rush in to defend them, (3) the gamekeeper and the farm hands, trying to round up both the children and the ducks, (4) environmentalists, and (5) the local Save Our Village protestors. And, yes, someone gets bashed with a sign proclaiming “Peace.” The reader sees that coming, and is delighted when it does.

       A safe modern writer would have fitted all this into a scripted screed against guns and hunting, all kitted out with global-warming environmentalism and cuddly Disney children and animals. Miss Simonson will have none of that; she makes fun of everyone involved, sparing not even the children: “’They killed our duckies,’ came a wail from a child holding up a bloody carcass.” As Lord Dagenham says, “I had no idea that fee-paying pupils would smell bad.”

       Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is framed as boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back, only geriatric, but is saved from Famous Greeting Card Company sugar-free syrup by Miss Simonson’s lemony (seldom acidic) observations on socialists, yuppies, environmentalists, the upper classes, the lower classes, country clubs, the sort of people who resent country clubs, the Church of England, Moslems, Americans, Englishmen, artificial Christmas trees, hunters, anti-hunters, parties with themes, “the glass-squashed faces of small, angry children” on school busses, and flavored teas.

       Through all this Miss Simonson develops a delightful love story. The protagonist is Major Pettigrew, retired from the British Army, and his friend, Mrs. Ali, owner of the local shop. Both are widowed, and they “meet cute,” as the film cliché goes, but their relationship must voyage from acquaintance through friendship and finally to love through 355 delightful pages of misunderstandings, cultural differences, disapproving relatives, disapproving neighbors, a retired banker “with an almost medical allergy to children,” organic turkeys, neighbor Alice’s organic vegetarian lasagna that smells like plankton, neighbor Marjory, whose sole topic of conversation is her gifted and talented grandson, a dotty vicar, the vicar’s even dottier wife, the aforementioned hunt, an annual club dance that deteriorates into a food-throwing, stage-collapsing, drink-sloshing brawl, a continuing sub-theme about a matched pair of Churchill shotguns, and a knightly rescue of an imprisoned lady. And ducks.

           The setting is a Wodehouse England that never really existed, flavored by Jane Austen, Kipling, Agatha Christie, the Romantic poets, Alexander McCall Smith, declasse’ climbers, and the occasional cup of real tea (no rose hips or other debris for our hero). Some of the social assumptions are a bit naïf, and in this the novel sails dangerously close to being approved of by famous television ladies, but this is a love story, after all, and one with a happy ending.

      Even so, with lines such as “The major wished young men wouldn’t think so much,” “a group of faded hippies, with ripped jeans and balding heads,” “Old Mr. Percy became so drunk that he threw away his cane and subsequently fell through a glass door while chasing a shrieking woman across the terrace,” and mention of an assistant imam named Rodney, this is a book that even manly men can read without fear of their boots magically dissolving into designer cross-trainers. And there are ducks.

By Mack Hall