A Novel Soundtrack: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel about the relationship between two queer women, Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, that develops over a twenty-year period: from the early 1940s to the early 1960s. They themselves wouldn’t have used words like “queer” or “lesbian”, given the particular world they moved in. Despite the force of their commitment, they represent their relationship to others, and sometimes themselves, opaquely. Rene and Elsie come from different worlds – city and country – but somehow, they are matched. Rene has fled one life and Elsie soon loses another. 

The music I’ve chosen here is eclectic. Some of it is a kind of soundscape of the period. There are songs from World War Two, including one by Vera Lynn which is quoted ironically in the novel.  There’s a reading by Robert Frost of his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” – a poem that Rene’s daughter has learnt at school and comes to haunt her mother. I’ve also included music to try and capture characters and actions. Pianist Neil Brand’s “People on Sunday” is modern silent film music intended to conjure the city girl part of Rene who has grown up on cinema. Folk music is part of Rene and Elsie’s lives as agricultural workers. I’ve made contemporary choices here though – Christy Moore and Merry Hell – to avoid any suggestion of nostalgia for a lost English countryside. Rene and Elsie are working-class women and their life is hard. For a long period, they are itinerant with no settled place to live. When they do, a figure from Rene’s past threatens everything about their life together. 

Some songs inspired me while I was writing and are now inseparable from parts of the novel. There’s a point early on when Rene and Elsie visit the Uffington White Horse in the dark and spend the night there and I can’t think of that part now without hearing “Running Up the Hill” by Kate Bush. As for The Cowboy Junkies, I first discovered them on CD in a flat in Paris when I didn’t quite realise I was going to write a novel. That’s where I discovered from the National Archives that the documents I had requested about a barely remembered-murder trial from the early 1960s were now available. The woman in the dock was Rene Hargreaves, who was also my grandmother and the novel is very loosely based on her life. I’ve been listening to The Cowboy Junkies obsessively, while writing and reading, ever since.

So here is the playlist. Treat it as a soundtrack and listen as you read, or put it on after reading, as an alternative evocation of the novel’s moods.

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Rachel Malik

Has written for a variety of publications like the London Review of Books blog, English Literary History and The Guardian. She taught English Literature at Middlesex University before leaving to concentrate on her writing. Her first novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, published by Penguin in 2017, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (2018) and won her a writing residency at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire. She is currently writing her second novel.

 

LiteratureRachel Malik