“Always be careful, my boy, what you make up. Life’s more full of things made up on the Spur of the Moment than most people realize. Beware of the Spur of the Moment. It may turn and rend you.”
Spending time with the hapless Norman Huntley and our eponymous Miss Hargreaves has been an absolute delight. Miss Hargreaves, is a work of an extraordinary imagination, both dark and funny, poignant, and completely unforgettable. I am sure all of you will know that it is on Simon’s (Stuckinabook) list of fifty books. A list I have copied into my phone to inform my future second hand book shopping. It is certainly worthy of inclusion on such a list, I can see why Simon and many others love it so much. In fact, Simon loves this book so much, he is quoted on the back cover of this edition.
When young cathedral lay clerk, Norman Huntley and his best friend Henry travel to Lusk in Ireland, they have no idea, what a seemingly dull visit to a pretty grim old church will unleash. The two young men being of an imaginative and light-hearted frame of mind, entertain themselves, during a long conversation with the sexton, by inventing an octogenarian called Miss Hargreaves. Miss Hargreaves so their story goes was a childhood friend of the late Mr Archer, of whom the sexton is particularly loquacious. The Miss Hargreaves of the two friends’ invention becomes gradually more and more eccentric, as they each try to outdo the other with wilder and wilder details. The sexton believes absolutely in Miss Hargreaves, why shouldn’t he – for him the old lady Norman and Henry talk about with such affection is a fully rounded person. After leaving the church and the old sexton behind, Norman and Henry continue to entertain each other with tales of Miss Hargreaves. They even go as far as to write, and then post a letter to their creation at the hotel they have imagined her to be currently residing. And that, is where the trouble starts.
When Norman is back in the Cathedral town of Cornford, he is more than a little astounded when a telegram arrives from Miss Hargreaves. Assuming it to be a prank of his friend Henry – Norman marches round to have it out with his friend. Meanwhile, Norman’s family including his sister Jim, his vague bookseller, music loving father and his girlfriend Marjorie are puzzled by all this talk of someone they had not previously heard of. Henry denies all knowledge of the telegram, and they wonder whether, coincidently there wasn’t another Miss Hargreaves staying at the hotel they wrote to who has replied to their letter. However, it is soon apparent that the Miss Hargreaves of their imagination and invention is the Miss Hargreaves who proposes to visit Cornford.
“Henry stared at me. ‘Are we going batty? Is this a dream?’
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Listen to that!’
A shrill imperious voice had cried, ‘Porter! Porter! Porter!’ Simultaneously the cockatoo, with a sepulchral growl on a low D, stopped singing. By now everybody else had got out. A porter sprang to a first-class carriage and opened the door. With his assistance, slowly, fussily, there emerged an old lady. She was carrying two sticks, an umbrella and a large leather handbag. Following her was a fat waddling Bedlington terrier, attached to a fanciful purple cord.”
Every single eccentric detail the two had invented for Miss Hargreaves is replicated in life as eighty-three-year-old Miss Hargreaves, (who abominates fuss – you know what that means!) arrives by train, with a Bedlington terrier, a cockatoo, a harp and an old hip bath, to be duly installed in a local hotel. All of Cornford is soon aware of Miss Hargreaves’ presence – she blithely gate-crashes Norman’s organ practice, insinuates herself with all the cathedral clergy and Norman’s colleagues and family. Suddenly, and absolutely Miss Hargreaves begins to take over Norman’s life, he finds himself both fond of her and absolutely horrified by her. Miss Hargreaves remember abominates fuss! but she is a stickler for the way things should be done, wears the most peculiar hats with aplomb, writes some slightly odd rhyming poetry and is blissfully unaware of ever being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While Norman struggles to explain the existence of Miss Hargreaves to his friends and family – who all start to think he is rather losing the plot – Miss Hargreaves’ batty eccentricity starts to take on a more malevolent turn as Norman begins to fear that she will destroy everything.
Miss Hargreaves is a most marvellous creation, but Frank Baker doesn’t merely confine himself to one superb creation, this is a novel packed with quirky, memorable characters. From the garrulous squinting sexton in Lusk to Norman’s adorable father – who is constantly mishearing, mispronouncing names, bullying his assistant Squeen (who always talks of himself in the third person) Baker gives us a marvellous array of characters, who step fully formed (and slightly bonkers) from the page.
I can’t believe I have had this book for three years at least and not read it before, but such is my tbr. I know Frank Baker has written other novels, but I’m not at all certain how available (if at all) they are. I shall keep my eyes peeled.