Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (thoughts)
I’ve been meaning to read Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker for ages due to Simon’s blog, he of so many fabulous 20th century English middlebrow novels recommendations. When I was casting about, wanting to read a slightly older book, my eyes lit on the beautiful blue of the spine and that was that.
I loved the musical aspects of the novel: Baker was a musician himself and it shows in the magical organ and violin and piano passages. I’m so glad I’m about to begin violin lessons already, because otherwise this book would have made me long to do so! The premise of the book immediately captured me as well: Norman, the narrator, creates an imaginary woman only to find her come to life and arriving for a visit. And of course Miss Hargreaves, with her refusal to bow to societal norms, or fade into respectable old lady invisibility, was darling. Simon, avert your eyes for the rest of this post.
Despite these aspects, though, ultimately I found Miss Hargreaves deeply disturbing, an example of patriarchy and male privilege run amok. There’s Norman’s father, who at first seems endearingly quirky in his bookish abstraction, inability to truly respond to anyone in a conversation (he just keeps voicing his own thoughts instead) and love for music. And yet…as his actions continued, they became more and more selfish, in the sense that he is literally so self-involved no one else even exists for him. He has some moments of emerging from the cloud to advice his son, but all of his other actions and interactions show privilege at its most extreme: he can literally choose not to acknowledge others’ existence or wishes. I cannot imagine this character as a woman, say as Norman’s mother instead of father.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a scene in which he’s been asked to perform a Miss Hargreave’s musical composition and instead performs his own work. Putting a brave face on it, she then announces to the audience that he will now play his own work, and instructs him in a whisper to play hers instead. And yet, hearing the title of his own work, he merely plays the same thing again. This scene is written primarily for laughs, looking at how the social-climbing audience responds differently to the exact same piece depending on who they think composed it, but I found this silencing and, indeed, crushing of Miss Hargreave’s own creative endeavour, portrayed so lightly, terrible.
That is merely a subplot, though, and not the reason this book made my skin crawl. No, that would be Norman’s own actions, which require me to provide a summary of the entire plot (including the ending; be warned if you don’t want to know it, skip the following two paragraphs, although it’s essentially told in the prologue of the novel). Having created Miss Hargreaves, he is first furious with her for wanting to be his friend, as her unconventionality embarrasses him in the little village. All he wishes is that she would leave him alone. Finally she does leave, and when she comes back she has reinvented herself as a fine lady. She proceeds to create a life for herself in the village, one without Norman. She doesn’t attack Norman in any way, simply ignores him. One might think he would be relieved. One would be wrong.
He becomes obsessed with making her acknowledge, really befriend, him again: when his semi-stalking behavior gets him nowhere, he then attempts to destroy her life via an anonymous poison pen letter. While he does regret this, it seems he regrets it most for the harm he does to himself (first his self-image and, when he’s revealed as the author, his moral standing) rather than truly seeing how despicable his actions are. After this, Miss Hargreaves is quite sensibly furious with Norman and warns him off. He cannot stand this independent thought from a woman he originally only imagined and decides that she must die. In the end, after a creepy reunion scene in which Miss Hargreaves suddenly dismisses-not forgives-all of Norman’s actions as if they weren’t immoral and awful and describes him as her “truest friend,” Norman does kill her. Since she was imaginary to begin with, this is not a physical killing, but it has the same effect: she ceases to exist for not pleasing Norman.
Let me reiterate: Miss Hargreaves is not doing anything wrong or destructive in society at large, such that Norman might have a moral obligation for stopping her behaviour (a la Victor Frankenstein). The only problem is her independence, first in caring too much for Norman and later in ignoring him. Ugh. This is essentially a novel of an abusive relationship, without any seeming awareness on the part of the author, much less Norman, of its problems. In the second part, Norman’s thoughts read like those creepy stalker/serial killer internal monologues found in some mystery novel, but with a comedy of manners patina. This isn’t an instance when I would have enjoyed the book except for some intellectual problems: I was honestly, truly upset and unnerved on a gut level. It made me afraid. When I finished I had to quickly put the book in the library bag so I wouldn’t see it. A quick trip through the blogosphere reveals I’m the only one who felt this way, so you might not. As I mentioned early in the post, there were some charming bits in the book. But ultimately, they were drowned by my uneasiness due to the plot.
Suggested Companion Alternative Reads
- The Love Child by Edith Olivier : this is my favourite Simon recommendation! It’s another novel about a person accidentally conjuring up another person out of their imagination. In this case, though, it’s beautifully done.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson : this will make your flesh creep, as Jackson intended, and it revolves around how people can be trapped by love and obligation.
- Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi : another book that revolves around whether imaginary characters come to life deserve their independence, and it explicitly takes on patriarchy and male privilege with a male author and his female character, whom he keeps killing off in various ways.