Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
I read that Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was set in a small village in England, and I didn’t read any further before getting the book. I’m a huge fan of Cranford and Grantchester and so many lovely small-village stories that the BBC is so good at producing. And Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand does not disappoint. There is all the insularity and peculiarity of living in close quarters with a few families. Everyone is in everyone else’s business and gossips about whoever is not there. Bossy women run the social life of the village. Old spinsters run the gardening clubs and book clubs. Middle-aged men play golf. But then, then comes this Pakistani-British family in the midst of all this country whiteness. They’re “othered” and treated as foreigners even though the couple were both born in England, and they forever disturb the homogeneous harmony of the village.
Our story begins after a few years have passed since the death of Major Ernest Pettigrew’s wife and Mrs. Jasmina Ali’s husband, because our story is very much a story of a romance between completely, on the surface, different people. She’s Muslim, from the North of England, lower middle class, runs a shop. He’s the offspring of a British Empire officer, retired major of the army, comfortably middle class, occupying a genteel place in Edgecombe St. Mary society. And yet, they share a love of Kipling, poetry, long walks, have had spouses who’ve passed away, and speak English and Urdu. She’s Pakistani-British born in England; he’s Caucasian-British born in Lahore, Pakistan. For two seemingly different classes of people, they’re drawn together by their common interests and mutual attraction. Let’s not mistake this. They may be in their late 50s or even early 60s, but there’s definitely a strong attraction there—this is not a relationship of companionship.
One of their earliest conversations is about their spouses and how much they miss them. What an implausible beginning to a romance! But it isn’t. It brings them on a common footing erasing their differences. Mutual sympathy and empathy is a good place to start a romance.
But their path to love is not a smooth one. They clash over their heritages: her Pakistani one and his British Raj one.
“I used to consider myself a bit of a Kipling enthusiast,” said the Major. “I’m afraid he’s rather an unfashionable choice these days, isn’t he?” “You mean not popular among us, the angry former natives?” she asked with an arch of one eyebrow. “No, of course not…” said the Major, not feeling equipped to respond to such a direct remark. His brain churned. He squinted ahead and prayed the conversation might wither from inattention.
Mrs. Ali is not a faceless, minor character though by no means does she stride to the forefront of the reader’s imagination. As the title of the book suggests, it’s very much the Major’s story. While the Major struggles with how his growing relationship with Mrs. Ali is affecting his place in village society, Mrs. Ali struggles with familial and cultural obligations versus independence and freedom of choice.
“My wonderful Ahmed broke with family tradition,” she said, “to make sure the shop came to me. However, there are certain debts to be paid. And then again, what is the rule of law against the weight of family opinions?”
What I really enjoyed about this story is the gentleness and courtliness they show towards each other. These two ingredients are not very common in romance novels these days, and I miss them. Mutual respect, an immersion in the other’s concerns, and a dawning affection are beautiful to watch as they unfold across the pages. Even when the Major and Mrs. Ali come together in love in their cabin fling (fade to black), this progression of their attitudes towards each other is ever-present. In the unbearable sexual tension leading up to them making love and in the joyful silliness of the morning after, they don’t lose that tenderness.
The other thing I really enjoyed about this story is the Major’s acidic ripostes. They come out of the blue and had me in gusts of laughter.
“We’ve only looked at a few places,” said Roger. “But this area is our priority.” “I admit it’s more convenient than the Norfolk Broads or the Cotswolds,” said Sandy. “And of course for Roger you’re the big attraction.” “An attraction?” said the Major. “If I’m to outrank Norfolk, perhaps I’d better start offering cream teas in the garden.”
“On what philosophical basis does that idea rest?” asked the Major. “Oh, it’s simply pragmatism, Dad,” said Roger. It’s called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?” “On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?” suggested the Major.
However, the Major’s propensity for biting observations on other people and events can come across as mean-spirited when you don’t know him. No one is spared the lash of his tongue or his thoughts. As I read him, and got to know him better, I developed a tolerance for his short views on anyone and everyone, save Mrs. Ali. She is the only inviolable one not subjected to his attacks. His prickly relationship with his son is a real downer. I disliked him for it, while it is true to character.
The Major wondered whether it was possible he had been too strict with Roger as a child and thereby inspired his son to such excesses. “Roger really has an eye for design,” said Sandy. “He could be a decorator.” Roger blushed. “Really?” said the Major. “That’s quite an accusation.”
The characterization in this story of the Major is so rich, so detailed, and develops so casually that before you know it, he’s a solid complex person. My feelings for him underwent several changes in the course of the story, not unlike what I would feel for a real living person. While I found the Major rip-roaringly funny in parts, I would not befriend him. He’s too aloof, too superior, too British-Raj Army, too stuck in mid-20th-century mores.
People said he was from London, which they mentioned with a twist of the lips as if London were the back alleys of Calcutta [India] or some notorious penal colony, like Australia. (Mid-20th-century is too generous, the Regency is more like it.)
But I don’t have to be enamored of the protagonist in order to enjoy the book. What kept me reading was the romance. I was curious to find out how this man would resolve his relationship with someone so different from him. What would he need to give up and how would he need to change in order to be able to give happiness and receive it as well. And by the end of the book, I was satisfied that he had indeed fulfilled his destiny.