When I was in high school I was fortunate to have an English teacher who was someone more interesting than many of my other teachers, and who wanted to instill in us a curiosity and interest in literature, as well as the ability to write cogently and think clearly. She was always perfectly and stylishly dressed in expensive suits with matching blouses. She had an astounding collection of hats, and a parasol for every outfit. She would often berate us for not wearing the ‘proper foundation garments’ as we huddled around the heaters in the winter time. As a teacher, she was idiosyncratic, creative and demanding, and it was always a thrill to get a good mark from her for an essay or exam.
We studied works that were not the usual for the time. Where my friends from other schools studied Macbeth or Hamlet, we studied The Tempest. We read Fire on the Snow, a radio play about Scott of the Antarctic, and Bolt’s A man for all seasons. We even studied repression, control and intimate partner violence in John Galsworthy’s A man of Property, remarkable for the curriculum in a conservative girls boarding school in the late 1970s. And in our junior year we studied a slim novella by Paul Gallico, Flowers for Mrs. Harris. I loved this book, and when my daughter found my copy on our bookshelves, one day when she was hunting around for something new to read, she also loved it.
The story is set in the 1950s and is centred around Mrs. Ada Harris, a London charwoman, who is enchanted by her employer’s couture wardrobe. She is determined to go to the House of Dior in Paris and buy an evening gown of her own. She achieves this goal, through hard work and a little good luck, and despite a number of setbacks and disappointments. The kindness of strangers she meets on her journey, who she charms with her down to earth personality and her dream of owning a beautiful dress, is a recurring motif. It’s charming, funny, at times poignant, and even sad, but her indomitable character wins through.
“The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, greying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount on the morning flight from London to Paris. As, with a rush and a roar, it lifted itself from the runway, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay her heart’s desire.”
So, when in Paris we had to go to the original House of Dior. 30, Avenue Montaigne is the address where Dior established his fashion house in 1947, and it was this building that was the setting of Flowers for Mrs. Harris. We didn’t need to go inside, we just stood outside to pay homage to the book we love, the dreams we hold, and the power of grace and kindness.