By Victoria Best
Celia Fremlin published her first crime fiction, The Hours Before Dawn, in 1959, when she was 44 years old, and it was an instant success, winning her the Edgar Award for Best Crime Novel. But in many ways Fremlin had been serving a long, slow apprenticeship towards that moment throughout her life.
The daughter of a doctor, Celia was educated at an academic girls’ school then Somerville, Oxford, where she studied Classics. Her mother died when she was 17 and like many young women of her era, her duty lay in looking after her father. But Celia had been caught up in the Communist movement in the 30s and was a member of the party. Eager to seek out the ‘real’ working class with whom she had no contact in her own social circles, she took on work as a charwoman, an extraordinary choice given her education. But out of the experience came her first non-fiction book in 1940, The Seven Chars of Chelsea.
It was a book she’d been encouraged to write by a London University associate from the Social Psychology Group, founded by Frederic Bartlett, that then devoted itself to the war effort. Celia Fremlin was recruited via this network to the Mass Observers, a government social anthropology group monitoring the effects of the war on ordinary people. Fremlin began with research in air raids, noting how the women who could be shriekingly hysterical the first night had calmed down enough to bring drinks and supplies to the shelters by the third or fourth.
Her most significant work, though, came when she was sent to a small factory in rural Gloucestershire manufacturing radar components. It was riven by the class wars that raged in Britain despite the communal war effort. The assembly workers declared the machinists ‘coarse, low-class types’, while the machine shop felt ‘looked down on.’ Fremlin tried to disguise her systematic note-taking by saying she was an obsessive letter-writer, but really she was noting the effects of hard, repetitive labour on a female population who were new to it. The book that came out of her observations, War Factory, began sympathetically enough but could not conceal her annoyance with the factory girls and their ‘carefree irresponsibility’, their belief that the war was something to be endured, ‘not something to be plunged into with zest and enthusiasm’. ‘Their attitude is, in fact, almost the same as that of a child who feels himself shielded from the outside world by grown-ups of infinite power and varying goodwill,’ she wrote, from her position as a mature, responsible, deeply serious young woman of 28.
What a masterclass in observation Fremlin’s early life must have been! She was admitted to places and circumstances that no other woman of her class would have dreamed of experiencing, and throughout this time she was engaged in psychological research, her sharp eye picking up the undercurrents between the worlds either side of the green baize door, her ear for dialogue honed by reporting the gripes and woes of the factory girls, who read their horoscopes and discussed films to pass the time. Both her non-fiction books remain important today as authentic reportage from closeted, lost worlds of women’s work.
In 1942 she married Elia Goller and they had three children, Nicholas, Geraldine and Sylvia. Observing her own domestic situation with an objective eye, just as she had observed the intimate lives of others, Celia was particularly struck by the sleep deprivation she suffered with her second baby:
Soon after midnight she would wake; and again at half past two; and again at four. As the months went by, I found myself quite distracted by lack of sleep; my eyes would fall shut while I peeled the potatoes or ironed shirts. I remember one night sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, my baby awake and lively in my arms and it dawned on me: this is a major human experience, why hasn’t someone written about it? It seemed to me that a serious novel should be written with this experience at its centre. Then it occurred to me – why don’t I write one?
Many years would pass – and many rejection letters – before her first novel was published. In The Hours Before Dawn, Louise Henderson is beside herself with fatigue from a sleepless baby and the daily grind of two young daughters and a demanding, unhelpful husband. When they let their spare room to a teacher, Vera Brandon, Louise begins to have her doubts. Though Vera says she is going out, there are days when Louise is convinced she can sense her malevolent presence emanating still from behind her closed door. But Louise is beginning to doubt her own sanity as a series of unsettling events show her lack of control over her own life.
To modern readers, Louise’s exhausted apathy and her inability to get her lazy husband to lift a finger might cause irritation. But at the time of publication, this was a courageous and taboo-breaking book. For a woman writer even to suggest that glorious motherhood might reduce a woman to an enfeebled skivvy was radical. When Hitchcock picked the novel to dramatise for one of his hour-long television programs, he baulked at the challenge. His Louise Henderson is a glamorous, beautifully-dressed woman living in spotless perfection, warned that she is ‘breaking down’ when she expresses the least uncontrolled emotion. But Fremlin went on to exploit to chilling effect the claustrophobia of domestic space and the fierce social judgements meted out to women across a series of fifteen psychological thrillers. She understood the horror that came from witnessing the ideal of cosy family life rent by violent emotions and fearful secrets, or systematically undone by an outsider’s cunning intrusion. Her motto might have been: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Her own life, which was torn by tragedy, also fed into her writing. In 1968 her youngest daughter, Sylvia, committed suicide. A month later, her husband suffered a severe heart attack and then took an overdose rather than become a burden to his family. In the aftermath, Fremlin moved to Geneva for a year. Many of her subsequent novels concerned women starting out with a new life and a new identity. ‘However much a disaster sweeps away,’ she wrote in one of her late novels, ‘it also inevitably leaves a slate clean.’ Fremlin married again in 1985, but was predeceased by this husband, and indeed by all her children, as she lived on to 94. Her old age was blighted by blindness and then dementia, a cruel irony for a woman who had campaigned hard for legal euthanasia, and claimed to have assisted at least three of her friends to die.
But what was she really like? Crime writer Rebecca Tope described her as adept at avoiding personal questions: ‘She was a brilliant listener – so much that only much later did one realise how little she had disclosed of her own feelings. She did, however, hold firm opinions about everything.’ Her daughter Geraldine said that her mother ‘was invariably to be found immersed in her latest writing project – to the exclusion, at times, of her family’ and that she was ‘notorious within the home for embroidering the truth, and was quite often caught out by her family for telling “little white lies”.’ Her daughter felt this was simply an excess of the fiction writer’s craft, but in the same reported interview, she hinted that her relationship to her mother was not an easy one, and that it had taken them many years to find their equilibrium. This is the way Celia Fremlin looked from outside – a secretive but judging person, taking in more than she gave out, wrapped up in a world where the boundaries of fiction and reality blurred. But Fremlin once wrote a letter of advice to a would-be writer that shows her reality from the inside out, a life rich and frantic with activity:
Writing…is, and must be, an off-shoot, an out-growth, of a full and interesting life, lived among all sorts of tiresome and uncongenial people, and beset by all the problems, difficulties, pressures and pre-occupations that real living involves. The best writing is, and always has been, squeezed out somehow from the turmoil of a demanding and absorbing life — happy or miserable, in sickness or in health, loved or hated — it doesn’t matter, so long as you are right there, in the thick of it.
Peace and quiet is fatal.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Read also Harriet’s review of two of the new Celia Fremlin reprints here.
- Celia Fremlin’s Page http://david.fremlin.de/celia/index.htm
- The Mass Observers: A History, 1937-1949 by James Hinton
- Celia Fremlin: A Biographical Sketch by Chris Simmons (as foreword to the Faber Finds publication of Posession by Celia Fremlin)
- Remembering Celia Fremlin by Rebecca Tope, Gregory & Sons
- Gregory & Company – Celia Fremlin author page
- Blood, Sweat and Toil; Remaking the British Working Class 1939-1945 by Geoffrey Field.
- Celia Fremlin, The Seven Chars of Chelsea
- Celia Fremlin, War Factory