A Pastoral Symphony: Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Having recently read and enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth – two powerful but very different books about life during wartime, my interest was piqued by Heavenali’s review of Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. I thought that the story of an unlikely companionship between a solitary farmer and a landgirl would add an interesting rural dimension to the picture of wartime evoked by my reading thus far. As you can imagine, I was over the moon when I won Heavenali’s giveaway, and wasted no time in getting stuck into what turned out to be a highly engaging read.

The novel begins with farmer, Elsie Boston nervously awaiting the arrival of landgirl, Rene Hargreaves, who is coming to work at her farm, Starlight. Rene turns out to be more mature than she expected, having walked away from her previous life in the city. Initially, both women are reserved and respect each other’s privacy. When a mutual trust has been established, Rene chooses to confide the controversial circumstances of her past to Elsie by letter rather than face to face, but is met with unquestioning acceptance by Elsie. Gradually, what began as awkwardness has given way to a companionable ease.

A ‘we’ was creeping into their talk, sometimes an ‘us’. Shall we take a walk up Inkpen Hill? Let’s go back through Cole’s wood, it’s lovely in the rain. This ‘we’ belonged to Elsie first, and was usually a question; not an old habit, but a placing of the two of them side by side. And Rene, quick and cautious, took it up, sometimes in questions but more often to reprise – This is where we saw the hawk with the rabbit  or We should tell Colonel Pinkie about that bird we saw – do you think he’d lend us his binoculars? – so that the couple of months she’d been at Starlight, quick in some ways, slow in others, grew thick with incident and memory.

Luxuriating in Malik’s richly painted panorama of English rural life, I found the descriptions of fields, hedgerows, and the women’s simple daily tasks soothing and especially tantalising during the UK’s snowy white-out which kept me indoors.

She pulled on her boots and went out. In the garden, the vegetable plots were neatly marked out and full of good food… She tied up a few stray shoots and crunched some snails briskly with her boot, then she slipped easily over the gate and across the new tarred road to where the calves were waiting; the ones at the front rested their chins on the top bar of the gate. They all pushed forward when they saw her, greeting her with their soft moos and twitching ears…. She found Smoke by the gate of Yellow Field. He barked delightedly then lay down, front legs stretched out, his nose deep in his paws, bashful…Yellow Field reached its highest point almost exactly in the middle, and Elsie liked the gusty breeze that followed her up the slope. At this time of year the field justified its name, thick with buttercups… She whistled and waited to wait for Smoke, retying her scarf, watching the clouds – the sky was everything here.

I relished the timeless tranquility of this early part of the novel, and felt real anguish when the women’s future security was thrown into turmoil when a neighbouring farmer exploits the chaos of wartime agricultural policies to cheat them out of the farm. Thrown out of Starlight Farm, the women were then forced to find itinerant farm work, traversing the country, working where help was need, then moving on when the work dried up.

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After many years they finally find some stability at Wheal Rock, a small tumbledown cottage in the south-west of England. Money is in short supply and anything spare is scraped together to repair the cottage. It is not an easy life for the women, but, despite the necessary frugality, it is one which brings them both contentment. Much is made of simple pleasures: the wireless, reading aloud to each other in bed, the occasional slice of cake or nip of brandy. The nature of the women’s relationship is alluded to in the novel but is never made explicit, and to do so would have felt like an unnecessary invasion of their privacy.

Their peace is shattered yet again when one of Rene’s relatives passes away. The women find themselves caring for her ageing, cantankerous widower in their tiny home. His erratic and challenging behaviour becomes an increasing strain on the women. Alas, when he dies, the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death disrupt their world, cruelly exposing their private life to the scrutiny of both the criminal justice system and the media.

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It all makes for tense reading, contrasting starkly with the idyllic quietude of their usual existence. There was also something unexpected about the way that the novel unfolded that I couldn’t put my finger on until I read the Historical note at the end. It explained that the novel took as a starting point the real life story of the author’s maternal grandmother. Wow, as family secrets go, what an incredible tale this must have been to discover!

I really loved this book. I warmed to the eccentricities of reclusive Elsie and cinema-loving Rene and their determined contentment in the face of relentless hardship. Despite their quietude, they both fiercely resist society’s prescriptive gendered expectations.  Malik makes no excuse and gives little explanation for certain choices the women make – a mother leaving her children for a new life would not usually pass without comment or justification, and I found Malik’s refusal to judge or explain Rene’s decision refreshing. It’s hard to believe that such an accomplished novel as Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a debut, but I enjoyed it so much I can’t wait to see what Rachel Malik writes next!