Creative thought creates. Such is the simple principle on which is built Miss Hargreaves. And twenty-three year-old Norman Huntley has always had a strong creative streak: as a child, he was constantly inventing wild stories to get himself and his best friend Henry out of scrapes. One dark, rainy August evening, boredom and a perverse desire to make mischief prompt the two young men to invent an eighty-three year-old lady called Constance Hargreaves. As they get carried away over drinks, “Connie”, as they affectionately call their new fictitious friend, becomes more and more eccentric. The next day, Norman posts a letter inviting Miss Hargreaves to come and visit him. Then he forgets all about her.
But when Norman receives a telegram a few days later, warmly accepting his invitation, he feels the joke has worn a little thin. And when Henry denies having any hand in it, annoyance mingles with his confusion: who is this Hargreaves woman? He is not long left in suspense, for soon Miss Hargreaves herself arrives, along with Sarah, her Bedlington terrier, Dr Pepusch, her cockatoo, and a veritable mountain of luggage, including a harp, a hip bath, and three butterfly nets. To Norman’s alarm and dismay, she appears to know him intimately. It is no good his protesting that he has no idea who she is or that she doesn’t exist, because the fact is that she does exist and that she is doing her best to turn his world upside down. Soon, Miss Hargreaves’ eccentric behaviour is setting tongues wagging and causing Norman no end of embarrassment.
Worse, even Henry turns his back on Norman, refusing to believe that he has never set eyes on Miss Hargreaves before. The only one who accepts Norman’s odd story is his father, but as he is quite as eccentric as Miss Hargreaves, his influence is limited. It is nonetheless to him that Norman goes in search of advice when he is at his wits end and starting to believe that he must be mad. The only thing he is certain of is that Miss Hargreaves must go. While apparently concerned exclusively with the intricacies of the Kreutzer violin sonata he is practising, Mr Huntley pursues his erratic train of thought and eventually furnishes his beleaguered son with a solution: if, as he firmly believes, creative thought creates, then the reverse must be equally true, and Norman must simply imagine Miss Hargreaves out of the world the same way he imagined her into it.
Of course, as Norman is bitterly aware, such a thing is easier said than done. And the problem is that he is as proud of Miss Hargreaves as he is exasperated by her. No Pygmalion could have been prouder of this elderly Galatea. Cold-bloodedly getting rid of her proves to be more of a wrench than Norman could have imagined, especially when Miss Hargreaves drops her autocratic manner and makes a pathetic appeal to his friendship.
Light and humorous, with dialogues and situations worthy of Alice in Wonderland, Miss Hargreaves is a deliciously nonsensical look at the power of the imagination and the narrow-mindedness of small town life. Though it loses momentum a bit towards the middle, when the catalogue of Miss Hargreaves’ offences and Norman’s frustrations becomes a little repetitive, it picks up again and finishes with a flourish, making it a thoroughly entertaining read.
© Florence Berlioz 2011