The thing about the British is that they are so good at expressing certain sentiments without overtly uttering the exact words. For instance, the British would never call someone an idiot; rather, they would say something along the lines of, “Well, he’s a rather interesting fellow, now, isn’t he?” And you would know exactly what they meant, and yet, they retain that plausible deniability that they would never be so crass so to speak ill of another person in passing. What an amazing skill! I completely lack it. I tend to blurt out whatever is on my mind, completely uncensored.
This saying-without-saying is in part why I loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. A quintessentially British novel, written by an expatriate Brit living in America, the star characters in the novel practice this expressive restraint quite well, sometimes too well. The characters that do not manage to finesse their speech are boorish and obtuse, at least in the judgment of the impeccable Major Pettigrew.
As a main character, Major Pettigrew is a study in contrasts. An older widower living in his ancestral home in the English countryside, he is of the old guard. The Major (don’t call him Ernest, or Mr. Pettigrew; that is a grievous insult) was born in Pakistan during the height of British colonial rule, and eventually joined the military and served honorably, just as his father did. He pines for bygone days of British supremacy, simpler times, perfect manners, rigid order, and class structure. He is a master at the expressive restraint that I admire so much. We learn from his internal monologue that he has a strong opinion, often negative, about many of his compatriots and relatives, but any insults he hurls their way are so oblique that the subject usually misses it completely.
And yet, despite this old-fashioned British rigidity, the Major is a complicated, nuanced person. He finds himself falling in love with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani woman who runs a convenience store in town. They share a love of beauty, literature, culture and decorum. This relationship, of course, is frowned upon by the Major’s acquaintances, mainly members of his country club. They all profess to be open-minded and without bias, but they view Mrs. Ali as an interloper in their quiet, white world of golf, gardening and duck hunting. Their simmering, unwarranted resentment of Mrs. Ali and other Pakistanis eventually cannot be contained by that famous British restraint, forcing Major Pettigrew to decide between love and tradition.
Though the love story between Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali is the highlight of the novel, the book is chock full of interesting characters and subplots. Frankly, this would be the perfect book for an English teacher to assign to his/her class, because it is so full of material for students to mine for papers. For instance, an entire master’s thesis could be devoted to the symbolism of Major Pettigrew’s Churchill guns. Without going into the entire history of the guns, they represent the Major’s ties to the past (his father having received them as a gift from the Maharajah). His inordinate attachment to the guns almost causes the Major’s downfall.
Another entire paper could be devoted to a comparison and contrast of the love relationships in the novel. I would compare Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali’s mature relationship with that of Roger and Sandy, and of Amina and Abdul Wahid. Roger, Major Pettigrew’s impetuous son, and Sandy, an ostentatious American, represent a “modern” relationship that pays no mind to old-fashioned notions like love and romance in preference to status and money (to disastrous results); and Amina and Abdul Wahid represent a relationship complicated by cultural constraints and family (to disastrous results). Only the Major and Mrs. Ali are able to successfully navigate cross-cultural and cross-class complications and meld the best of old-fashioned virtue with modern sensibilities.
And there’s so much more….the treatment of other cultures (Pakistani, American) by the British would make a fine topic, particularly the country club dance scene. I’d also write on the impending destruction of the pastoral British countryside by Lord Dagenham, and the Major’s complicated reaction to the Lord’s plans, which makes a great illustration the slow encroachment of crass modernity on old British values. The constraints placed on the women in the book would make another excellent study. One could examine and compare Mrs. Ali, of course, and her relative freedom as a widow and a shopkeeper, which she sacrifices in an attempt to help others; Amina, a free-spirited Pakistani single mother who suffers under the severe dictates of her culture and yet manages, better than most characters, to be true to herself while doing right by her young son; and Sandy, Roger’s American beau, who has more freedom than most women in this novel, but eventually finds that she may pay an emotional price for her stubborn independence.
Alright, I’m going to stop providing fodder for students here; but truly, there’s a lot going on in this novel, and it is all done very well, and with that perfect British constraint. It is interesting to watch how facile one must be with language in order to say a lot while only using a few words. Simonson successfully employs this skill in order to navigate Britain’s colonial past in a sensitive way. She manages to celebrate the positives of a bygone culture while rejecting the ugliness of its rigidity and biases. Yet, we do learn that this skill is fading fast in British culture. Roger is a perfect example: his undisguised ambition and status grubbing comes across as very young, modern and unrefined (despite his love of foie gras and designer duds). Though we may cringe at Roger’s antics, I don’t think this new transparency is all bad, if not as genteel. After all, we always know what Roger wants. Major Pettigrew’s reserve often keeps him from communicating his own desires even to himself, and most importantly, to Mrs. Ali, who he very nearly loses. Perhaps the trick is figuring out when to employ restraint, and when to pour your heart out. When I figure this out, I’ll let you know, but Major Pettigrew would probably agree that you should certainly speak your mind when it comes to matters of the heart.