Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik: A Book to Believe In
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves , Rachel Malik’s first novel, is inspired by the life of her maternal grandmother. Rene Hargreaves, ‘a black sheep if ever there was one’, left her husband and three young children before the outbreak of the Second World War. Many years later, Rene Hargreaves was tried for murder. At her trial, a Miss Elsie Boston wrote the following as part of her police statement:
‘When I was a young girl, I went to live at Starlight Farm, Lambourn, Berkshire, with my parents. When I was about thirty years of age my father made the farm over to me by deed of gift.
In May 1940, Miss Hargreaves came to the farm as my land girl and I have known her ever since.’
From these meagre but intriguing facts, Malik has extrapolated an elegant and deeply moving work of fiction.
Miss Elsie Boston, spinster farmer, wasn’t pleased by the necessity of having a land girl coming to live in her Berkshire home but the Ministry of Agriculture was determined that productivity must be increased to feed the war effort. Miss Rene Hargreaves, arriving from London in her Land Army uniform, turns out not to be so young and frivolous as Miss Boston had feared, not so much younger than herself in fact, and determined to be useful.
‘Get up at five. The six remaining cows were brought in and fed and milked. Chickens fed and eggs collected. Phil Townsend came at half past six for the milk...And so it went on. It was just the two of them and it made for a tight routine, but Rene liked to busy, liked to be quick...Miss Boston carried on with the routine, and Rene wondered how one person could ever have managed it all.’
Gradually the two women fall into step and come to enjoy a comradeship in their work. They each see attributes in the other that they admire. They find that they fit.
'Sometimes, and Elsie rather liked this, she would come in to find Rene already there: the tea made, the biscuits which she once would have thought wasteful, laid out so neatly on the willow plate...they would sit up quite late: first with the concert or the play on the wireless and then more tea and on with Patience, and the shuffle and slip-plat of cards on desk and tray would get slower and sometimes stop altogether as they talked about this and that.'
Most importantly, Elsie and Rene discover that Patience needn't always be a solitary game.
That these characters are more than figments of the author’s imagination is evident throughout. Malik tells her story, her grandmother’s story, with a gentle touch. Where this book might have had a whiff of gossipy tell-all, instead it is bound by the warmth of a confidence reluctantly shared. Malik tells the story cautiously, only hinting at secrets, almost testing the reader to see if she can trust you, so that you lean forward, careful in your attention and keen to know more.
Circumstances conspire against Elsie and Rene. The powers that be aren’t inclined to believe that 'two maiden ladies' can run a farm. Land-grabbing neighbours loom ominously and Rene’s past life is in constant pursuit.
Life on the Starlight front wasn’t easy but they managed.
‘”We managed.”There was more to Elsie’s managed than getting by.’
They were rich in their way, living a simple life and having all they needed.
Their life together was a good one until it came under the scrutiny of the world at large. Forced to cast judgement on Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, the world could only see, at best, two women who were ‘odd and poor and gradually ground down by a situation that tainted them.’
Malik’s achievement is to have applauded the small rebellion of these women against the expectations of their time and place. She has redeemed these ‘curious’ women to normality. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves celebrates the love, respect and loyalty at the core of their relationship.
‘Their lives were so very ordinary except perhaps in one or two respects.’
This is a quiet book, hushed in tone. The language doesn’t sparkle; it was difficult to pick out quotable lines. There is a sense of insecurity, almost menace, about the writing which may or may not have been intentional. The author, at times, seems to lack confidence but that wariness lends the book an indisputable ring of truth.
I was reminded of Margaret Forster’s book, Diary of an Ordinary Woman. Forster presented the diary of Millicent King, whose life spanned the twentieth century, as truth. This reader was utterly convinced and bitterly disappointed on discovering that Forster’s ordinary woman was entirely fictional.
Rachel Malik, on the other hand, warns the reader that ‘Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a work of fiction and should be read as such.’ This turns out to be the only line in the book that I couldn’t quite believe. Her warning comes only as evidence of her innate honesty. The details of this book may indeed be imagined but the characters are solid as rock. Miss Elsie Boston and Miss Rene Hargreaves are bolstered by the weight of truth.
This is a book about perseverance, loyalty and slow-burning love. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a book to believe in.