Miss Hargreaves (The Bloomsbury Group) Paperback – 6 Sep 2009
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'Having met Miss Hargreaves, you won't want to be long out of her company - Frank Baker's novel is witty, joyful, and moving but above all an extraordinary work of the imagination' Simon Thomas, stuck-in-a-book.blogspot 'A fantasy of the most hilarious description. Miss Hargreaves may be the utterest lunacy - a tissue of moonshine - but it is the kind of novel, I fancy, that is badly wanted at the moment, and its central idea is one which has rarely, if, indeed, ever, been used before' Sunday Times 'A comedy about the creative imagination, loss of control and the pressures of conformity' Independent 'This is a masterpiece of imaginative fiction ... mystical, humorous and poignant. Once this extraordinary woman has entered your life, you'll never want her to leave' www.briansibleysblog.blogspot.com
About the Author
Frank Baker was born in London in 1908 and trained as a musician. In 1930, after five years in an underwriting room and one in a school for church organists, he drew chants overboard with cargo papers and drifted to Land's end. It was then possible to live on a pound a week, and this amount he earned as village organist. His first novel, The Twisted Tree, published in 1935, was called 'a dark an terrible tale' which might, somebody said, 'have been written by the ghost of D. H. Lawrence seated on the grave of Mary Webb.' His second, The Birds, forecast the collapse of civilization under an onslaught of harpies and it worried the reviewers. In 1938, after changing from one village organ to another, he was received into the Catholic Church and consequently abandoned the Anglican console. In 1939, somewhere in Ulster, Miss Hargreaves crossed his path and influenced his fortunes. Frank Baker died in 1983.
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Norman and his friend Henry are on holiday in Lusk - on a dull day they wander into a church, and have to make conversation with an even duller verger. On the spur of the moment, Norman says he has a shared acquaintance with the parish's old vicar - and that acquaintance is one Miss Hargreaves. She's nearly ninety, carries a hip flask, bath and cockatoo with her everywhere, not to mention Sarah the dog. Continuing the joke, they send a letter to her supposed hotel, asking if she'd like to come and stay. When Miss Constance Hargreaves arrives on a train, Norman has some explaining to do, and the strange occurences are just beginning...
She does rather wreak havoc on Norman, his family, and his village - but never purposefully. She is firm, "abominates fuss" but wants everything just-so - at the same time, she views Norman as a dear friend (who should never be left out of her sight) and cannot understand why their friendship is sometimes soured.
It is a cliche of criticism, but Miss Hargreaves genuinely did make me both laugh and cry - and pretty much every emotion in between. I thought the theme would pall, but Baker keeps the momentum going for every page, and I never wanted it to end. And though this is without doubt Connie's book, the secondary characters are also wonderful - especially Norman's bookshop-owning father, Mr. Huntley. The conversations between Norman and his father are a sort of cross-speak which PG Wodehouse would have been proud of - the fact that Frank Baker can write a book which is so very funny, but also moving and thought-provoking, is incredible. The novel never becomes a philosophy and ethics thesis, but the issues surrounding his act of creation are explored - always with unexpected and bizarre results.
If you read one novel this year, please let it be Miss Hargreaves.
Miss Hargreaves proceeds to enliven things in the sleepy Buckinghamshire cathedral town of Cornford. Norman is junior organist and she soon gets him into trouble by making him pull out all of the stops, but then she gets in with the Dean. She has a habit of getting Norman into tricky situations and to get out of them he has to invent more back story for her. Everything he says about her takes on a life of its own and things are beginning to get a bit much for him especially as she treats him as her dearest friend and won't leave him alone. All these shenanigans make his mother exasperated, his girlfriend furious, and alienates his best friend Henry too; meanwhile Norman's father Cornelius, a bookseller and dreamer seems to understand but is too detached to react.
This is where the novel, which had been light and full of farce, starts to get rather dark as Norman starts to plan how to get rid of this tiresome woman, but it's not straight-forward as he has developed an attachment to her. Norman is a capable and loyal young man who is totally thrown out of his comfort zone, (think of a young Peter Davison), and panics. He has a big problem to resolve and at first can't work out how to make her go - or rather let her go. When he finally works it out, he becomes strong, but the memories of Connie echo on...
Published originally in 1939, this novel was transformed into a successful play after the war starring Margaret Rutherford, inspired casting. Having read this in the introduction, it was hard to imagine any other image of Miss Hargreaves - prounounced Hargrayves, not Hargreeves by the way, explained in a cheeky author's note. Connie may be the star of the book, but she has a strong supporting cast in Norman, Henry, and assorted clerics; but my favourite was Cornelius, a classic absent-minded professorial type.
`Father,' I said, `I want to have a serious talk with you. I'm very worried.'
`Sit down, boy. Have a cigarette. Woman?'
I nodded. ...
`Women,' said my father, `have never really been my cup of tea. They do not understand major issues, and their passion for realism is something I've never felt agreeable to. Nevertheless, the race, as a race, would crumble without them.'
But then Cornelius goes off on a tangent into his own little world as Norman tries to explain his predicament to him.
`It's this Miss Hargreaves,' I said.
`A fine woman from the sound of her. Plays the oboe, doesn't she? Now the oboe's a funny instrument one way and another-'
`You remember that time you warned me never to make things up? Well-'
`Old Bach understood the oboe better than any man before or after. You might say old Bach made the oboe.'
This novel was delightful from start to finish, full of high farce, real comedy moments and surprising pathos, and the dark edge later provides real tension. A tremendously satisfying read. Like all those lovely reissues from Persephone Books I can't wait to read more of these rediscovered gems from The Bloomsbury Group too.
Two men make up a 'Miss Hargreaves,' because they nned to avoid an awkward situation with a vicar, and enjoy themselves by adding ridiculous attributes - always carries a bath and a bird in a cage and so on. When this lady arrives on the train to meet them, they are utterly bewildered. Synopsi can never do justice to a novel, but this book is truly excellent, and one of the few which I was desperate to keep reading once I'd finished it.
Buy this book!
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