Frank Baker: Miss Hargreaves, Bloomsbury, 2009 (reissue)
I know that one of our hosts of the #1940Club, Simon, is extremely fond of this book, so I’d better be careful what I say…
Fortunately, I loved it: a delightful piece of escapism with a supernatural tinge (what did I tell you about 1940 being the year people wanted to look away from the horrors befalling them?). I also feel it says a lot about the nature of the average Englishman (or woman) – the social snobbery, the gossip mill of country villages, the tolerance of eccentricity and bumbling fools, but also the inability to talk about things openly, and the backstabbing that ensues because of that cowardice.
The book reminded me of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson or David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, both earlier works but likewise taking very English scenarios, characters and landscapes, and then throwing a surrealist spanner in the works. There is much more of a concern for social niceties in all of these novels than in the French, Romanian or German surrealist tales that I’ve read, and the humour is often broader.
Two young men go on a tour of Ireland and engage in what they believe to be a harmless prank, making up on the spot the formidable 83-year old Miss Hargreaves (‘rhymes with ‘graves’, not ‘greeves’), who travels everywhere with her dog, her parrot, her dire poetry, her harp and a hip bath. To their utter astonishment, this figment of their imagination shows up in their cathedral town of Cornford on the Thames, with all the accoutrements they’ve embellished upon, and proceeds to make their life a misery.
At least, that is the official version of the story, and I could easily imagine the narrator Norman as a bashful, confused but nevertheless charming young Hugh Grant, complete with floppy hair. However, I couldn’t help but be aware of the subtext: the schoolboyish high jinks of fairly comfortably well-off young men (although they also work for a living), making fun of the vicar in Ireland who holds his church in high esteem, simply because they deem it ugly, inventing the most absurd connections for an elderly woman and then being embarrassed when these things manifest themselves in real life, above all the back-handed way in which Norman goes about discrediting Miss Hargreaves when he feels she isn’t paying him sufficient attention anymore.
Amusing though it was to witness Norman’s discomfort and madcap attempts to disentangle himself from this crazy situation, my sympathy lies firmly with Miss Hargreaves, self-important and pompous and bulldozerish though she is. And, to be fair, the author seems to be slightly in love with her too. None of this is really her fault, and the narrator comes to that realisation too. There is one poignant moment when the lady says:
For a little while, I broke into a life which I was never intended to lead. But now I know what I am… ‘a thought, a piece of thistledown, a thing of naught, rocked in the cradle of a craftsman’s story’.
There are philosophical asides about the nature of reality and the creative vs. destructive purpose which I wasn’t quite expecting in this essentially light-hearted and fun book.
Lately, I’d begun to doubt a good many things. Whether life wasn’t one long dream: whether dreams weren’t really life: whether I actually existed. Under water, I knew at any rate, that I existed; I knew that because I knew that if I stayed there much longer I should cease to exist.
While most of the book is laced with the self-deprecating kind of humour that feels quintessentially English, there are those moments of anger at one’s own hopelessness, and lashing out at others in a quite nasty way via anonymous denunciations, which somehow reminded me of some of the less pleasant aspects of the recent Covid lockdowns. And then that smug tone of self-justification:
She was climbing too damn high. Some rungs, if not all, must be wrenched from her ladder. Get the rumour round, get the tatty trotty tongues of Cornford wagging, and it would be the beginning of the end for her… It’s no good your reading this and condemning me and saying I’m horribly malicious. I had to do something about it. I couldn’t sit back for ever and watch Connie capering in her Cloud-Cuckoo-Land of Deans and Archdeacons. One kind word from her, one smile in her old fashion, one wink of recongition – and I would not have acted as I did.
In conclusion, I would say that I really enjoyed it and laughed heartily while reading it, but it left a bitter aftertaste, which gave it added complexity, whether the author intended it or not. Oh, and one more reason I loved the book: the multiple mentions of Cookham and Cliveden make me think the book is set somewhere very close to where I currently live.