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Posted on 20 Sep 2022 in Fiction |

PAUL GALLICO Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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The author of The Snow Goose tells the story of a London charlady and a Dior dress.

This is an old-fashioned book. Not just because the two stories in it were first published in 1958 and 1960, but because the world has changed so much since then. The likes of Mrs Harris, a typical London charlady of the late 1950s, no longer exist. Her ‘profession’ and her way of ‘making a living and keeping body and soul together’, was drudgery. She worked daily for her middle- and upper-class customers – cleaning up, as Paul Gallico puts it:

… the litter of dirty dishes and greasy pans in the sink, acres of stale, rumpled, unmade beds, clothing scattered about, wet towels on the bathroom floor, water left in the tooth-glass, dirty laundry … and of course, cigarette ends in the ashtrays, dust on tables and mirrors, and all the other litter that human pigs are capable of leaving behind them when they leave their homes in the morning.

The ‘daily woman’, with her scarf-turbaned hair, overalls and mop and bucket, is now just the stuff of 1960s sitcoms and has been replaced by professional cleaning services, small-business house cleaners, robotic vacuum cleaners and dishwashers.

Novels and novellas, too, have changed. Paul Gallico was a hugely popular short-story writer, perhaps best known for his wartime story The Snow Goose, which was made into a popular film, sold over a million copies and is still in print. Gallico once described his writing as ‘not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories.’ He is also unashamedly sentimental in his storytelling. So, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is not literary but it is a good old-fashioned, sentimental story, which has just been made into a film; the book has been republished as a film tie-in.

Gallico’s characters are caricatures, his plot is simple, and the world of Mrs Harris is one where BEA Viscount aircraft have ‘wholesome’ British stewards, who serve you a ‘wholesome British breakfast’ on the short flight from London to Paris, where a British European Airways assistant will offer you friendly advice and order a taxi for you.

In the process of cleaning up Lady Dant’s house, Ada Harris (who pronounces it ’Arris), opens a wardrobe and sees two Dior dresses:

… as she stood before the stunning creations … she found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty – an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman. In that very instant she fell victim to the artist; at that very moment was born within her the craving to possess such a garment.

There was no rhyme or reason for it, she would never wear such a creation, there was no place in her life for one. Her reaction was purely feminine. She saw it and she wanted it dreadfully.

Lady Dant cannot refrain from boasting that the dress cost ‘around four hundred and fifty’ pounds. Mrs Harris is shocked – ‘Four hundred and fifty quid … ’ow would anyone ever get that much money?’ – but her craving for the dress grows. All that ‘damp, miserable, and foggy day’ the thought of the dress warms her, and that evening on her regular visit to her fellow charlady friend, Mrs Butterfield, preparing for their ‘threepence a week’ ceremony of ‘making out their coupons for the weekly football lottery’, she feels particularly lucky and shocks Mrs Butterfield by announcing, ‘This is for me Dior dress.’

She wins only ‘one hundred and two pounds, seven and ninepence halfpenny’, not enough for the dress, but after her initial disappointment she determines to scrimp and save until she can afford it. Finally after two years of ‘work, sweat and self-denial’, plus a little bit of luck, she has enough. Currency restrictions in the UK mean that only ten pounds can be taken out of the country but Mrs H is resourceful:

… [her] code of ethics was both strict and practical. She would tell a fib but not a lie. She would not break the law, but was not averse to bending it as far as it would go. She was scrupulously honest, but at the same time was not to be considered a mug.

She solves the problem with the help of a ‘not-too-bright’ American client of hers, who agrees to pay her in American dollars and to exchange British cash for her. These dollars, the client thinks, are being sent to Mrs Harris’s ‘conveniently invented’, ‘constitutionally impecunious’ nephew, who lives in America.

So, finally, Mrs H arrives outside the House of Christian Dior in Paris, and is shocked to discover that it is not a store ‘like Selfridges in Oxford Street or Marks and Spencer’s’ but a mansion with no display windows or wax figures showing off the clothes. Gathering her British courage, she pushes open the door, is ‘almost driven back by the powerful smell of elegance’, and ascends the grand staircase but, ultimately, is confronted by Mme Colbert, the manageress, who apart from being in a bad mood, surveys Mrs Harris and concludes that she looks like a cleaning lady and should have gone to the back door.

 Ada Harris is standing for no nonsense: she has the money and she is determined. After many misunderstandings, many unusual encounters, and with the help of a distinguished elderly gentleman (who has fond memories of the charlady who brightened his life in his gloomy college room when he studied at an English university) she attends a salon presentation of the latest ‘collection’, and sees the dress she wants to buy.

Nothing is simple, but her unabashed friendliness, her concern for others and her naivety mean that she ends up spending a week sightseeing in Paris, aids one of her new-found friends in his love life, helps to solve Mme Colbert’s unhappiness, and attends fittings for her dress. Finally, she manages to smuggle the dress through British customs without having to pay duty (for which she has no money) by dispensing with the elegant Dior dress box, carrying her treasure in her ‘large well-worn plastic suitcase’, and telling the truth to the customs official:

The customs man grinned. This was a new one on him. The British char abroad. The mop and broom business must be good, he reflected … It was not the first time he had encountered the London char’s sense of humour.

There are still a few more adventures associated with the dress, and Mrs Harris is a changed woman.

For it had not been a dress she had bought so much as an adventure and an experience that would last her to the end of her days. She would never again feel lonely, or unwanted. She had ventured into a foreign country and a foreign people whom she had been taught to suspect and despise. Had found them to be warm and human, men and women for whom human love and understanding was a mainspring of life.

As a novella, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris shows its age and has, at times, outdated and clichéd opinions about class and foreign cultures, but it is an unusual story with a spirited, humorous and likeable heroine. As a film, her tour of Paris will provide an exotic, colourful setting, there are gorgeous dresses, beautiful models, a love interest, and enough glamour and adventure and fun to suggest that the result will be lighthearted and enjoyable.

Mrs Harris Goes to New York, in which Ada Harris and Violet Butterfield become the unlikely kidnappers of the young lad they hear being abused by his foster parents in the house next door to their London flats, has the same attractions. Instead of a flight to Paris, there is an eventful voyage to New York aboard the Ville de Paris, a tour of New York and other parts of America, and Mrs H’s adventures as she tries to track down the vanished father of ‘young ’Enry’, certain that he will welcome his lost son with open arms.

Paul Gallico eventually wrote two more stories about Mrs Harris, both of which suggest that she was never one to sit back in London, however homesick she might have become for it when she and Mrs Butterfield were living in New York. Mrs Harris MP (1965) and Mrs Harris Goes to Moscow (1974) are both still in print and attest to her continuing popularity.

Paul Gallico Mrs Harris Goes to Paris / Mrs Harris Goes to New York Bloomsbury PB 320pp $19.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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