Ridiculously, I'd never even heard of Miss Hargreaves or Frank Baker, before I read about them on Simon's blog, Stuck In A Book. Then shortly thereafter (or maybe it was just slightly before) I read about Frank Baker's book on the inimitable Nancy Pearl's blog as well.
I'm trying to fashion my own review without being too influenced by Nancy's or Simon's, though they both said everything I would have said if I had their way with words. Not much to add to theirs, really, so I'll try to keep it short: Read this book. Well, maybe not that short.
Miss Hargreaves is a fanciful (in a thoroughly non-sarcastic way) story set in the 30's though it could just as easily have been set yesterday, last week or tomorrow. To me, it's a timeless sort of thing as are lots of tales that take place mostly in the heart and imagination.
What would happen if you and a pal decided one day, on the spur of the moment, to invent a human being, just for the heck of it - as a harmless prank? Then, caught up in the 'fun' you send off a letter to this imagined person, again, just for the heck of it. This is exactly what Norman Huntley lay-clerk at Cornford Cathedral and feckless 'hero' of Frank Baker's delightful novel, Miss Hargreaves, and his cohort Henry Beddow, decide to do one day while on a rain-soaked, boring trek through an undistinguished church in the dreary town of Lusk.
Norman is the imaginative, inventive sort who has gotten into the habit of making up stories...simply for the fun of doing it.
He does try to explain:
Call me a raging liar if you like, although it's an actual fact that I've never lied in order to get out of things so much as to get into things. Sometimes I think all those books in father's shop led me astray. Books do lead you on.
Ha! The 'ha' is my own.
Once this 'invention' is aired, told to the doddering sexton conducting the interminable tour of the Lusk church, it takes on a life of its own. Unbeknown to Norman and Henry, the dye has been cast. Back home in Cornford, you may imagine Norman's astonishment when in the next morning's mail he receives a letter from Miss Hargreaves announcing her intention to visit Cornford, hoping to stay with Norman's family, and by the way, how is her dear old friend Norman?
From then on, this gorgeously written story is a kind of wonder to behold. For all it's gentle sweetness, there is a kind of frightening thread running beneath the surface of Norman's predicament. Author Frank Baker holds the reins tightly and never allows the story to gush with undue sentimentality. In a way, in Miss Hargreaves, Norman appears to have created his own Frankenstein monster; a fluffy, dithery one with a will of steel and a penchant for writing unctuous poetry. She arrives in Cornford, a fully fashioned litttle old lady, towing her harp, her cockatoo and her Bedlington terrier, not to mention piles of luggage. I abominate fuss.
Norman's invention is, perhaps, not such a completely fun creation after all.
Yet, what happens next to Norman and his family, his friend Henry, and the town of Cornford near the Thames, is a joy to read about.
A few words though (before I forget) about another character: Norman's ever-so eccentric violin-playing, book seller of a father, Cornelius, who nearly steals the book away from Norman and Miss Hargreaves, though not quite. Cornelius Huntley, to my mind, deserved a book of his own. See if you don't agree once you read Miss Hargreaves. He seems the perfect foil for Miss Hargreaves and is, obviously, the perfect foil for Norman - the only member of his family who believes Norman's story of how Miss Hargreaves came to be, mostly because he believes he has the same oblique talent for invention that Norman has. (Norman's inheritance of this talent doesn't surprise him in the least. Obviously it runs in the family.) Creative thought creates.
My thanks go to the publishers, The Bloomsbury Group, for re-releasing this wonderful book first published in 1940 and deemed author Frank Baker's finest. Too good to be forgotten for sure.
As I said in the beginning and continue to say: Read this book.
You will thank me. (Not to mention Simon and Nancy Pearl.)