Miss Hargreaves- Frank Baker (1939)

Another author I hadn’t heard of introduced to me via Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  He became a little less forgotten when Bloomsbury republished his most celebrated novel as part of a Bloomsbury Group Series of 6 titles including works by Wolf Mankowitz, Ada Leverson, D E Stevenson, Rachel Ferguson and Joyce Dennys.

The whimsical novel is something I can often take or leave but I loved this.  I can’t see why it isn’t celebrated as one of the great twentieth century comic novels.  It made me laugh (and, this is where the comic/whimsical can fall flat) it sustained my interest for the duration.  A film version was planned but check the publication date and you’ll see why that fell by the wayside but there was a successful stage version in the early 1950s starring a beautifully cast Margaret Rutherford.

And maybe that where part of the appeal lies for me imagining the marvellous Ms. Rutherford in the title role.  Two young men on a trip to Ireland invent a woman whilst sightseeing in a church – pretending to a guide that she was a friend of an old vicar there.  They elaborate about her more and more, getting carried away with their invention in subsequent days so much that they write her a letter at a hotel they imagined she would stay at.  They get a reply and then the formidable Miss Hargreaves arrives embodying everything they’d made up.  You have to go with it- no explanation is given but there’s a lot here on individuality and the motto that runs through the novel is “Creative thought creates.”  In this case, it’s a living, breathing person and in a style reminiscent of EF Benson’s Lucia novels (which I also love) she begins to take over the community in which her inventors live.  P G Wodehouse also springs to mind but I enjoyed this more than any Jeeves novels I’ve read to date. The baffled Norman Huntley gives a first-person narrative and there’s some more splendid characterisation in his musician/bookshop owning father.

There’s great energy and vigour but it can also hover on the edge of a darker side as explanations for Miss Hargreaves are explored.  The only time pace slackens is in the details of cathedral services and organ-playing (Norman is a church organist as was the author) but there’s still charm here amongst the flue work, pedal bombards and diapasons. 

Frank Baker added a postscript in 1965, obviously for a republished edition and reproduced a few of Miss Hargreaves’ poems in full (in truth they work better as odd lines in the narrative which demonstrate her unique talents as a poet).  The author lived 1908-82 and was also an actor and musician who worked as a pianist in the celebrated Player’s Theatre in Charing Cross.

I’m finding much joy in British novels of 1930s, 40s and 50s with EF Benson, Norman Collins, Barbara Pym etc.  I can add Frank Baker to this for this delightfully quirky work. 

Miss Hargreaves was first published in 1939.  I read the Bloomsbury Publishing edition from 2009.

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