Reviewed by Harriet Devine.
Why on earth have we not heard of Celia Fremlin? Well, I certainly hadn’t until recently, and having discovered her brilliant ‘novels of domestic suspense’ through Faber Finds, I am genuinely amazed that she somehow dropped out of sight after her final novel was published in 1994. Born in 1914, in middle-class Middlesex, Fremlin was a bright girl who studied Classics at Oxford and worked during World War Two on the famous Mass Observation social anthropology project, which was committed to recording the lives and attitudes of ordinary working people. Certainly this experience fed into the short stories she started writing soon afterwards, and into her novels. The first of these, The Hours Before Dawn (1959), won the American Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Crime Novel. She went on to write another eighteen novels and short story collections, all of which Faber is now bringing out.
Appointment with Yesterday was published in 1972. It’s the story of a woman who is calling herself Milly Barnes, but that is not her real name. For Milly is on the run, from a terrible domestic situation that has led to some un-named and un-nameable crime for which she is certain she will be arrested and tried. When we first meet her she is travelling round and round the London Underground’s Circle Line, her mind in turmoil.
So come, now, Milly, what are you going to do? You have spent ten pence of the two pounds thirty-five that you had in your bag. You have the clothes you stand up in, including, luckily, your outdoor coat. You are forty-two years old. You have no skills, qualifications, references. Until these last terrible months, you led a life so protected, so narrow, so luxurious, that you are soft as pulp, through and through. You probably can’t work at anything. You have no friends to turn to, no relatives, because you are Milly now, and nobody, nobody in all the wide world – must ever have the faintest inkling that you have any connection with that woman who ran all but screaming into a London street in the early hours of Monday, January the tenth.
A desperate situation, then, whatever the cause, and what that was we will only fully discover almost at the end of the novel. But amazingly, Milly does survive, and in fact constructs a life for herself in which she discovers strengths and abilities she never suspected she possessed. She also finds happiness of a kind, with friends of a type she has never encountered before. But all of this is shot through with the terrible anxiety of possible discovery – she knows, deep down, that it is only a matter of time before somebody tracks her down. And she is right, though the final outcome is not at all what she had imagined it would be.
Appointment with Yesterday is quite a dark novel with flashes of humour. With No Crying could almost be called a humorous novel with flashes of darkness. Published in 1980, it is about fifteen-year-old Miranda Field, who finds herself pregnant after a miserably unsuccessful encounter with a boy at a party. Here’s how the novel begins:
She looked terribly young to be pregnant, but all the same she made a charming picture in her bright, flowered maternity smock, with her fair hair bouncing against her shoulders as she stepped along the sunny pavement. The women passing by, especially the older ones, whose child-bearing days were over, would give her a quick, furtive glance of curiosity not unmixed with envy; recalling, perhaps, the days when they, too, had dwelt at the throbbing heart of things, carrying within them the whole secret of life.
A charming picture, isn’t it. But all is not what it seems, as Miranda, as we discover after a couple of paragraphs, is not actually pregnant at all, or not any more – “underneath the voluminous smock and the carefully-contrived padding, there lay a stomach as flat as a boy’s, and a hollow, empty womb”.
The reason behind Miranda’s subterfuge becomes clear fairly soon, but it has landed her in a most peculiar situation. She has been taken in by a flat-full of charming, rather scatty squatters, who are overcome with compassion and excitement about the new baby which is supposedly due very soon. Overwhelmed by their kindness and far too deeply entrenched in her lie to be able to open up to them, she is forced into more and more lies and deceit until one day her cover is finally blown. But the whistle-blower gets a bit of surprise and things don’t turn out at all badly for Miranda after all.
So yes, this book made me laugh in places, at Miranda’s attempts to carry on her deceit in the face of the fact that the expected baby is getting more and more overdue, and at her rather foolish flatmates, including Merve, who is attempting to write the great British novel but has absolutely no idea how to go about it. But of course there is an undercurrent of deep seriousness, in which the terrible tragedy of the loss of a child is a primary factor.
I’ve now read three of Fremlin’s novels – I started with the prizewinning Hours Before Dawn, which, though it was pretty good, I liked slightly less than these two. What is abundantly clear is that she had an uncanny ability to see into the workings of the human psychology. Not only that, but also she was clearly talented enough to avoid the common pitfall of the prolific novelist, writing to a formula. Certainly she is interested in women who find themselves in highly stressful situations, but as I hope you can see from what I’ve said above, the tone and the angle varies from novel to novel. There is much humanity here, too, and an amazingly lively, perceptive and frequently satirical view of human beings and their foibles. Celia Fremlin strikes me as someone I’d really like to have known, and I so glad that Faber has made available these reprints of her excellent novels.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read Victoria’s article ‘Celia Fremlin – A Life of Crime’ here.
Celia Fremlin, Appointment with Yesterday (Faber: London, 2014). 9780571312641, 208 pp., paperback.
Celia Fremlin, With No Crying (Faber: London, 2014). 9780571313013, 159 pp., paperback.