I first encountered this work via the 2022 film adaptation featuring the marvelous Lesley Manville (PHANTOM THREAD) and while that adaptation is exceptional, I only want to focus on the novel and what it means.
Paul Gallico’s novel MRS. ‘ARRIS GOES TO PARIS (‘ARRIS from here on out) is about wants and needs, but most importantly? It’s about anchors and goals and the lengths others will go to selflessly assist one in realizing them.
To summarize: widow Ada Harris is a London charwoman (essentially a housecleaner) who sees a Dior dress and becomes utterly and completely infatuated with having one of her own. She scrimps and saves for years, and when she finally has what she feels is enough money, she flies to Paris to acquire her fixation. (I won’t spoil the rest, but it’s an amazingly endearing and warm tale.)
I’ve never been someone who has been well-off. There have been points in my life where I was dead broke. Rent went unpaid and excuses were made. Despite the fact that my wife is ensconced in fashion, and despite the fact that I try to pull off looks, I’ve always been reluctant to spend much on presentational matters. If you have been broke, you know the feeling; it’s a fear, a fear of over-spending, a fear of losing not just comfort but a fucking roof over your head, a fear that you aren’t worth extra expenditures. I’d say it’s financial hoarding but let’s face it: you can never have enough money.
Consequently, when I first saw the film adaptation, I admired its warmth and compassion and understanding exactly what garments mean to people. (My wife has crafted more than a few wedding dresses and I was often tasked to take photos, so I’ve seen how folks glow when they feel they look their best.)
The novel does a better job at drawing out just how much of a struggle Mrs. ‘Arris goes through to get a Dior dress. It’s far more protracted, far more strained, the act of saving becoming a similarly unsatisfying routine effort as her charwoman work. Consequently, the payoff as to when she hits her financial goal hits harder than it does in the recent film. (I’ll note that there is a prior adaptation which features Angela Lansbury, although I have yet to see it, but that’s some amazing casting right there.)
I’ve never felt justified to spend that much on my own presentation until relatively recently. I’ve said many times that I will never, ever shut up about Harley Fuckin’ Quinn. In a prior post I touched on the fact that I would get a tattoo that would somewhat recreate her wraparound band, a band that very infrequently appears in the texts and the BIRDS OF PREY film because I have my reasons.
It took a bit of time but when it suddenly snapped into focus as to how and why Harley is who Harley is and what the character — her abuse and trauma and recovery — means to me, I knew I wanted that argyle pattern in my skin. I know it’s dumb. It’s super dumb. However, once you realize what you want to look like and why you want it, you can’t shake it off. If you don’t see it through you will always hate yourself.
Like Mrs. ‘Arris, I was absolutely, completely fixated. I latched onto the idea like a lamprey. Like Mrs. ‘Arris, I scrimped and saved because large tattoos are not cheap. Also, you do not want to get a bad tattoo artist, and good ones are hard to find and are worth every penny. (I lucked out and got an absolutely amazing one thanks to the recommendation of a friend.)
My tattoo took a few sessions and even for what I paid, I feel like it should have cost more. (Also: fucking tip your tattoo artist, even if they’re the owner of the outfit.) I’m still amazed that I actually went through with it, but now I can’t imagine myself without it.
After the final session, I was all wobbly and discombobulated, but still managed to endlessly thank the artist for his work and patience and graciousness. I know it was just a job for him, but it meant the fucking world to me, just like Mrs. ‘Arris sitting in on a Dior showing.
What’s great about ‘ARRIS is that it recognizes all of this internal desire in the most gracious, most welcoming ways. Fashion and general presentation — including hair and tattoos — are how we show ourselves to the world. They speak for ourselves before we can speak. When you find what and how you want to look, when you find a visual identity before you can acquire it, you will sacrifice so very much to attain it. We all want to be seen for how we see the best of ourselves.
Thankfully, ‘ARRIS’s world is a benevolent world, one that understands that need, even for those who are considered lesser folks because of their class or stature or looks.
It is worth noting that the ultimate message of ‘ARRIS is absolutely none of the above, but to say why would spoil matters. However, her journey up until the end is something that I think would wildly resonate for anyone.
It is a magical novel, one that encapsulates the wonders of the world and the potential grace of humanity.