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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

This is not the kind of book I would normally read or review on this blog. The cover says quite a lot about its genre, and mostly I think it is signalling mature women’s chicklit (which I have tongue-in-cheek referred to as ‘henlit’ before now). But I like mixing up my reading: a bit of non-fiction and some lighter stuff among the general diet of literary fiction.

I enjoyed much of this book: there’s a hilarious golf club celebration, the ineptness of people consoling a bereaved man with an illustrated tin of assorted biscuits, a shooting party that encounters children who have escaped from a school bus for a pee, and other humorous observations on everyday life.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

The story is set in a pretty village in Sussex in the present day. The village is largely untouched by the twenty-first century, and many of the inhabitants are retirees of some means. One reflection of our changing population is that the village shop is run by a couple from a Pakistani background. When Mr Ali died his wife continued to manage the shop, and has recently been joined by her nephew, who is rather surly and resentful. Helen Simonson nicely captures the patronising views of the villagers, especially as Mr and Mrs Ali were born in the North of England.

The upper echelons of the village, led by the ladies of the various village committees, compensated for the rudeness of the lower by developing a widely advertised respect for Mr and Mrs Ali. The Major had heard many a lady speak proudly of ‘our dear Pakistani friends at the shop’ as proof that Edgecombe St Mary was a utopia of multicultural understanding. (5)

Like Mrs Ali, Major Pettigrew has been widowed, but the story begins when his brother dies, and he finds it hard to drive to the funeral, so Mrs Ali offers him a lift. He is concerned about one of a pair of special guns that he believes his father intended to be reunited when the first of his two sons died. Major Pettigrew is rather keen on family traditions, and has great pride in his father’s achievements. He followed him into the army.

The villagers pay consolation visits to the Major, and we see the concerns of the ladies (not a word I use often, but they would describe themselves that way). In contrast Mrs Ali, finding the Major in some difficulties provides practical assistance. He appreciates her kindness and finds himself drawn to her. Her kindness is in sharp contrast to the attitude of his son, Roger, who seems unable to think of anyone but himself and nearly misses the funeral.

The story amiably ambles through the brother’s funeral, the son’s attempts to capitalise on the rather special guns, a shoot with a fading Duke and a predatory American property developer, and a disastrous themed Christmas dance at the golf club. Many assumptions and prejudices are challenged in the course of all this: especially about race and age, but also gender. The Major is involved in these events, inwardly critical but outwardly compliant.

The Major is an interestingly conceived character. He is constantly affronted by people who are selfish and inconsiderate, and there are many in Edgecombe. The Major is also quite stuffy, unwilling to break the social barriers that support community and quite pompous about people who do, but sceptical about those that create and promote barriers, especially of age, gender and ethnicity. 

I found him a little unrounded; he followed his father into the army, and we are told that when he left he spent time teaching in a boys’ private school but was happy to leave it. He had tried to impart his love of English literature to them. We do not find out how he earned his living in his later years, before retirement. He is 68 years old and Mrs Ali not yet 60. They share a love of Kipling.

He is an affable man, thinking or saying under his breath his ripostes to the clunky statements of his neighbours, or the patronising attitude of his solicitor. He is capable of generosity, providing Mrs Ali’s nephew with accommodation when he needed it. Abdul Wahid had fallen foul of his family and was considering a strict form of Islam.

All this was rather thin. In particular I had to suspend my critical historian’s eye over the re-enactment of the events that led to the Major’s father being awarded the pair of guns by a Maharajah. It happened, the re-enactment, at the end of the golf club party in which every patronising nod towards the Indian sub-continent had been rehearsed by the upper echelons of Edgecombe society. It is Mrs Ali who points out that although the Major’s father might have shown extreme bravery in protecting the Maharajah’s daughter against a violent mob that ambushed the train, the process of Partition was blighted by many massacres, especially of passengers on trains as Hindus fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. The real story, no comedic aspects here, was the bloodiness as the British rule in India came to an end. Not the heroism of the Major’s father.

I enjoyed reading it, but some of it seemed a little schematic and designed as a slight provocation to those who haven’t yet cottoned on to what it means to be woke.

Selected by the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2011

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, published in 2010 by Bloomsbury. 388pp

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