Published by Penguin
Available in ebook, Hardback and Paperback (1 February 2018)
Source: Copy for review from publisher
| About the Book |
One day in 1940 Rene Hargreaves walks out on her family and the city to take a position as a Land Girl at the remote Starlight farm. There she will live with and help lonely farmer Elsie Boston.
At first Elsie and Rene are unsure of one another – strangers from different worlds. But over time they each come to depend on the other. They become inseparable.
Until the day a visitor from Rene’s past arrives and their careful, secluded life is thrown into confusion. Suddenly, all they have built together is threatened. What will they do to protect themselves? And are they prepared for the consequences?
I’m delighted to be joining the blog tour to celebrate the paperback release of Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. For my turn today, I have a fascinating guest post from Rachel on the family history aspect of the story and if you’d like to read my review, this is at the end of the post.
Black Sheep, White Sheep
by Rachel Malik
Most people have a black sheep in their family if they travel back far enough. Often, it’s someone who’s had a brush with the law: the poacher ancestor who is sent to Australia as a convict, the great uncle who was a bigamist and so on. Distant enough and they add interest or even glamour to your family history. Closer to the present and your feelings towards them can get rather messy.
There are different shades of black of course and some are pretty grey. Who would condemn their soldier grandfather, then seventeen, who slipped away from the brutalities of a first world war battlefield? Black sheep are often wayward, disobedient: they don’t follow rules, aren’t reliable. How we feel about black sheep depends on how we feel about the rules they’re breaking. When the black sheep is a woman, her refusal to be a conventionally nurturing wife and mother can loom large.
My grandmother, Rene Hargreaves, one of the two central characters in Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, was a black sheep in more ways than one. I probably wouldn’t have been able to write this novel if she hadn’t been. Because she was caught up in a murder trial in the early 1960s, a lot of evidence was collected about her life.
First and most shockingly, Rene left her three young children and her husband in Manchester in 1939 and literally disappeared into World War Two. Britain in wartime was full of regulations and documentation but there were also opportunities for someone who wished to escape – as Rene did. The Women’s Land Army knew there was a Rene Hargreaves working as a Land Girl on a smallholding in the Berkshire countryside. What it didn’t know was that she was married with three young children – because she put her maiden name down.
I don’t know for certain why Rene left her family; there’s no way of finding out now. There were rumours about her husband and it seems he was a gambler – and I’ve drawn this into the book. Because of Alan’s gambling, Rene lives in a state of constant anxiety. She doesn’t know if she’ll have money to cook the next meal or when the bailiff will turn up next to take away her furniture or saucepans. But that’s not the whole story – it had to be more complicated – and I wanted to hint at this. It’s not easy for readers to sympathise with a character who leaves her children, it certainly wasn’t easy for me – given that Rene was my grandmother and one of the children she left was my mum. I didn’t necessarily want readers to like Rene as a character throughout, but I did want them to really think about why she left and why she stayed away – it couldn’t have been that simple.
In real life and in the novel, Rene also becomes a very different kind of black sheep in Berkshire – one I uncomplicatedly admire. She makes a new life, working on the land and living with a woman, Elsie – the Miss Boston of the title. This can’t have been easy in the 1940s and 1950s. Prejudice and hostility were still society’s ‘normal’ responses if you were lesbian or gay. Big cities afforded some opportunities, particularly for the young. London, for example, had the Gateways or ‘Gates’ club with its green door, where lesbian and bisexual women could meet openly. But for two working-class women living in the remote countryside it wasn’t an option. Nor was it necessarily something they would have wanted. Rene and Elsie weren’t ‘bohemian’, in many ways they were very conventional for their time. But when I was reading the trial documents, I got tantalising glimpses of a shared life. It was a hard life but it gave Rene and Elsie a measure of freedom. In the novel, as in reality, this life, so carefully and precariously built, comes under threat from a dangerous and unwanted visitor. In the process, Rene becomes another type of black sheep: the woman accused of murder.
A black sheep is nearly always a rarity, standing out in a field of white or cream ones. A rarity can often look like an oddity. But Rene isn’t the only black sheep in the novel; there’s a whole field of black sheep in Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Elsie is the other major contender. She is viewed as eccentric by most of her neighbours and some dislike and resent her. This goes back a long way – even as a child she made people uneasy. She has an extraordinary way with animals – a source of admiration and suspicion – she seems to understand nature rather too well. But if you look at most of the other characters, you will see that they don’t quite fit either, for better and for worse. There are women who live together in all manner of ways, children on extended ‘loan’ to other relatives, runaways, cuckoos who push in or tread their way carefully into households, some of whom do terrible damage. There are men who live alone and women who live alone, contentedly. Maybe black sheep aren’t as rare as you think.
| My Thoughts |
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is the author’s debut novel and is the fictionalised story of her own grandmother, the Hargreaves of the title. What an accomplished debut this is – the prologue of a woman being released from Holloway prison pulled me in straight away – who is it and why? It is a very intricate and gentle story of two woman, neither of whom fit neatly into a pigeonhole of how society considers that they should live. For themselves, they are happy enough in their own lives and just want to be left alone to live how they wish.
When Rene Hargreaves first meets Elsie Boston, it is as a Land Girl in 1940 when Rene has been sent to Elsie’s small farm, ‘Starlight’ in Berkshire. Elsie is a fair bit older, set in her ways and the more reclusive of the two; being used to her own company – she doesn’t take to strangers and is not too keen on the idea of Rene coming to live with her but after a while the two women settle into a comfortable and co-dependent friendship/relationship.
Unlike Elsie who has always lived in the country, Rene lived in Manchester and enjoyed the city life especially the movies. However Rene leaves her old life behind, reinvents herself and becomes a Land Girl. She has a history of her own and her actions do not show her in a particularly good light; as much as I admired her for her fortitude and strength of character, I did find it hard to forgive and found it difficult to really warm to her.
Although it is never made explicit, it seems clear that a relationship forms between the two woman, they look out for and care for each other and it is this which sustains them through difficult times. Following a great injustice by the authorities during the war, they are forced to become itinerant workers, travelling around the country seeking work and accommodation. Through hard graft and Elsie’s talent for making a comfortable home from not very much together with Rene seeking work from wherever she can to bring in money, they manage to live quite contentedly with their animals until someone from Rene’s past endangers everything they have and their life together.
Rachel Malik has a very engaging way with words and very ably weaves the factual with the fictional to produce an engrossing tale. The descriptions of the landscape, wherever the setting, are rich with detail and the characters are brought to life with their foibles and flaws and the simplicity of their lives. As soon as I started reading, I thought that the carefully constructed narrative together with the descriptive prose and the gentle pace would make it a perfect fit for the literary fiction genre, perhaps more so than that of commercial fiction. Although having said that I think that anyone who favours historical fiction would enjoy this.
This is not a book to race through but one to be savoured and I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to both a different era and way of life, immersing myself in the lives of Elsie and Rene and going through every triumph and tribulation with them. It’s not all about feeding chickens and their domestic routines of who makes the cocoa, however. There are some surprises within the story and the courtroom drama in the second half made for compelling reading. The story is set between 1940 and the 1960’s and the prejudices against people who dare to want a different life to the norm are clear to see.
The story of Misses Boston and Hargreaves is one of friendship, love and loyalty. It is also a commentary of those times. I definitely recommend that fans of this genre give it a try.
My thanks to the publisher for the copy to review and for including me on the blog tour.
| About the Author |
Rachel Malik was born in London of mixed English and Pakistani parentage. She studied English at Cambridge and Linguistics at Strathclyde. For many years, Rachel taught English Literature at Middlesex University. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is her first novel.