Imagine if you and a friend created a fictitious person, and then that person showed up on your doorstep! That’s exactly what happened to Norman Huntley and his friend Henry Beddow. While on holiday in Ireland, they visited a village church. To amuse themselves in conversation with the sexton, they invented Constance Hargreaves, lifelong friend of a former vicar at the church. They had a grand time pulling the sexton’s leg, telling him about Miss Hargreaves’ personality, her unusual pets, her interests in music and poetry, and on and on. After the visit, and still carrying on a bit, they sent a letter to Miss Hargreaves’ address. When Norman received a letter in return, he was flabbergasted. Then Miss Hargreaves came to visit, and she was everything Norman and Henry had imagined.
Speechless, I sat down at a marble table and faced the Woman I had Made Up on the Spur of the Moment.
… ‘It is such a very long time since we met; indeed, I cannot remember now when or what that was. My memory — alas! — works but spasmodically in this, the evening of my days. But what an evening! Oh, yes! It is no use disguising the fact; I am no longer young.’ She leant forward across the table, tapped me on the chest with a silver pencil suspended from a chain around her neck. ‘Eighty-three, Norman; eighty-three! Five reigns. And yet — I feel as though I had been born last week! Youth’ — she declaimed, touching her heart — ‘lives here.’ (p. 60)
Norman doesn’t know how to explain the sudden arrival of a supposed dear friend. He’s sure everyone would think he’d lost his mind. And well, perhaps they would, so he continually ducks the question. He begins to question himself: perhaps he really did meet Miss Hargreaves long ago? Miss Hargreaves proceeds to insert herself into Norman’s life. She insists on meeting his family, and even goes so far as to buy property in the town. She completely monopolizes his time, but in a good way, just as you would expect from someone you’ve known for years. But Norman begins to chafe under all this attention, and under the questions and stares coming from his mother, his girlfriend, and others. Then he begins to discover his power over Miss Hargreaves: if he imagines her in a situation, he later learns the situation actually occurred. Some of his actions have permanent ramifications, altering their relationship. This creates a huge moral dilemma: if Norman can invent Miss Hargreaves, perhaps he can make her disappear. But does he want to? Could he bring himself to do such a thing?
I instantly liked Miss Hargreaves. Strutting about in her tweed jacket and absurd hat, spouting off with her opinions, reading her poetry aloud, drawing attention to herself and yet repeatedly protesting, “I abominate fuss.” She made me laugh at every turn. There were times I wanted to smack Norman, especially when he was being weak or self-centered. And I really worried about him when he faced the moral dilemma, because up to then he had been alternately kind and cruel to Miss Hargreaves. So as not to spoil it for others, I’ll just say the story wraps up in a way that follows the will of both characters, and feels perfectly right. I won’t soon forget Miss Hargreaves. Perhaps I’ll even meet her someday. 🙂