I am a huge fan of Simon's blog, Stuck in a Book, and it is one of the blogs I read on a daily basis as I know that Simon loves the same kind of books that I do, and it is lovely to have a kindred spirit when it comes to reading matters. I am old enough to be his mother (actually grandmother as well which is a tad dispiriting), but we are of like minds when it comes to literature and whenever Simon loves a book, then I know I will too.
On his blog he has a list "50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About" and heading this list is Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. If you click on this link you can read all about his thoughts on this book, but to save you leaping across for the moment, HERE is what he has to say. You will see my name crop up as a convert to this title and I read it at Simon's urgings, well must be about six or seven years ago now. I was talked into buying the then only in print edition, published by Tartarus Press, and even though this was in my money earning days, I jibbed slightly at its price £30, but bought it anyway and have never regretted it.
If you read what Simon Says then you will know the story of how Miss Hargreaves, created by Norman and his friend Henry, when they are looking at an exceedingly ghastly church in Ireland in the pouring rain and decide to cheer themselves up a bit and have a laugh at the expense of the ancient of days showing them around, is invented on the spur of the moment.
".... and what is your friend's name?'
It seemed to me there was a sort of stirring of air in the church, like - like what? Rather like someone opening a very old umbrella. I looked round sharply, but couldn't see anything unusual. A ray of feeble sun had broken through the dark clouds and was shining down on the dust in the galleries.
I realised I was trembling"
When he and Henry then send an letter to Miss Hargreaves at an imaginary address and invite her to visit any time she is free, that is an end of what they both regard as a good joke. But then Miss Hargreaves writes accepting their invitation and to their utter horror, turns up complete with cockatoo and hip bath, little extras they had added to their description in order to add a little verisimilitude.
Then the fun starts. Norman is horrified, scared and angry in turn as Miss Hargreaves proceeds to take over his life, his friends and his family. His father, a man of deep understanding of his son's flights of imagination as he is very similar himself, is the only person who believes in how Miss Hargreaves came to be, but he too begins to fall under her spell, and it is at this stage of the book that Miss Hargreaves who, up to now has been endearingly eccentric, begins to assume a slightly menacing aspect. Norman knows he has to rid himself of her by destroying his creation and to prevent her total power over him, but he has come to love her and he is in turmoil at what he knows he has to do. In the end, he and Henry travel back to the church in Lusk, whence she was created, in order to bring the situation to an end.
"Immediately, where there had been that old lady there was now only a greenish darkness, broken faintly by a dusty light from some great windows. Her voice died away, far away, echoing deep and long into space, vibrant at first then then thinner.....I opened my eyes. The wind that had been roaring round the roof, suddenly stopped. Henry and I lowered our heads as if by mutual understanding. We both knew that she had gone from us"
Frank Baker is a writer I know nothing about, except what I have read in the introduction to Miss Hargreaves. I gather he published fifteen novels and three works of non-fiction and wrote for the Guardian and the Radio times. Other than that, nothing. This was his most successful novel and was adapted for the stage in 1952 with Dame Margaret Rutherford in the leading role. Talk about perfect casting! Just wish there was a film somewhere of that particular performance.
Miss Hargreaves is a fascinating story. It is hilarious and witty, sharply written and with great style, but Frank Baker is also wonderful at creating atmosphere and suddenly a paragraph of sheer beauty will catch your eye and make you realise that he is more than just a writer of fun and froth (not that I would describe Miss H in this way, rest assured). Just look at this:
"The times when I really loved the Cathedral were weekdays when you could look right down the great nave, seeing perhaps only one tripper creeping from pillar to pillar with a guidebook, a vigilant verger stalking him and ready to net him if he so much as sneezed.
In winter you'd see nothing at all except the light from one gas-globe plunged smokily into the remote and vast darkness of the nave roof. Then you really felt that Evensong and the Cathedral meant something. Heralded by old Dyack and his pitch-pipe, Tallis in the Dorian Mode would float down the aisles; a motet by William Byrd weaves its intricate pattern upon the dark silence. At such times I believe we all felt a relationship to the great roof that soared away above us and to the wonderful old monks and people who'd built it all, and wrote that glorious music, centuries ago"
See what I mean?
Thank you Simon for telling me all about Miss Hargreaves - I would never have discovered her without you. And thank you Simon for suggesting this reprint to the Bloomsbury Group. And thank you the Bloomsbury Group for so doing.
All of you now have the chance to read this gloriously inventive, eccentric and wonderful book for the princely sum of £7.99. Nip across to the website HERE and order.
Go on, you know it makes sense........