Sunday, February 28, 2010

Miss Hargreaves – Frank Baker

“The correct pronunciation of her name is, of course, ‘Hargrayves’. Astonishing as it must seem, there exist people who refer to her as Miss ‘Hargreeves’. Doubtless they belong to the ranks of those who ‘Macleen’ their teeth”

There are so many tangents I want to go off on tonight but I’m going to try very hard to stick with the book and leave the wider musings for another day. I’ve been in a book group (on line) with Simon from Stuck-In-A-Book for quite a while, and for quite a while he’s been recommending this book (strongly recommending at that). His enthusiasm for it was such that he’s managed to get it back in print with the Bloomsbury Group project, which I think I’m safe in saying, is very enthusiastic indeed. Dutiful to instruction I bought a copy but it came with such a weight of expectation attached that I’ve been unwilling to read it. I find nothing more of putting than the words ‘you must read this’, especially when followed by ‘You’ll love it’ (credit to Simon he said neither, though he did come down strong on buying it).

Reservations caused by strong recommendations aside I found the amazon description vaguely intriguing, but not must read stuff – or at least not of the stuff I normally feel I must read - what swung me in the end was how much I’ve enjoyed the other Bloomsbury Group books and it turns out I was right to trust both Simon and Bloomsbury.

‘Miss Hargreaves’ is an extraordinary book, and somehow not really what I expected, much darker in fact than I imagined. Two friends, both prone to flights of fancy, find themselves in an exceptionally ugly church whilst sheltering from the rain. In a harmless kind of way they make up a little old lady complete with travelling hip bath, parrot, harp and lapdog. The joke carries on when they write her a letter, and she not only replies, but turns up in person to stay, complete with travelling hip bath, parrot, lapdog and harp.

So Miss Hargreaves is born, and the mystery of what she is and where she comes from deepens – naturally nobody believes she’s made up. Not even her makers entirely accept that at first, meanwhile as she becomes more real she becomes more powerful until one dreadful night when she is endowed with a title (attitude to match) and cast of by her chief creator. No longer subject to his creative whims she uses her independence to wreak havoc upon his life, and he poor boy, cannot accept that he’s no longer in control of what he feels is his.

Norman and Henry’s (the Hargreaves perpetrators) biggest problem is the affection they feel for their masterpiece. She charms as much as she infuriates which makes it hard to take the necessary firm line; it’s partly hubris, and partly sympathy for an elderly and vulnerable being. The reader feels the same because Norman and Henry are far from perfect and they rather deserve Miss Hargreaves.

I really fell for the book on page 13 with this paragraph
“Suddenly the sexton whipped aside the dust sheet and disclosed the lectern, obviously a favourite of his. We saw an avaricious-looking brass fowl with one eye cocked sideways as though it feared somebody were going to bag the Bible – or perhaps as though it hoped somebody were going to. You couldn’t quite tell; it had an ambiguous expression.”
It’s a book I know I’ll read again and again for just such passages.

It also has a fresh dashed off feel as if conception to page was the work of a moment. Norman who narrates rants and goes off into flights about music and books which makes it all the more real which is good going for a book about what happens when the created character steps off the page and goes their own way; a dilemma I imagine most writers are familiar with.

Anyway I won’t tell you ‘you must read this’, but I will confirm that I liked it quite a lot (loved it), and definitely say that it’s a very hard book to quantify – you need to open it to get a real idea of it, and I would very strongly recommend that course of action...


  1. Lovely review, Hayley. This was one of the first books I mentioned when I joined the doves (in our previous incarnation) back in 2004, and it's fair to say that I've mentioned it a few times since! I do love it so much, for its humour and its dark side and its sadness and everything that is packed into the book. I'd forgotten about the brass fowl until you quoted it - the novel is filled with so many gems like that! In fact, I love the whole scene when they first go to the church, wonderful. Thanks for spreading the word!

  2. I have been unsure about this book as the plot seems a little too fantastic for my liking but so many people do like it. After reading your review, I think I should really give this a go.

  3. Thanks for sharing - I will try this one and enjoyed reading the review very much. BTW - I really like your "poet's Pub" picture but don't recognise it - what is it? Love the blog, Hannah

  4. Simon was pretty unrelenting back in 2004 until I read this as well and I loved it. Very glad to see it back in print. Funny and amusing but at the same time a little scary and full of pathos. I am a huge fan.

  5. Yes Simon, it only took me five years to follow your recommendation - so what do you suggest next...

    Hannah, sorry for the delay - I think if you click on Poets Pub it should take you to the national gallery sight which gives all the details. I have a bit of a think for George Mackay Brown (his writing at any rate) who's represented in the picture along with a few other scottish literary figures of the day. I love the colours as well, it makes me want a gin and a chat every time I look at it.

    Rochester Reader - definately worth a go. I was really surprised by Miss H - not because I didn't expect it to be good, but because of how it charmed me. I hope that makes sense...

  6. A friend sent me this book, swearing I'd love it, but I've been keeping it back as a treat. I suspect treat-time has come.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. A wonderful book. At 1:11 into this short film about book collecting you can see the first edition of Miss Hargreaves in her original dust jacket: