The light was fading more quickly now. Looking across the fields, they could just make out the roofs of the village where the swifts were still flocking their hectic patterns.
They walked up the lane quietly now and easy; side by side they dwindled into the darkening.
Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel as reticent and unassuming as its protagonists, and yet–also like Elsie and Rene–it is full of quiet intensity. Precise in its historical and geographical placing, it strongly evokes its rural settings and the women’s tough, marginalized existence as they work hard, first on Elsie’s farm, where Rene arrives in 1940 to work as a “land girl,” and then, when they are forced to relocate, in a string of different locations that become, often precariously, their homes. The novel does not romanticize their labor, but when, near the end, Elsie is ridiculed for describing their lives as “rich,” we understand what she means. They had enough, and they had each other.
In some respects the central event of the novel is the death of an unwanted guest, taken in out of obligation, who makes a mess of the women’s hard but peaceful life together. His coarse, messy intrusions wreak havoc in their house and with their routines until time together on their own terms becomes rare and precious:
They were still able to glean a little time for themselves at the weekends. . . . There were occasions when they got through most of the paper before they heard Ernest stirring and grumbling. Other times, they would go downstairs before he woke and share breakfast, just the two of them, and the spoilt, skittish Jugger [their dog]–it was such a treat. But neither of them could avoid a sense of dread when they heard him on the stairs, and Jugger cowered.
The very thinness of their pleasures makes Ernest’s ruination of them all the more despicable as he snoops and drinks and provokes. It is hard not to feel protective of Elsie and Rene, who have asked (and received) so little from life; this inevitable taking of sides not only turns us against Ernest but makes it impossible for us to be sorry when he dies–even when it turns out that he was poisoned and Rene is arrested for the murder.
Although Ernest’s murder and the subsequent trial are the novel’s central plot points, however, or at least its most dramatic ones, it’s interesting how easily subsumed their effects are in the novel’s quieter undercurrents. Surely an act as significant as murder should turn the novel itself into melodrama, should in some way transform our perspective on its characters. How can a woman dubbed “the weedkiller killer” by the tabloids seem so harmless–seem almost, even more provocatively, like a victim herself? Ernest, though abhorrent, is surely not so evil that he deserves his fate, and Elsie and Rene are hardly heroic figures of resistance, to patriarchy or to anything else. Yet all they ever wanted was to live quietly and honestly, and together, and as the lawyers and journalists gather and gawk, Ernest starts to seem in retrospect like a graceless embodiment of all the social forces that try to make something strange and ugly out of their intimacy. The glare of publicity exposes them to all the prurience the novel itself scrupulously avoids:
There was little outright hostility to Rene or Elsie but, slowly and carefully, the two women had to be taken to the vantage point from where the court collectively perceived them. It was not a deliberate tactic, and it was undertaken without relish, but common sense was relentless . . .
What did Rene and Elsie look like from the top of common-sense hill? In summary: odd, most certainly odd, and probably lesbians, odd and poor and gradually ground down by a situation that tainted them. The court knew how they were trying to do their best, but in the end they had had to ‘make do.’ They were certainly respectable, but no one would choose their life. Quillet and Clifford, prosecution and defense, were both convinced that Rene and Elsie wouldn’t have chosen it either, if there had been any alternative. Theirs was, by definition, a second-best life.
It is a conclusion not just condescending but deeply insulting, against which the novel sets the simple but profound loyalty of the two women to each other, extraordinary only in its very indifference to external definitions or judgments.
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is based on the story of the author’s grandmother, “a black sheep if ever there was one,” Malik says in her “historical note.” She outlines the sources she drew on, including census records, police records, and newspaper reports. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is, however, she asserts, “a fiction and not a speculation,” by which I take her to mean that she is telling a story attached lightly to the facts, rather than proposing that her story is in fact what really happened. It’s a fine distinction, I think, and also a thought-provoking one. I’m not entirely sure why Malik thought it was an important one to (try to) draw, but my feeling is that it has something to do with preserving the privacy of the originals, a paradoxical wish, perhaps, for people whose lives she has specifically and consciously brought into the light but who, as she imagines them, are happiest dwindling into the dark.