Some readers may remember the 1985 film Weird Science and its premise that two high school nerds create the ‘perfect woman.’ Weird Science was a hit at the time of its release and is now considered a cult classic. And why not–the film reflects Hollywood’s obsession with high school (high school sexuality) and it’s also a buddy film. And that brings me to Frank Baker’s 1939 novel, Miss Hargreaves. In Weird Science, the two high school teens created, using a computer programme, a sexy, scantily dressed woman. In Miss Hargreaves, Norman Huntley and his friend, Henry create an ancient, indominable, eccentric elderly lady using just their imagination.
It happens like this: Norman and Henry go on holiday to Lusk, a small village in Ireland. They had a “grand month” in spite of the rain, mostly in the countryside around Lusk. One day they decide to visit Lusk church and Norman feels a reluctance to go inside. Unfortunately, the sexton, a man with a squint and a “grave-digging manner” lets them inside the locked church. As the sexton shows Norman and Henry around the church, both young men experience a sort of dread, and as a way of alleviating the mood, they start making up a story about a fictitious woman named Miss Hargreaves. A lively repartee is exchanged between Norman and Henry as they add colourful details about the eccentric Miss Hargreaves whose hobbies include writing poetry and painting watercolours. The merriment continues even after they leave the church and soon the two young men have created a vivid portrait of Miss Hargreaves, along with her pet parrot named Dr. Pepusch and a Bedlington terrier called Sarah. At the apex of the gush of creative joking, Norman dashes off a letter to the fictitious Miss Hargreaves and invites her to stay at his family home in the town of Cornford. And this is when the trouble begins. …
Norman returns home to his family. Oddly, very oddly as it turns out, Norman’s father, an eccentric bookshop owner, finds a book of poems for sale in his shop, and to Norman’s horror, the poems are the work of Miss Hargreaves. The appearance of the book of poems should be a warning of things to come. Imagine his astonishment when Miss Hargreaves arrives–along with her cockatoo and her Bedlington terrier. She is everything that Norman imagined. On one hand, he’s amazed and proud of his creation, but on the other hand, she’s so demanding that she causes a great deal of trouble in Norman’s life.
A shrill, imperious voice had cried, “Porter! Porter! Porter!” Simultaneously the cockatoo, with a sepulchral growl on a low D, stopped singing. By now everybody else had got out. A porter sprang to a first-class carriage and opened the door. With his assistance, slowly, fussily, there emerged an old lady. She was carrying two stick, an umbrella and a large leather handbag. Following her was a fat waddling Belington terrier, attached to a fanciful purple cord.
With no small difficulty, Norman persuades Miss Hargreaves to take a room at the local inn instead of following him home. At the inn, Miss Hargreaves wreaks havoc, demanding food that is not on the menu and buying up vases she thinks are so ugly, they must be destroyed. Norman tries to tell a few people that he ‘made up’ Miss Hargreaves but no one, apart from his completely dotty father, believes him. Henry leaves Norman in the lurch at crucial moments and Norman’s young lady becomes extremely jealous of Miss Hargreaves. Norman finds that he must be very careful what he says about Miss Hargreaves as the slightest thing he adds to her imaginary bio comes true. Sections of the story have a certain frantic energy, but this is in contrast to other sections which are overly wordy. Ultimately this is a romp which explores the power and danger of imagination.
“Calm,” I said, “be calm, Norman. You’ll have her in a straight jacket in no time if you play your cards properly.”