Hazel McHaffie

The Hours Before Dawn

A domestic thriller?

‘Fremlin’s métier was psychological suspense in a domestic setting; no Grand Guignol or melodrama, but something a thousand times creepier and more insidious in its small scale, suburban gentility.’  So says crime-writer Laura Wilson in the Foreword to a new edition of The Hours Before Dawn.  First published as long ago as 1958, this was the first and best known of Celia Fremlin‘s sixteen novels.

Celia Fremlin? do I hear? An English writer and Oxford graduate given to reinventing the truth in her own life as well as in her fiction. She won several prestigious awards for her novels (spanning 1958 -1994), and that in spite of a double tragedy when first her youngest child (Sylvia aged 19), and then her husband, committed suicide in the same year (1968). Indeed she was predeceased by all three of her children, dying herself in 2009, so a sad life, and yet her sense of humour leavens the darker side of her writing.

It was her second child (Geraldine) who became the inspiration for The Hours Before Dawn; she was one of those babies who, though perfectly content all day, wakes and screams inconsolably at night.

Had I not been writing my own story featuring an exhausted new mother, had I not been studying thriller writing, I doubt very much if I’d have taken much notice of this little volume. But it jumped out at me as an intriguingly different kind of thriller from the stack I’ve been studying over the past few months, and perhaps closer to what I’m searching for than many. A persistent and pervasive threat of harm chills the reader whilst the tale, set in the everyday mundane world of a ‘normal’ young family in a ‘normal’ house within a ‘normal’ community, unfolds.

The story is very much of its time (1950s, not long after the war) and resonated for me having grown up in that era. Children turfed outside to make their own fun, babies in carriage prams browning in the sun. Neighbours in overalls chatting over the garden fence, addressing each other as Mrs So-and-So. ‘Mrs’ the honorary title given to any unmarried mother in the days before abortion was legalised, the lingering stigma of illegitimacy. Linoleum on the floor, counterpanes on the bed. Impoverished folk taking in lodgers, women bowed down by the weight of household tasks with few mod cons, husbands expecting to be waited on. Sock garters, cloth nappies, hand-wrung washing pegged on clothes lines. Nevertheless new mothers through the ages would surely relate to the sheer exhaustion of sleepless nights blurring reality for Louse Henderson, unless, that is, they have nannies or staff to take the strain of a demanding baby.

‘I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.’
For one awful moment Louise thought she’d spoken aloud. She jerked up her head and blinked round at the swinging streaks of colour that were rapidly resolving themselves into Mrs Hooper and her baby, Mrs Tomlinson and her baby, and that Mrs What’s-her-name in the smart blue suit whose baby did exactly what the books said, for all the world as if he and his mother studied the Behaviour Charts and Average Weight Tables together.

The gnawing relentless bone-weariness of sleep deprivation lies at the heart of this novel. A baby who cries for hours every night, two small girls with endless questions and squabbles, a dearth of the domestic appliances that make life so much easier for mothers today, irritable neighbours – all contribute to Louise’s permanent state of exhaustion. So the reader is left wondering how much of her experience is a figment of her overwhelming fatigue. Is she imagining the footsteps, the lodger sitting unmoving and inactive for hours in her room? Did she dream that the baby vanished or is he really in danger?  Can there really be something sinister going on in Louise’s own home? Fremlin manages to build the tension with exactly the right amount of menace at exactly the right points in the story, overlaying the whole with the constant blur between dream and nightmare, sanity and madness, reality and imagination, and lightening the darkness with her delightful wit and wisdom.

‘Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account. Your husband wouldn’t demand buttons on it – your children wouldn’t hurt themselves on it, or be made late for school by it. It wouldn’t pile up against you, like the dirty nappies …’

And in spite of the growing fear and the nighttime screaming, Louise’s love and tenderness for her baby shine through.

‘… the dead weight of his head lay warm and with lovely trustfulness against her neck’.

One of the things creative writing tutors tell us is: Don’t use names beginning with the same letter for main characters. Here three members of the Henderson family all have names starting with M: Mark, Margery, Michael, but I rather suspect Fremlin chose them deliberately to symbolise the confusion and repetition and mind-blowing sameness Louse is contending with. She manages to capture the claustrophobia of four walls, the relentlessness of early motherhood, and the changing relationships within families and communities, with insight and understanding. And to ratchet up the tension with a few well-placed soft footfalls, shadows, doors closing, heavy footsteps, vague presences – as the reader is sucked into the gathering doubt and dread.

It’s short; easily read in a day; but a little gem of a book. Exactly the thing to help me launch into the next stage of my own writing.




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