Monday 20 February 2012

A batty but beautiful story

Don’t you just love it when a novel someone has recommended lives up to expectations? ‘Miss Hargreaves’, by Frank Baker, was wonderful. It’s right up there with ‘Parnassus on Wheels’ (Christopher Morley) as one of my unexpected gems. I spotted it whilst browsing in the library (I’d only popped in to take a book back and collect an ‘order’) but I can never resist scanning the shelves. Anyway, when I saw this I thought: “Aha, Simon, at Stuck in a Book, raves about Miss Hargreaves, and usually I like the books he admires, so I shall read it.” And I’m very glad I did, because it's a joy from beginning to end.

 Miss Hargreaves (pronounced Hargrayves) is one of the most incredible creations you are likely to meet in any novel – and I use the word creation quite deliberately. For the narrator, Norman Huntley, is blessed, as he himself admits, with a fertile imagination, and he invents the elderly and eccentric Miss Connie Hargreaves while looking at a particularly bleak Irish church. Fearing a careless remark gives the impression he knew a former vicar, he tells the sexton he knows someone who knew the late cleric. On the spur of the moment he plucks a name out of thin air and invents a history and character to go with it, aided and abetted by his friend Henry Beddow, who embellishes the story with further details. Norman has already admitted to previous problems brought about by similar inventive tales, so we have been warned. And there is a shivery moment when: 

"It seemed to me there was a sort of stirring of air in the church, like – like what? Rather like someone opening a very old umbrella. I looked round sharply, but couldn’t see anything unusual. A ray of feeble sun had broken through the dark clouds and was shining down on the dust in the galleries. I realised I was trembling. Sweating too. No doubt about it. I was precariously poised on the Spur of the Moment. Father’s ancient warning came back to me. No good now, when you’re on the Spur you can’t go back. I wiped my brow with my handkerchief and smiled at the sexton. I knew I was powerless to move except in one direction."

Author Frank Baker wrote
Miss Hargreaves in 1939
 He becomes obsessed with his creation – who, he claims, writes poetry and travels everywhere with a bath given to her by Rev Archer when they were both Cambridge students. He even sends a letter to the Hereford hotel where he claims she is staying, inviting her to visit his family. Back home in the Thames-side cathedral town of Cornford a mysterious book of poetry (Wayside Bundle) surfaces in his father’s bookshop. It is written by Constance Hargreaves ...

Then Norman receives a letter from the lady. Then she arrives, alighting from the train accompanied by a dog on a purple lead and cockatoo. In addition there’s her bath, two trunks, assorted bags and a harp. As Norman says, I’d better try to try to describe her to you.  

"She was very small, very slight, with a perky, innocent little face and speedwell-blue eyes. Perched on top, right on top, of a hillock of snowy white hair: buttressed behind by a large fan-comb, studded by sequins and masted by long black pins, lay a speckled straw hat. Over a pale pink blouse with a high neck and lace cuffs, she was wearing a heathery tweed jacket; a skirt to match. Round her neck was a silver fur. Resting on one stick, she was holding the other, and the umbrella was on her arm; they were black ebony sticks, with curved Malacca handles."

Norman is proud of himself. He can’t help it. She is perfect. But those black sticks seem faintly menacing, and he is aware there may be trouble ahead – as there is.  Miss Hargreaves may say she abominates fuss, but she’s very autocratic and very unreasonable.  Who else would demand another bed in her room for the dog to sleep on? Or order Norman to buy all the hotel’s vases and smash them, because they offend her sense of beauty? And who else would sit in the Bishop’s throne at the Cathedral (where the clergy do their best to discourage visitors)? She gets Norman into a series of scrapes, and alienates his friends – and all the while she never stops talking, in her shrill imperious voice.

Margaret Rutherford played
Miss Harrgreaves in a
stage play
Gradually she takes on a life of her own, becoming more and more independent of her creator. There’s an almost symbiotic relationship between them and, succubus-like, s as he grows stronger, he grows weaker, unable to control her. He loves her and hates her, and believes she is a monster and must be destroyed. In the end Norman and Henry return to the Irish church to replay the scene where the dreaded Miss Hargreaves was first created. By the end I still wasn't sure if Norman conjured Miss Hargreaves out of nothing, or whether she was a ghost, or whether it was all a strange co-incidence. But then she disappears as mysteriously as she arrives - or does she....

I could go on and on about this gorgeous story with its batty plot and batty characters, including Norman’s delightfully scatty father, who once made up an excuse about an escaped elephant and a dead postman, only to find the incident came true.  And I haven’t said anything about the music, or Miss Hargreaves’ poems which, for some reason made me think of Lewis Carroll. All I will say is that this is a very funny, beautifully written novel, with a dark edge.  And it’s published by The Bloomsbury Group, with a period style design on a lovely blue cover, and an Ex Libris printed on the first page with room for your to write your name.


  1. Wonderful review! I'm glad that my persistence pays off ;) it's such a joy when other people get to meet Miss H, and love her as much as I do. You get across the funniness and darkness perfectly.

  2. Oh Simon, thank you. Such a lovely comment from you means a lot.