I’ve read Flowers for Mrs Harris (or Mrs Harris Goes to Paris) by Paul Gallico several times, and I’ve also seen the movie, which starred Angela Lansbury.
The story is corny and the romance between two of the characters (not Mrs Harris, thank goodness) is almost cringe-worthy at times but I still really, really like this story.
The story is set in London during the 1950’s. Mrs Harris (or ‘Arris, as she would say) is a hard working char lady, whose clients range from eligible bachelors and society women to actresses. While cleaning for Lady Dant, Mrs Harris opened a wardrobe and saw two Dior dresses. Lady Dant shows them off to Mrs Harris and told her the dresses cost 450 pounds. Mrs Harris, who is somewhere between middle and old age, is completely enamoured of these beautiful dresses and decides then and there, that somehow, she will buy a Dior dress of her own. It does not matter to her at all that she is unlikely to wear the dress, or that the cost is far more than she can afford. (This is the part where the book wins me over. I would probably sell a child to own a vintage Dior dress, even if it was a dress I could never wear).
Soon after determining to buy a Dior dress for herself, Mrs Harris wins just over 100 pounds in the football pools. The win sets Mrs Harris on her path to save the money for her dress. She has several ups and downs while she is saving, including attempting to win the remainder of the money she wins on the dogs.
Several years later, Mrs Harris has scrimped and saved the required 450 pounds, plus enough for her fare to Paris. Having bought a new hat for the occasion, she obtains her passport and flys off to Paris. This may not sound very exciting now, but believe me, at the time this book is set, a trip like this was a very unlikely, enormous and costly adventure for anyone to take, except for the Lady Dants of the world.
Not surprisingly, The House of Dior does not at first welcome Mrs Harris, whose appearance and manners clearly identify her as a cleaning lady. Mme Coulbert, Dior’s manageress, coldly advises her that there are no places available for any viewings of the collection for weeks. When Mrs Harris pleads with Mme, Mme recognises that Mrs Harris has set her heart on a Dior dress, and finds a spot on the stairs for her to watch the show. At the last moment, Mme seats Mrs Harris in the front row with the richest and most elegant women in the world.
Mrs Harris loses her heart to a dress named Temptation, a floor length black velvet gown with a cream, pink and white top. The dress is modelled by Dior’s top model, the beautiful Natasha.
Mme is disappointed that Mrs Harris has chosen Temptation, which was designed for young, beautiful women, but Mrs Harris tries on the dress regardless, which fits her. Mrs Harris had expected to return to London that afternoon with her dress, and was horribly disappointed to learn that the dress would have to be made for her over several weeks.
Dior’s accountant, M Fauvel, and Natasha, come to Mrs Harris’s rescue, offering her accommodation with M Fauvel. He is in love with Natasha, who had no idea he existed, although she is tired of social engagements with counts, dukes and politicians. Natasha is desperate to return to fall in love, have babies and return to her middle class background (huh???)
Over the next week, Natasha and M Fauvel spend time together with Mrs Harris, who engineers their engagement, as well as helping Mme Coulbert’s husband in his career.
Once the dress is made, Mrs Harris returns to London, where she impulsively loans the dress to one of her clients, a young actress, who ruins the dress.
The ending of the story is disappointing, because of the harm done to Mrs Harris’s heart and property, but doesn’t prevent this book from being a feel-good novel. I believe there are other books by Paul Gallico with Mrs Harris going to New York and Moscow, but I haven’t read them.
Flowers for Mrs Harris is full of morals and lessons and is very often twee, but it is still a charming read.