When Norman Huntley and his friend Henry are on holiday in Ireland, they decide on a whim to visit the exceedingly ugly church of the village of Lusk. As their tour guide rhapsodizes about the church’s history, he mentions one of its former clerics. Intending to make a joke at the tour guide’s expense, Norman pretends to have heard of this cleric from a (fictional) common acquaintance, Miss Constance Hargreaves. He immediately — with assistance from Henry, who plays along — invents an entire personality and history for Miss Hargreaves, and after a while, the two young men almost believe she is real. But nothing can prepare Norman for the shock of discovering that a woman calling herself Miss Hargreaves is coming to visit him, and she is completely identical to the made-up description he and Henry had concocted! Miss Hargreaves soon embarrasses Norman with her eccentricities, and he begins to wish he could get rid of her — but how can he do so? And if he is really responsible for her existence, should he?
When I first picked up this book, I expected it to be a light, fluffy comedic tale, similar to most of the other early-20th-century British fiction I’ve read. I mean, the synopsis almost sounds like something out of P.G. Wodehouse! But while this book does have its comic moments — like everything that comes out of Norman’s father’s mouth! — it’s actually much more serious than it sounds. Norman’s reaction to learning that he has (presumably) created another human being runs the gamut from shock to amusement to horror. He’s often quite cruel to Miss Hargreaves when she doesn’t show him the love and respect he feels are his due. In this sense, I think Baker was making a point about the dangers of playing God: Norman created Miss Hargreaves and is therefore in some sense responsible for her, but he is too proud and impatient and flawed to fulfill his responsbilities. Overall, this is an odd little book that raises some fairly serious philosophical questions. Recommended if the premise sounds interesting to you!