Sunday, 13 September 2009

"I abominate fuss..." Miss Hargreaves and Me

I've already written about Miss Hargreaves before on Stuck-in-a-Book, but I felt that a new edition warranted a new review. I've just finished reading the novel for the fifth time since 2003... and I love it all over again.

Just to say at the beginning - this review doubles as a prize draw. I have two copies of Miss Hargreaves to give away, and a set of Bloomsbury bookmarks for a runner up. Of
course, if you already have a copy of Miss H and would prefer the bookmarks, just say that in the comments.

I usually try to put a positive spin on the books I read, so there is a real danger that I'm going to go wildly overboard with superlatives on Miss H, because - along with Diary of a Provincial Lady and Pride and Prejudice - it is the novel I could happily read over and over again, starting as soon as I'd finished.

Norman Huntley and his friend Henry are on holiday in Ireland, when they wander into a hideous church, led by a sexton with a squint.

I turned to the chancel, hoping to find something - however slight - that I could praise. But it was worse up there. Seaweed green altar frontal; dead flowers; lichenous-looking brass candlesticks; pitch-pine organ with a pyramid of dumb pipes soaring over a candle-greased console; 'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,' splashed in chrome Gothic lettering over the choir walls; mural cherubim reminding you of cotton-wool chicks from Easter eggs; very stained glass; tattered hymn books, tattered hassocks - it was a horrible church. But there were, mercifully, two redeeming features; those were the dust sheets spread over lectern and pulpit. Somehow you felt a little safer with those dust sheets.
Meanwhile, Squint was rhapsodizing.
"I beg you to observe the beautiful lettering and decoration on the chancel wall. 'I saw the Lord sitting upon a Throne.' You like it?"
He had a habit of hissing like a goose, particularly when he was eager about something.

"Very pretty indeed," I said.
"Original," said Henry.
"Unusual, in a sense."
"Full of feeling."
"Filthy," I said.

The awkwardness of the subsequent conversation forces Norman, on the Spur of the Moment, to make up a mutual acquaintance with a previous clergyman - that acquaintance is Miss Hargreaves.


'And this lady, this Miss Hargreaves, she is still alive?'

'Ten minutes old, precisely,' said Henry.

I trod on his toe brutally.

'The soul of youth,' I said. 'She is a poet,' I added dreamily.

'She would be an old lady,' said Squint. 'Over eighty.'

'Nearer ninety,' said Henry.

'A touch of rheumatoid arthritis,' I said, 'but no more than a touch.'

Having left the church, Norman and Henry continue to embellish Miss Hargreaves' character. A keen musician, she is the niece of the Duke of Grovesnor, has a cockatoo called Dr. Pepusch and a dog called Sarah. Perhaps most wonderful of all, she travels with her own hip bath. Proud of their creation, they continue the joke by sending her a letter, inviting her to visit Cornford...

... and she does.

A telegram arrives, telling them to expect her. Disbelievingly, they wait at the train station:

Limping slowly along the platform and chatting amiably to the porter, came - well, Miss Hargreaves. Quite obviously it couldn't be anyone else.

'At Oakham station,' we heard her saying, 'we have exquisitely pretty flowers. The station-master is quite an expert horticulturist. Oh, yes, indeed!'

'Shall I have all your luggage put on a taxi, Mum?'

'Just wait! Kindly stay! A moment. Accept this shilling, I beg of you. I am a trifle short-sighted, porter - oh, did I give you a halfpenny? Here you are, then. Can you see a young gentleman anywhere about? If so, no doubt but it would be my friend Mr. Norman Huntley.'

I flopped weakly on to a chair.

'Can't see no one, Mum,' I could hear the porter saying.

'Then let us wait! Do not go. What a handsome train - what a most handsome train! I wrote a sonnet to a railway train once. In my lighter moments, porter; in my more exuberant moments. My Uncle Grovesnor was good enough to say it recalled Wordsworth to him. Do you read at all, porter? Tell me. Tell me frankly.'

Isn't she simply wonderful? Frank Baker has given her a voice so unmistakably hers, she is a unique creation and every word she says is a pleasure to read. To have seen Margaret Rutherford play her on stage and screen! I have hopes of the 1960 film turning up one day. Or Maggie Smith to play her now - she would be perfect. And, oh, Miss Hargreaves' poetry! It is as strange and unique as she is, yet has undeniable panache.
Oh why must I go with my green tender grace
To lay all my eggs in one basket?
If I were a mayor I could carry a mace;
My card and address in a casket.

[...]

All this goeth on and my mind is a blank,
A capriciously prodigal hostage.
What care I when comforters tell me the Bank
Will pay death-duties, homage and postage?

But Miss Hargreaves is not all frothy excitement and delight - she "abominates fuss", wants things to be just-so, and is unlikely to let decorum of convention prevent her from carrying out her good intentions. 'She had the gift of being able to do unconventional things in the most casual manner, never losing her dignity thereby.' As the novel progresses, while she may retain her dignity, Miss H manages to cause all sorts of trouble for Norman, with his family, his girlfriend, and his colleagues and acquaintances at the Cathedral where he plays the organ. (Music is a hugely important element of the novel - anybody who loves the organ, harp, or violin will find plenty to enjoy here.) She becomes something of a Frankenstein's monster - as Norman's mother says, 'I think one would get quite fond of her, and yet never want to set eyes on her again.'

Miss Hargreaves may be the most extraordinary inhabitant of Cornford, but the others are by no means normal. Frank Baker is not satisfied with the creation of one exceptional character - he has made another, in the form of Norman's father. Constantly talking at cross-purposes to everyone around him, and utterly absent-minded, he throws the most deliciously irrelevant things into conversation: '"Parrots are intelligent birds," said father. "Knew one once that could recite a Shakespeare sonnet. All except for the last line."' He gets irrationally worked-up about a new teapot, uses Browning as firewood in the bookshop he erratically runs, but is also the only person in Cornford who really believe Norman's tales, and, in his own bizarre way, comforts him. '"Get it off your chest, boy. I may not listen, but I shall gather the trend of it."'

I have probably written far too much, and quoted at length, but I just love this novel so, so much. My quotation on the back of the Bloomsbury edition says 'Witty, joyful, and moving but above all an extraordinary work of the imagination' - and indeed it is. Endlessly surprising and captivating, Baker keeps the novel pacy all the way through. The idea could have grown stale, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. Sometimes sinister, sometimes sad, sometimes hilariously funny - Miss Hargreaves covers more or less all the bases, always
written in the sort of delicious writing which is hardly found anymore. Miss H is one of the best characters of the twentieth century, in my opinion, and I really cannot encourage you enough to find this extraordinary book.

Don't forget, for a copy of this wonderful novel - pop your name in the comments. Two winners will be announced later in the week, and a runner-up will get the bookmarks. If you'd prefer the bookmarks to the novel, just say.

Links to other reviews of Miss Hargreaves:
Cornflower
Random Jottings (warning: a lovely review, but gives away quite a lot)
Oxford Reader
Harriet Devine
Fancy Day

73 comments:

  1. Can you ship to the States? If so I'd love to be entered - I have heard nothing but wonderful things about this book!

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  2. Will you ship to Asia? If not, you can also ship it to Holland. I'd love to join if it's open to non-Uk residents. I've heard so much about this book!

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  3. I am also in the States. If you don't mind shipping there, I would love to be entered.

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  4. If you can ship to US, please add me to the draw. I enjoyed reading your enthusiastic review!
    Linda C.

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  5. Well, the States are well-represented here! Add me to the draw, too Simon, I'm another one of those across the pond.

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  6. Simon, you've made this book sound so wonderful, I can't resist. Please add me to the drawing.

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  7. Yet another from the States...:) I'd love to be entered in the contest if possible. The book sounds wonderful!

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  8. Another reader in the States who would love to be entered if you can ship there. Any book that gets recommended alongside Pride and Prejudice and Diary of a Provincial Lady is one I want to know.

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  9. Hello Simon, I do so enjoy your reviews! This book sounds gorgeous.
    If you are willing to send to Adelaide Australia I would love to be in the draw. Many thank yous.

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  10. Hello Simon,

    Can you add me to the draw please.

    Carol N

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  11. One more American here. If possible I'd love a chance to own this and read it, so please put my name in.

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  12. Please count me in, Simon!

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  13. I would love a chance to win a copy of this. Please include me!

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  14. I've been looking at this Bloomsbury set in the shops for several weeks and trying to exercise restraint! I'm in the draw, please. Lovely review, btw.

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  15. You have sold me completely. I read your review with delight. Of course I would love to win, but even if I don't, I am going to read this!! Thanks!

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  16. Simon, what a fun book! I chuckled through the excerpts you posted! After my not-very-successful bout with Henrietta's War, I wasn't planning on getting another Bloomsbury, but this sounds wonderful and now I'm dying to read it! Enter me please?? Thank you so much!

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  17. I have the book, of course, but I can't resist a lovely bookmark so please add my name to the draw.

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  18. Oh Miss Hargreaves sounds wonderful (and those bookmarks are gorgeous). I would love to be entered into the draw. Where are the bookmarks available from (in case I am not lucky enough to win, I would love top get my hands on some)?

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  19. Lovely to see people keen!

    I'm afraid I don't know where the bookmarks are available - I think they are promotional, but they might be coming to bookshops too? Bloomsbury sent these to me...

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  20. Oh, please do add me to the draw, Simon! It sounds a wonderful book!

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  21. Hey Sim

    Just enter me for the bookmarks please as I am a proud owner of the book!

    Luce

    XxX

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  22. Sounds wonderful, I'd love to enter, please.

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  23. I must read my new copy soon... you persuaded me that this was a book that I must read a long time ago.

    Please enter me into the draw for bookmarks only please - they're lovely!

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  24. An inspiring review that makes me want to read this book! And what beautiful bookmarks! I have the Bloomsbury edition of 'Henrietta's War' - how does one get hold of a bookmark?
    Could you please enter me into the draw. Thank you!

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  25. I started this wonderful book yesterday, sitting in the garden throwing a ball to my dog with one hand, holding my book with the other.

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  26. I have the book but I never seem to have enough bookmarks. They must join the odd socks and earring backs.

    Margaret Szedenits

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  27. This has been on my wishlist for a while - please enter me!

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  28. Please enter me in the draw, I enjoy your reviews.

    A Persephone fan.

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  29. Please could I added be added to the draw? I'm a regular reader of your blog and think it's fab.

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  30. Would love to win this. Do you have any advance knowledge on what Bloomsbury are going to publish after the first six that have been announced? I've bought two so far and the others are on my wish list.

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  31. I'm another one from the states, but please enter me in as well.

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  32. I've already bought the book so can you add me to the draw for the bookmarks, please?

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  33. I'm from Brazil and discovered your blog five minutes before reading about Miss Hargreaves... can I please pretty please enter ?
    Letícia Casavella
    leticiacrc@hotmail.com

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  34. Sounds delightful! Would love to try for a copy!

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  35. I heard great things on this book and love the cover, so enter me

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  36. Please add my name to the draw, Simon. Thank you.

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  37. I would love to be in on this draw as well. This book couldn't have a more enthusiastic supporter!

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  38. I'd love to own a copy of this book. Please enter me in the draw!

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  39. Please enter me too Simon, if you're accepting US entries. Thank you!

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  40. Have liked the ones I have read in the Bloomsbury series so far, so would love to be entered into the draw to add this one to my collection.

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  41. I've already bought and read this - and I love it!
    WOuld love to enter your draw for the bookmarks though!

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  42. Sounds amazing...would love to be entered for the giveaway! xx

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  43. I am a bit ashamed to comment for the first time to be entered in a prize draw, but this is too good an opportunity to pass up! Please could you count me in?

    Miriana

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  44. Like Miriana I'm ashamed to comment for the first time looking for a prize - though I have been reading for months now! - but your enthusiasm is contagious - I'd love to read it.

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  45. Like Miriana I'm ashamed to comment for the first time looking for a prize - though I have been reading for months now! - but your enthusiasm is contagious - I'd love to read it.

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  46. A very inspiring review and a great blog, which I've just recently discovered! Please, add my name to the draw, too!

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  47. I'd love to win a copy of Miss Hargreaves could you add my name to the draw please Simon.

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  48. Hi Simon could you add my name to the draw please. Catherine

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  49. If you ship to Norway I would love to enter:-) Thank you so much!

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  50. Have heard so many great things about this book, so would love to enter the draw! Keep up the great work with the blog - it's opening my eyes to so many interesting new books!
    Alison

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  51. I didn't know about Miss Hargreaves, but this book sounds quite delicious. The kitten and I would very much like to win a copy!

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  52. Hello, please add me to the draw!

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  53. Please put me in. Thank you.

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  54. I'll happily add you, Anonymous, but I'll need a name! Thanks :)

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  55. Will you ship to Sri Lanka? please, pretty please!


    Love if you could enter me.

    Mystica

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  56. After hearing you rave about it at tea for weeks and weeks, I'm intrigued...enter me!

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  57. I would love to be entered - I've been coveting this book and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group catalogue ever since I read The Brontës Went to Woolworths a few weeks ago. Your post has made me want to read it even more.

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  58. I would looove to have this book-- especially as it's not available on my side of the pond!

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  59. I'm Stateside as well, but would adore a copy. I've enjoyed your review.
    Please enter me into your darling contest.
    Use my email: bmarciano@att.net, instead of the gmail account . . . in case I should be so lucky.
    Fingers crossed!

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  60. Why yes! I would love to part of your contest. I just finished The Diary of a Provincial Lady and loved it. I'm now reading Watching the English.

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  61. Please enter me in the draw IF you can ship to Sweden!? Your very
    enthusiastic review made me curious!/Pia C

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  62. I have just happened upon your blog! Its great to find someone else who love Diary of A Provincial Lady, so please enter me in the competition.

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  63. Dear Simon,

    Mrs. Hargreaves would find herself quite comfortable in the company of my Persephones and Viragos in our lovely old house, Mrs. Biehl. Do add my name to the draw, and thank you kindly!

    Cate (bleuroses)

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  64. Do accept my apologies,
    Miss Hargreaves, for my incorrect prefix to your name! Yours most Humbly, Cate

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  65. On your advice I have bought this book and only 150 pages in, I am loving it. Miss Hargreaves is an absolute terror! And exceedingly funny. Must stop writing this and finish reading it - not for the only time I'm sure. Thank you.

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  66. How lovely of you to come and say so, Jenny - and I'm so pleased you're enjoying Miss H! It brings me such joy whenever anybody encounters her for the first time, and gets as much pleasure from the novel as I did (and do every time I reread!)

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  67. Hello:

    I've just about finished Miss Hargreaves and absolutely love it. Now I'm on a mission to somehow find the Margaret Rutherford move to download and watch. So far, I've been unsuccessful. Can anyone help?

    Thanks,
    Tina

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  68. Thanks for your comment, Tina - how I wish I could help! I have even been in touch with the British Film Institute before, to no avail - it doesn't seem to exist anywhere. It would so very wonderful to watch. And my dream now is that Maggie Smith would play her!

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  69. I am just finishing the book and absolutely love it. Now I'm on a mission to find and download the Margaret Rutherford BBC movie to watch, but haven't been able to find it. Can anyone help?

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  70. I agree, she would do the haughty part particularly well. Not sure how she'd be with the first, sweet, dittering persona, though. But then, she's a great actress.....

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  71. A week ago I was probably the only person over here who hasn’t read “Miss Hargreaves” and I simply don’t know why as I bought a copy quite a while ago. Anyway I finished it 2 days ago and reading it was an extraordinary experience. I absolutely loved it although it left me feeling quite sad, but in a positive way (if that makes any sense). I loved the music in the book (it was so touching) and I loved Cornelius Huntley. He is by far my favourite character. I wish I could have a chat with him over a cup of coffee (or something stronger), it would be great ;)
    I’m so glad I’ve read Miss Hargreaves and, Simon, thank you so much for introducing this book to us.
    And last but not least, your sketch is wonderful. I really love it and I think you are right about what is really at the end of a rainbow.

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    Replies
    1. Lovely, Agnieszka! Now you've passed the final test to be one of the fold :) I'm kidding, you were in already - but I'm delighted that you've read this now. Isn't Cornelius a wonder? And I definitely understand what you mean about it being sad but positive. It is a desperately sad ending, but somehow beautiful too.

      And thanks v much for your compliment on the sketch :)

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