Miss Bagshot goes to Moscow by Anne Telscombe

Nothing to do with Harry Potter, this Miss Bagshot is an elderly British spinster, determined to travel to exciting exotic climes, by herself. Her escapades are an embarrassment to her family: here is a seventy-year-old spinster who her family members believe should remain quietly by her fireside, knitting woollies for her grand-nieces and -nephews. Instead, she travels off to exotic climes that might give experienced younger travelers qualms: the Amazon, darkest Peru, Tibet and more. No Brighton or Bournemouth for this intrepid adventurer! The largest drawback from her nephew’s perspective is her tendency to take off for far-flung places without the wherewithal to get home much less to pay hotel bills while there. Instead, she seeks a job when possible and works her way through the country until she’s quite ready to come home. If she can’t manage to earn fare home, she throws herself, as a distressed British Citizen, on the mercy of the nearest British consulate which sends her home and bills the family.

Needless to say, her family, already somewhat embarrassed by Miss Bagshot’s previous escapades, expresses a concern to the branch of the U.K. government which concerns itself with foreign relations. It is this concern that prompts the Home Office to start a file on Miss Bagshot when she develops a yen for travel to the Soviet Union. Despite Miss Bagshot’s nephew’s best efforts, she gets her visa and heads off to the U.S.S.R., on the same plane as a British delegation of the Anti-Fascist League for Peace off to meet their Moscow counterparts; she is quickly subsumed into their group as the result of a series of assumptions of the Intourist escorts, to the extent that they rearrange their planned tours of various factories and other examples of Soviet might and progress to include what Miss Bagshot would like to see.

It is on the delegation’s last day in Moscow that things begin to get interesting. Two of the British delegates, cooling their heels in the outer reception room of the British Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., notice whiskey being carried into the inner office. Tired of vodka vodka vodka at every meal, they throw themselves on the mercy of the secretary, Jackie, who not only produces some gin in teacups but also invites them to her birthday party, where they may get more non-vodka based alcoholic beverages. After a final banquet which does not quite go as intended–Miss Bagshot’s speech on women needing pretty frivolities in addition to the glories attendant on Soviet employment results in several officials rushing home with flowers and chocolates for their wives–several of the delegates head off to Jackie’s birthday party.

This itself is leavened by not only the mercurial hostess inventing amusing party games but also the presence of a journalist, Stewart, who is working for the Moscow office of a British newspaper. His story with associated photographs is picked up by the home edition of the paper…which comes to the attention of Miss Bagshot’s nephew. Horrified at her impropriety, he insists that his son, Humphrey, head straight for Moscow to retrieve her before anything more embarrassing happens. Unfortunately, just as Humphrey arrives, Miss Bagshot vanishes from the Intourist radar by leaving the officially sanctioned hotel for Jackie’s apartment to recover from a virulent cold while the hostess is out of town on vacation.

By the time the nephew finds Miss Bagshot, her disappearance has begun a minor international scandal, making the Soviet and British newspapers above the fold and attracting scandalized attention from her family and the British and Soviet governments. The press descend when they discover the location of the mysterious Miss Bagshot, but she is determined to not only see more of the real Moscow but find work teaching English to fund her stay. One night, she manages to give the reporters the slip, and takes the bus out to a deconsecrated basilica, and acquaints herself with the squatter families living there. Upon Miss Bagshot’s return to the apartment, Jackie is ruefully clear about the chances of Miss Bagshot moving into the basilica, insisting that Soviet Intelligence will already have stationed guards at the location in order to prevent further contact of this sort. This proves to be true–there is an armed policemen there and they are tailed by another agent. The book ends with Miss Bagshot coming home, dreams unrealized, and the Home Office thankfully closing their file on her.

Written fifty-two years ago now, this is a trifle outdated in terms of literary style and never was popular enough to remain in many libraries’ collections today. It does provide a glimpse into what visiting Moscow might have been like at the time, an era when international access to Moscow and the U.S.S.R. was limited in the extreme; while it’s not technically a travel book, I’m not sure quite else how to describe this. I appreciate that Miss Bagshot is, in the end, forced to acknowledge that things will not go as she wanted, realizing that her hostess the secretary is correct in her assessment of how interactions with Soviet citizens play out; in screwball comedies such as this it would be all too easy to have Miss Bagshot get her way, but instead she comes home, leaving unrealized her dreams of living in the dilapidated basilica with the vagabonds there. This is Telscombe’s first novel, and she wrote at least one other about Miss Bagshot, set in Tibet.


3 thoughts on “Miss Bagshot goes to Moscow by Anne Telscombe

  1. I wonder if you ever read Anne Telscombe’s “The Listener”? I can’t find anything about the book… (Reading your review, it makes me feel like getting Miss Bagshot books. I wonder what havoc she raised in Tibet!!!!!!!)

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