Miss Boston And Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik
When Rene Hargreaves is billeted to Starlight Farm as a Land Girl, far from the city where she grew up, she finds farmer Elsie Boston and her country ways strange at first. Yet over the days and months Rene and Elsie come to understand and depend on each other. Soon they can no longer imagine a life apart.
But a visitor from Rene’s past threatens the life they have built together, a life that has always kept others at a careful distance. Soon they are involved in a war of their own that endangers everything and will finally expose them to the nation’s press and the full force of the law.
#GuestPost Location Cornwall:
Place is incredibly important in Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. The two central characters, Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, lose the first home they share – Starlight Farm in Berkshire – during the Second World War. For many years after, they must travel through England looking for work and for somewhere to live. They spend time near the Lakes, in Yorkshire, in Devon and in Cornwall, where they find, just outside the village of Rosenys, a cottage, Wheal Rock, to which they are strongly drawn.
Cornwall is famous as a literary setting and I was very aware of this when I was writing Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Far from the capital, Cornwall’s peninsular geography can make it seem like a separate country, surrounded on three sides by the dangerous possibilities of water. When Rene returns to Rosenys from London she feels the boundary that she crosses:
[A]s the train left Plymouth and Devon and crawled across the homely Tamar, the journey caught up with her. At last she was going home. And then as she looked out of the window, everything outside started to come vivid. The tide was well out and in the sandy sludge of the river she could see waders, probably redshanks though it was hard to be sure looking for food … Each stop seemed to take an age: the train would squeal to a halt outside the station, and a brief lull of warmth and summer sound would come wafting through the open window. Rene would look out, often she could see the platform, almost within reach.
Many writers who have written about Cornwall, also lived there. One of my favourites, Daphne Du Maurier, spent childhood holidays in Cornwall and, most famously, leased ‘Menabilly’ a house near Fowey on the South Cornish Coast where she lived for over twenty-five years. Frenchman’s Creek plays on the differences between rule-governed London and the wilder shores of Cornwall. In Rebecca, Manderley, as a place and way of living, is clearly distinct from the artifice of Monte Carlo where the narrator meets Maxim de Winter for the first time, or from London (depicted as a combination of bohemian Soho and orderly, domestic Maida Vale). At Manderley, nature and tradition appear to combine in some ideal way. Except that the house is haunted. The sea – central to the Cornish geography – is central to this haunting. There are places in the house where there is no sight or sound of the sea, others where it is insistent. The sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers explains to the second Mrs De Winter:
‘”You know now”, she said, why Mr De Winter does not use these rooms anymore. Listen to the sea”’
It is the sea that brings Rebecca back to life.
Winston Graham who wrote the Poldark novels moved to Perranporth on the North Cornish Coast in 1925 when he was only 17 (he already knew he wanted to be a writer) and lived there till 1960. The first Poldark novel starts in 1783, just after the end of the American Revolutionary War and was published in 1945. The last Poldark novel ends in 1820 – it’s a period of dramatic change and conflict. In the Poldark novels, Cornwall is represented as less socially fettered than many other parts of the country, and many days ride from London. One of my favourite things about these books is how they trace the interdependent lives of a whole community. Much of the hazardous adventure in Poldark stems from Cornwall’s closeness to various other dangerous places: Ireland and above all France.
The Cornwall in which Rene and Elsie live is very different. It’s the 1950s, some of the harshness of post-war austerity is ending, but money is still very tight. The cottage they come to love, Wheal Rock, close to the chimney of an old mine, isn’t by the sea though it is never far away and water becomes very important as the novel reaches its climax. They live outside Rosenys, but they are also a tentative part of it, accepted by the village. When the two women are faced with danger, there is support for them from neighbours, even if some find them odd.
Early in the novel, Rene and Elsie have to leave a place they love and become wanderers, they must follow the work and when the work ends they have to move on. Without work, they are, quite literally, homeless. When they rent Wheal Rock, Rene and Elsie are reminded of the long lost Starlight, but they also see the possibility of a new beginning. Wheal Rock seems to offer the chance to make a real home (and not just a place to live). This is one of the key things the novel is about: the struggle to build a home and what people are prepared to do when that home and the security it offers are threatened.