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Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (thoughts)

January 9, 2014

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
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.
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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2014 6:37 am

    I’ve been left feeling icky just from reading your review, which as always was incredibly thoughtful and insightful. I hope you immediately picked up a book that wiped away all your uneasiness and let you get lost in a world where women are actually people. :/

    • January 12, 2014 8:37 am

      Yep, my next novel was all about women as people! :)

  2. January 10, 2014 9:56 am

    Yeah, I will pass. Too bad this didn’t work better for you. I really need to read your other suggestions. I am pretty sure I own two of them.

  3. January 10, 2014 2:37 pm

    Oh dear I did skip the necessary paragraphs as I have this tbr bought on Simon’s recommendation.

    • January 12, 2014 8:38 am

      Don’t worry: most of the bloggers out there who have read it have loved it! So you’ll probably fall into their camp. :)

  4. January 10, 2014 9:11 pm

    Wow. What a weird hodgepodge of a novel, and definitely not what I was expecting from its charming cover and my understanding of what the Bloomsbury publishing group tends to put out. Never would have guessed the book would be so meanspirited and oddly mysogynistic; like dastevenish above, I feel a bit icky just from having read your review. It does sound like there were some charming delightful bits, but given the other content, I could see how overall this book would leave a sour taste in your mouth.

  5. January 11, 2014 9:08 am

    Oh Eva! I didn’t avert my eyes! A very interesting take on the novel – all the more interesting, in that I agree with a lot of it, and still love the novel to pieces. There is very definitely a sinister edge to the novel – but I think I found Miss Hargreaves’ actions as sinister as Norman’s; he seeks to control her, but she also seeks to control him. I didn’t read it as patriarchal or the reverse (I don’t believe the respective genders of creator and created are especially significant in the novel, but can also see how it could validly be read that way) but more a power struggle between creator and created being. Miss Hargreaves does, after all, wreak havoc in Norman’s life – threatening his relationship, his job, and his social standing – as well as he hers.

    (I was also intrigued that you thought Mr Huntley could only be a man – I do agree, the music scene is heartbreaking, and Baker doesn’t *quite* seem to realise that, but Mr Huntley seems to me more in line with fearful matriarch types – I’m thinking Lady Catherine de Burgh and her ilk.)

    Well done for finishing it despite your feelings about it! I’m a bit sad that you didn’t thrill it as I have, but an intelligent and thought-provoking response is still worth more than a thoughtless agreement. And, still, hurrah that we can agree on the joy of The Love Child! (Which, to my mind, is equally dark in places…)

    I do hope the other commentators *do* consider giving it a go, because they’re equally likely to fall down on one side of opinion as the other – and, indeed, I seem to remember there *was* someone who responded to Miss H in the way that you did. But I now can’t remember who it was or find their review… hopefully they’ll see your review and comment!

    • January 12, 2014 8:57 am

      Hi Simon! Firstly, thanks so much for taking the time to leave such an interesting, gracious comment (that somehow got stuck in my pending folder for a couple of days: I’m sorry about that). I almost didn’t post about this at all for fear of offending you, but I’m glad I did so we can talk about it. I’m relieved to know at least someone else responded the way I did; after I finished it and began reading bloggers’ posts I began to think I was insane.

      I’m very, very interested in how Miss Hargreaves threatened his job and social standing. I can understand how the relationship argument, although I’d say it’s more Norman’s oddness that was a problem than Miss Hargreaves, but you’re right that there was definitely tension between Norman and Mary (? Eek! I can’t remember the girlfriend’s name! And I read this less than a week ago.) that wouldn’t have existed if Miss H hadn’t arrived. But I’m going to need the job & social standing bits spelled out for me: maybe I just don’t know enough about village life in the 30s/40s? He did have to take a lot of teasing and guff in the first part, which was certainly tiresome, but in the second part how was the now Lady H affecting his job and social standing? It was really the second part that alienated me so much from Norman; I could see his viewpoint when he was just annoyed by Miss H being too demonstrative and wishing she would go away to some other place. But in the second part, to me it seems as if she’s just ignoring him, not undermining him (until after the letter and even then it’s more the threat than actual action), and suddenly he wants to kill her instead of just send her away.

      When I said I can only see Mr. Huntley as a man, I certainly didn’t mean that women/female characters can’t be thoughtless and terrible and vicious. But when you mention Lady de Burgh and her kind, they are all about their relationships with other people. They’re seeking to control and manipulate and intimidate, yes, and they always speak with their agenda uppermost (nothing’s going to change their mind), but they don’t actually forget the existence of others, even when they’re right in front of them. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’ll keep thinking about it to see if I can articulate the difference I feel in my gut. But you can bet when Lady de Burgh was a young woman on the marriage market, she was at least aware of Lord de Burgh’s existence and reacted accordingly. And even in her current fearsome matriarch state, she’s ultimately vulnerable to the whims of her nephew and the effect those whims will have on her life and plans. Huntley doesn’t seem vulnerable to anything similar.

      I do think the dynamic between a wealthy old woman and young man is automatically different than that of a wealthy old man and young woman. We live in a society that privileges (amongst other things) gender, youth, and money: switching the genders thus also switches the power from 1/2 in the woman/man scenario to 2/1 in the man/woman one. In fact, when Miss H comes back as Lady H, she’s essentially added class privilege to her wealth, thus changing the power dynamic between them. She ignores him now, because he’s of a lower class than her. And he doesn’t care for that at all.

      The Love Child is definitely dark in places, just a different kind of darkness, one I loved. ;)

      • January 14, 2014 5:05 am

        And thank you for your lovely reply! You definitely shouldn’t feel worried that I’ll be offended – even though I love Miss H dearly, I understand that not everyone would feel the same way, and I actually really appreciate your explanation of why.

        You have made me rethink Norman’s motivations, I will confess – I was thinking career in terms of those scenes where she barges into the organ loft or the Bishop’s Chair, but I suppose those are out of the way by the time she is a lady – at which point I see Norman’s struggle as the artist whose creation has grown bigger than intended, maybe. Which perhaps isn’t a justification (and I certainly wish he didn’t kill her at the end – but I saw it as heartbreaking rather than evil.) To an extent, I agree with Annabel’s idea about it being a farce, but it was moved me a lot… oh, it’s all very complex!

        I’m also going to have to think about Mr. H – you have certainly made me think, Eva, and that is the wonder of the blogosphere!

  6. January 11, 2014 1:15 pm

    I want to read this one, but I’m afraid I will be filled with feminist indignation. I love your list of companion/alternative reads. You’re brilliant.

    • January 12, 2014 8:38 am

      Haha: I’m kind of curious to see if you’d experience the novel the same way as me! And I’m glad the list was good for you. :)

  7. January 11, 2014 2:55 pm

    I wouldn’t have been interested in this one anyway, but now I’m DEFINITELY not picking it up. Ew ew ew.

    • January 12, 2014 8:58 am

      A lot of bloggers loved it though, and describe it as charming, which is what I find so confusing about the whole thing!

  8. January 12, 2014 7:58 am

    It’s amazing what different takes people have on novels. I really enjoyed this book, but read it completely as a farce – Ealing comedy style. As such I found Norman’s father really funny. I admit it does get very dark though, and if I ever re-read it, I’m sure I’ll have a slightly different perspective!

    • January 12, 2014 8:39 am

      I found the dad funny until the music performance, and then I was so upset by him it made me reconsider all of his other actions!

  9. January 23, 2014 3:57 am

    Hello Eva! I’ve been meaning to read this novel too for a while, and actually your review so intrigued me that I am really keen to get hold of it now! Disturbing, charming, comic, misogynistic – it seems much more exciting now than I had thought. Heh. I’m glad you wrote your true feelings about it.

    Have you ever read ‘The Brontes Went to Woolworths’ by Rachel Ferguson – another imaginary characters/real characters book, although I seem to remember it’s rife with snobbery and the poor governess has a rough time, but it is funny and a leetle creepy too. You might want to give this theme a bit of a break after Miss Hargreaves, however.

    • February 14, 2014 4:21 am

      Oh, The Brontes Went To Woolworths is brilliant! But I agree, more mean-spirited than Miss H at times. It makes an interesting trio with this and The Love-Child.

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