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:
Random Jottings (warning: a lovely review, but gives away quite a lot)