I’ve been saving a few reviews to post until I’m ready to start talking about vampires in my Season of the Living Dead. So today it’s time to introduce you to:
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Norman and his friend Henry are on holiday in Ireland. They duck into a church to shelter from the rain and the sexton gives them a grand tour after they pretend to know of the old vicar. On the spur of the moment, Norman invents a close friend of the vicar’s family, an 83 year old lady whom they know too, called Miss Connie Hargreaves – this makes the dour sexton’s day. Norman & Henry continue to have fun with their imaginary friend, composing and sending off a letter to the hotel where she’s staying inviting her to visit Norman at home in Cornford.
Imagine their surprise then, when a few days later, Norman receives a telegram saying that she will be with them soon. Mild panic ensues – she can’t be real – they made her up! However nothing would keep them from the station platform at the allotted time – just in case.
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 begins 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.