Miss Hargreaves, by Frank Baker

Reviewed by Jeff Gardiner

This is a repackaging of a novel first published in 1940 by lesser-known author Frank Baker. To be honest it’s a disappointment and isn’t in the same league as Tartarus’s previous publications that include works by Machen, Shiel and Lindsay. It is a satire that explores interesting themes, but it is never more than vaguely interesting or mildly amusing.

Glen Cavaliero does his damnedest in his introduction to convince us that it is more than just a romp, by claiming it contains ‘moments of eerie beauty’, but the book itself fails to convince. It is a satirical fantasy that begins with a clever premise but then slumps into low farce without really being profound. It was even dramatised in 1953 with Margaret Rutherford in the title role, which I imagine was comical in an Ealing comedy kind of way.

Norman Huntley and his friend share a ‘fanciful imagination’, and when on holiday they humour a local by inventing a character called Miss Hargreaves who they claim was a friend of their dear departed vicar. They sustain the conceit, build up her identity for fun and even send her a letter. Then imagine their surprise when the woman appears in person. Every little detail they make up comes true: including the existence of her harp and annoying cockatoo. She also writes dreadful poetry – a joke that quickly wears thin. Miss Hargreaves herself is fussy and overbearing, but what Norman learns as the novels drags on is that he actually cares for his own creation.

I can see what the author was trying to explore psychologically: that lies will come back to haunt you; that you must take responsibility over your words and actions. Perhaps it is meant to be a deeper exploration of the very nature of being a creator, or god – but the novel simply never deserves this over-reading. It’s just a witty and slight comic whimsy, and therefore will only appeal to supernatural fiction completists.

The best character in the book is Norman’s father who advises his son on how to lie convincingly. People will believe a lie ‘if you make it extravagant enough. It’s when you try to make a lie sound like the truth that people get suspicious’. Give it a go!

Published By: Tartarus Press, £30. Website: www.tartaruspress.com