Paul Gallico's best-selling novel Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris was first published on November 20, 1958. Its popularity was not instantaneous, but rather built gradually over a span of several months. Ultimately, t
he novel placed ninth on the annual bestsellers list for fiction in 1959. Part of the novel's wide appeal stemmed from Gallico's past achievements as a novelist. Though rarely critically acclaimed, his 41 novels enjoyed considerable commercial success.
Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris spent a combined total of 61 weeks on the "New York Times" and "Publisher's Weekly" bestsellers lists in 1959 (Justice, 121). Other reasons for the book's popularity include its storybook quality, genuinely likable characters,
and the ability to impart a moral lesson of universal import. Gallico's novel touches on major issues including class and gender relations and the benevolent spirit of humanity that unites us all. Its protagonist stresses the unimportance of materialis
m and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Finally, it heartens readers with the simple, optimistic message that anything is possible if one dares to dream.
Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris centers on Ada Harris, a London charwoman who dreams of one day owning a Christian Dior gown. After spying one in the wardrobe of a wealthy employer, Mrs. Harris pronounces it her life's goal to own a genuine Dior creation from
Paris. Gallico then whisks readers over three years of scrimping and saving, wishing and hoping. Mrs. Harris' good luck is balanced by continued hardships as she tries to save enough money to reach her goal. Through it all, the persistence of her dream
never wavers. Finally, Mrs. Harris makes her journey across the English Channel to pursue her fantasy gown. Her ability to touch the lives of everyone she meets on her whirlwind trip to Paris makes for a sweet, sentimental narrative. The optimistic me
ssage of the novel consistently shines through?no dream is ever impossible if one truly believes in it and works hard to make it come true. Gallico also imparts additional lessons within his novel. He tries to impress upon readers that, after all is sai
d and done, the ability to touch the lives of others, while being kind and selfless, is what matters most in life. Contemporary audiences were used to such sentimentality from Gallico, who in the past had published such heart-tugging works as The Snow Go
ose (1941) and Thomasina (1957). After first gaining respectability as a sportswriter in the 1920s and 30s, Gallico had long since established a reputation as a talented, prolific fiction writer and remarkable storyteller. Audiences came to desire and e
xpect his novels to be both entertaining and infused with sentimental values and qualities.
Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris was published in the United States before the social and political upheaval brought on by the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, President Kennedy's assassination, and the Vietnam War. People saw the late fifties as a
time of innocence and prosperity in America. Thus, it seems fitting that Mrs. ?Arris was so well received at the time by both critics and the reading public. The light-hearted, whimsical subject matter seems to fit right in with a society reflected in
contemporary television programs such as Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, and Father Knows Best. Gallico's novel employs a slightly heightened sense of reality to portray an ordinary life turned extraordinary?a world where each conflict is quickly and easi
ly resolved and even a seeming tragedy can be looked at in a positive light. Though the book takes place in Europe, the idealism of 1950s U.S. society is apparent in Gallico's novel.
Critical reviews for Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris were overwhelmingly positive. Reviewers praised the novel mainly for its charming fairy tale qualities, bittersweet ending, and moral lessons. Gallico was never accused of being preachy, despite the social
commentary which runs subtly throughout his story. The novel was short in length, illustrated, and written in deliberately simple prose, so as to make it more easily accessible to the widest variety of readers. Yet, in reading the novel, one may notice
Gallico's none-too-subtle tendency to feminize Mrs. Harris' dream. The focus is not merely on her seemingly impossible goal to obtain a Christian Dior gown. Rather, the coveted object itself is presented as the embodiment of every woman's dream. Librar
y Journal summed up this point in a review, calling Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris "a delightful bouquet of dreams and realities for all women and girls who have ever wished for something special" (12/15/58). The novel beckons to its female audience and foste
rs feelings of empathy from its women readers towards the novel's several female characters (most particularly the heroine).
Upon publication of Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris, in the late 1950s, women were generally considered second class citizens in American society. A good percentage of women worked, receiving lower wages than men in comparable employment positions. Additional
ly, women were faced with a beleaguering second shift of housework and child rearing at a time when the family was considered the most important component in society. Women were forced to live up to an impossibly high standard, set by a predominately whi
te, middle class society. Countless women readers in 1959 could potentially identify with the horny-handed, working class Mrs. Harris. Her trip to Paris in pursuit of a Dior gown represents not only a common woman chasing a lofty dream, but also a form
of escape from the monotony of her daily life as a charwoman. Although Gallico purports that Mrs. Harris enjoys cleaning house for her clientele, he also appeals to female readers' collective desire for something more out of life. Upon first seeing a Di
or gown, Mrs. Harris is overtaken by a desire for "feminine physical possession" of "this one glorious bit of feminine finery" (Gallico, 28). Gallico suggests that Mrs. Harris' feminine instincts and desires are the main driving force behind her journey
to Paris. He claims that "deep-rooted feminine yearning" is responsible for Mrs. Harris' tenacity in ultimately fulfilling her desire (61). After all, asserts Gallico, "buying a Paris dress was surely the most wonderful thing that could happen to a woma
n" (97). Mrs. Harris' trip to Paris for this purpose represents a form of escapism. Escapism is a common device often exploited in bestsellers. This can be seen today in the popular market of romance novels, which are usually intended to achieve the sa
me effect of escapism with readers.
Besides gender issues, social class and its implications on individual lives is a significant theme throughout the book. With his working class heroine, Gallico obviously appeals to such members of society who, like Mrs. Harris, live "a life of never end
ing drudgery" (Gallico, 12) and yet are able to do well for themselves with what little opportunity they have. Additionally, Gallico's novel features the character Mademoiselle Petitpierre, a Dior model flung unwittingly into the uppercrust world of weal
th, pretension and high fashion. Through Mlle. Petitpierre, Gallico extols the virtues of middle class society and chides the snobbery of the wealthy. (It is ironic to note that Gallico himself was extremely wealthy and residing in Monte Carlo, Monaco c
oncurrently with the publication of the novel.) Gallico presents Mlle. Petitpierre as a young woman with simple tastes and modest desires: "What she desired more than anything else was somehow to be able to rejoin the middle class from which she had temp
orarily escaped, marry someone for love, some good, simple man, who was not too beautiful or clever, settle down in a comfortable bourgeois home and produce a great many little bourgeois offspring" (78-9). One of the most poignant scenes in the novel occ
urs when Mlle. Petitpierre willingly helps Mrs. Harris clean a house, and a deep bond is formed between the two very different women. In her marriage to Monsieur Fauvel, a young auditor, at the end of the novel, Mlle. Petitpierre stands as a paragon of m
iddle class virtue?a character to whom many of Gallico's readers could undoubtedly relate.
Mrs. Harris herself is a character especially easy to love. Gallico's characterization of the heroine is almost a caricature of sorts. It is hard to imagine a woman who has endured so much hardship (widowhood, hours of toil at work, low pay) as being so
generous, open-hearted and endearing to everyone she meets. Yet, Mrs. Harris possesses all of these qualities and more. She is sassy, gregarious and perpetually positive, always quick to see the bright side of any situation. Mrs. Harris is a woman tha
t readers can genuinely care for?a character for whom it is easy to develop strong feelings. The Cockney-accented charwoman became a beloved Gallico staple following in the successful wake of Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris. The novel was followed by three se
quels, written by Gallico over the ensuing sixteen years.
The bittersweet, yet ultimately happy ending of the novel teaches a moral lesson about the more important aspects of life. Mrs. Harris' beloved Dior dress is damaged in a fire, but rather than getting upset over her personal tragedy, she puts it into per
spective by instead remembering how many lives she touched in Paris and how many dear friends she made during her journey there. As the novel concludes, she reflects fondly upon "the city that had bestowed upon her such a priceless memory treasure of und
erstanding, friendship and humanity" (Gallico, 157). Mrs. Harris has a magical quality about her that, while overly sentimental and not very realistic, is nonetheless irresistible to readers. The notion that one aging charwoman could be single-handedly
responsible for bringing a young couple together in love, while unwittingly saving not one, but two careers in the course of a week may seem preposterous to more cynical readers. Yet, Gallico's novel obviously struck a chord with fans and critics alike.
Many critics were quick to point out the obviously unrealistic plot, but admittedly overlooked the more implausible elements of the story when reviewing it. Their emphatic response helped Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris to sell strongly, particularly in its f
irst year of release. By the end of August, 1959, just nine months after its initial publication, it had sold over 70,000 copies at the reasonable price of $2.50 each (Publisher's Weekly, 8/31/59). It was eventually translated into several foreign langu
ages, including French, Swedish and German. The book is still currently in print as of 1999, a testament to its lasting popularity and universal appeal.
The escapism offered by Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris and its delightful departure from reality seem an anomaly when the novel is contrasted with other bestsellers of the same year. Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris shared the annual bestsellers list with books by s
uch well known authors as James Michener (Hawaii), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley's Lover). The latter two of these four novels stand in particularly stark contrast to the wholesome, uplift
ing themes presented by Gallico in Mrs. ?Arris. Both Lolita and Lady Chatterley's Lover were quite controversial when first published, and their places on the annual list can be at least partly traced to that controversy. The opposite is true for Mrs. ?
Arris Goes to Paris. Though it touched on issues construed with gender, class, and human relations, it caused anything but controversy. Rather, it gained popularity because of its lack of controversy and its mass appeal to all ages.
Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris was made into a TV movie in 1992, nearly 35 years after its first publication. Though the movie was seen as dated, unrealistic and almost cloying in its sentimentality, it was nevertheless enjoyed by many viewers as a welcome br
eak from the harsh realism of more modern story lines. The movie's lack of sex and violence set it apart from others by making Gallico's story appear more of a fairy tale than a simple work of fiction. The simplicity is precisely what makes it so unique
in today's society. The novel's reputation has remained notably constant over the years. It was, and still is, widely considered by readers and critics as a "heartwarming, engaging novelette" (Bookmark, 12/58). The public's reception of Gallico's work
, like Mrs. Harris' determination to have her Dior gown, appears constant and unwavering and is guaranteed to last.
Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris is one of the most popular of Paul Gallico's 41 novels, even today. Its lasting popularity, in spite of the fact that it was published over forty years ago, can be accounted for in several ways that we have seen. The simplicity
, universal appeal of themes and positive moral lessons that can be gleaned from the novel are still as applicable in modern society as they were when it was first published. The characters are easy for readers to relate to, even though the situations in
which they find themselves tend to reflect a heightened sense of reality rather than a completely realistic one. Overall, Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris is a pure, happy story that is able to transcend time and place, to the delight of readers everywhere.
Gallico. Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris. New York: International Polygonics, Ltd., 1989.
Justice. Bestseller Index.
Library Journal (12/15/58).
Publisher's Weekly (8/31/59).