Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel, based very loosely on the life of my grandmother – the Miss Hargreaves of the title and a black sheep if ever there was one. It is an extraordinary story but I knew nothing about it, or her, until I was well into adulthood.
As a child, my mother told me that her mother had died young - and because her father had died young too, the story seemed to make a kind of sense. My mum grew up with an aunt and uncle in a small Shropshire town: Saturday matinees, The Girls’ Friendly Society, Coventry on fire after German bombing and, after the war, holidays at the seaside.
I think I was always aware that there were shadows, spaces at the table, but I was also incurious in the way that the young can be about their own families. Something didn’t quite add up. Her father died of tuberculosis but the cause of her mother’s death was never mentioned – and I never asked. I remember very clearly the day my mother told me ‘the truth’. We were sitting outside a coffee shop on a Summer’s day in a London far from her own childhood, and immeasurably far from my grandmother’s – though I didn’t know it then.
What my mother told me. Her mother, Rene, hadn’t died young but she had disappeared. More precisely, she had abandoned her three young children and her husband, left Manchester and disappeared into the mist of World War Two. My mother never saw her again. She had become a Land Girl somewhere in Berkshire, working for a woman farmer. They had struck up a friendship or perhaps it was more, she said, because many years later they were still living together in Cornwall. Last but by no means least, my mum told me that Rene had stood trial for the murder of a man whom she remembered being described as her lodger. It was in the early 1960s - she wasn’t sure exactly when.
Not surprisingly, she hadn’t wanted to tell me any of this when I was a child. In children’s stories, especially in fairy tales, grandmothers are homely, rocking-chair figures or wicked witches in the woods. The grandmother my mum told me about certainly wasn’t cosy, but did that make her a woman with wolf’s teeth and dreams of eating little Hansel?
The story took some time to sink in, I didn’t know how I felt about this replotting of the family history, but it was also tantalising - not least because of the gaps. Who was the woman farmer? What had bound them together? How had they come to Cornwall so many years later? How did Rene end up in court?
What I discovered when I began to investigate her life, helped by various leads from my mother, was both fascinating and disturbing. On the one hand, Rene was a woman who had attempted to build a new life, after dramatically breaching the gender rules. She refused to be a wife, she refused to be a mother, but only after trying to be both. She ran away and began a different way of living, a hard one, far from the city streets she knew, and she stuck with it.
I was sure that the woman she had met at the farm was the key to this, and I wanted to know who she was and what had connected them so powerfully together. But I was also painfully aware that in seeking a another life, Rene had abandoned her children, a hugely destructive act with far-reaching consequences – something that couldn’t be forgiven, far less put aside. I wanted to know how these two Renes fitted together.
Rene was a woman who had attempted to build a new life, after dramatically breaching the gender rules. She refused to be a wife, she refused to be a mother, but only after trying to be both
Some things were easy to find out from censuses and birth certificates. The Berkshire farm where Rene went to work was called Starlight (an impossibly romantic name) and the woman farmer’s name was Elsie Boston. But as anyone who has done this type of research knows, momentary satisfaction at what you’ve discovered can quickly give way to frustration and dead ends. And my research was also haphazard, intermittent, fitted in around work and home.
The breakthrough was the bundle of police interview records that were part of the court process, in particular the long statements from Rene and Elsie. I had thought that working on the land meant staying in one place – in Rene and Elsie’s case I couldn’t have been more wrong. They had travelled all over England in their quest for work that was ‘away from the towns’.
There were tantalising details of their lives together, the cup of tea they shared in their bedroom in the morning, the allocation of household tasks, their evening routine which really did include The Archers. These are the sorts of patterns of who did what and when that inevitably become part of a court case but they also hinted at how they lived and how they spoke: Elsie’s speech more formal than Rene’s frank, brisk manner. The same voices also emerge fleetingly in the press coverage of the time.
I made lots of notes. I wanted to write something but didn’t know what, though I wasn’t thinking then of writing a novel. In an odd way I was lucky. Lives like Rene’s and Elsie’s - or rather the life they lived together - leave few traces unless they intersect with war and law. I was able to look at Rene’s Land Girl service record card together with the note of her resignation: ‘Reason: partnership in farm’.
Late on in my research I came across a letter addressed to them both at Starlight Farm, from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries; here they were finally, together on an envelope: ‘Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves’.
But I still didn’t feel that I had fully got hold of the two Renes, or really understood how she and Elsie had lived and worked together. And one day I sat down and wrote a series of letters from Rene to Elsie and back – the kind of letters I’d liked to have found, in the kind of box in which you find such things, letters in which because they are temporarily separated, they talk about their lives together. And that was how I started to write my novel.
I have two photographs of Rene. One, given to me by my mum, is a wedding photo. Four people: Rene, her husband standing behind her looking a bit sheepish, and another man and woman who may be a couple or may be friends of the bride or groom. Only the woman to Rene’s right is smiling; no one looks at their ease. Rene’s curls look like they could snap. There is a large bouquet of flowers spread across her lap which seems strategic – it is an old family story that she was already pregnant when she got married.
The other image, printed in a newspaper at the time of the trial, shows Rene with a little dog on her lap – her hair is cut short and she is smiling very slightly. I like to think she looks comfortable. The caption below reads ‘Rene Hargreaves: Poison in the Beer’. You couldn’t be sure it was the same woman in both photos; it isn’t just the years that have passed - you can’t draw a straight line between one life and another. I thought at first that writing the novel might resolve the two Renes and the elusive relationship between Rene and Elsie, but over time I came to realise that the ambiguities, the opacities were part of the story, part of its satisfaction and peculiar resolution. I hope that readers will agree.
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'A surprisingly touching account of hidden lives forced out of the shadows' Sunday Times
'So lovely, gentle yet enthralling' Claire Fuller
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?