Invisible Ink No 249: Celia Fremlin

 

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The world of mystery novels is now subdivided into a huge number of categories, ranging from alternative histories to supernatural thrillers.

But the arrival of the film version of Gone Girl  has reawakened an interest in “domestic suspense”. These are stories which only minimally involve the police, and are often based around marital suspicion, and the tensions that exist between wife and husband. The category’s heyday was in the 1950s, but interest has continued to the present day, via Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith.

One of its least remembered proponents was Celia Fremlin, who is ripe for rediscovery. She was born just before the outbreak of the First World War in Kingsbury, Middlesex. Her father’s first name was Heaver, her brother became a nuclear physicist, and she moved to Hampstead, from which we might deduce that she was middle-class, and yet she took jobs in domestic service “in order to observe the peculiarities of the class structure of our society”. It’s no surprise, therefore, that during the Second World War she was part of the Mass-Observation organisation, which chronicled the lives of ordinary men and women. She began turning her observations into prose soon after.

Her elegant crime novels centred on stressful domestic situations experienced by women fast running out of options. Fremlin took the sensation novels of the late 19th century and updated them for post-war readers, a trend that was already taking place in America, partially owing to a new interest in psychoanalysis. In Appointment With Yesterday, her 42-year-old heroine, Milly Barnes, is on the run with nothing more than two pounds in her purse and the clothes she’s wearing. What has she done to plunge from a life of luxury to this desperate new existence? We discover the truth at the end, and the result is quite unexpected.

The Hours Before Dawn won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best new novel, and concerned a stressed-out young housewife with three small children, heading for a breakdown, whose sinister new lodger is seemingly hatching a plot against her. In Possession, the heroine’s daughter becomes engaged to a young man whose mother has an ever-tightening grip on her son. Unfeeling husbands, sinister matriarchs, ungrateful children, untrustworthy neighbours, pregnancy and depression, all contributed to novels filled with dark (and often drily comic) forebodings. Fremlin happily lived to 94 – a blackly humorous footnote, considering that she championed assisted suicide – and her best work is now available once more.

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