B-Sides: Celia Fremlin’s “The Hours Before Dawn”

We’re on winter break until January 22. Meanwhile, please enjoy 10 staff favorites from last year. Today’s choice was originally published on September 26, 2017.
As Celia Fremlin told it three decades after the fact, The Hours Before Dawn was written at night. Lurching around Hampstead Heath behind a stroller that ...

As Celia Fremlin told it three decades after the fact, The Hours Before Dawn was written at night. Lurching around Hampstead Heath behind a stroller that she was barely awake enough to maneuver, Fremlin realized that parental sleeplessness “is a major human experience.” “Why hasn’t someone written about it?” she wondered. “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?”

The rhetorical question isn’t unanswerable. If there’s anyone less articulate than an infant, it’s a groggy adult. But Fremlin saw, through her own postpartum fog, the literary potential of that cognitive impairment. If the agony of childbirth is epic, the discomfort that follows finds its natural home in the genre of the everynight, the novel. More specifically, the mystery novel. New parents are ready-made for noir. They creep around like burglars trying to find a diaper without switching on the light; they edge a bottle out of a sleeping mouth with the dexterity of a pickpocket. Well-restedness may be a precondition of reliability, but unreliable narrators have their charms.

The Hours Before Dawn, Fremlin’s first novel, is focalized through the bleary eyes of a new mother, Louise, whose stroller seems to vanish and reappear at unpredictable moments of the night. (If you don’t want a spoiler, put down this article until you’ve gotten your hands on the book itself, recently republished in both the US and the UK). “Seems,” because we hardly know whom to believe, Louise or her better-rested husband. Or perhaps their spinster lodger, whose hidden diary eventually reveals her refusal to believe that her own pregnancy miscarried.

Fremlin’s reputation today, such as it is, rests more on her account of stumbling into postpartum authorship than on any of the 16 novels that followed. Like the Everymom anecdotes retailed by today’s baby bloggers, though, Fremlin’s blurring of the lines between fiction and autobiography understates her professional capital. Until marriage, Fremlin had followed a familiar path for leftists of both genders in the years between the wars. A Communist at Oxford, she broke into print with an exposé based on her stint as a cleaning lady. She went on to become one of the earliest recruits to Mass-Observation, a project that enlisted up to 60 volunteers at a time to eavesdrop in pubs, lodging houses, and, later, air-raid shelters and munitions factories.

The Battle of Britain turns out to be nothing compared to a colicky daughter.

Her characters watch one another to more sinister effect. Like some Mass-Observer gone rogue, the bereaved lodger in Hours scours surrounding households for babies who might be hers, getting a foot in their doors by posing variously as “the lady from the Welfare; and the lady about the milk vouchers; and the lady about Em’s special boots … the lady about the Registrations, and the lady from the School Attendance.” Closer to home, Louise scans her child’s face for twitches that might hint at impending sleepiness, while the lodger parses the color of the same infant’s hair for a clue that he might be her stolen son.

Zenith Radio Corporation’s 1937 “Radio Nurse”—what would later come to be called the baby monitor—brought surveillance into family homes three decades before CCTV. Fremlin’s characters act, at times, like human nanny cams. A former classics student, Fremlin may have intended the mothers whom she dubbed “the cat race” to function as a chorus. Jane Austen would have called them a neighborhood of voluntary spies.

The neighborhood in question is Hampstead Garden Suburb, a planned development just north of Fremlin’s own more bohemian home. As well as banning pubs, its founders forbade garden walls: hedges provided a more convenient barrier for neighbors to spy though. Like the landlady-lodger dyad, though, the relations among neighbors fascinated Fremlin. She noticed, for example, that it was considered as rude to knock before entering the other half of a semi as not to knock when entering an adjacent single-family house.

Fremlin’s original back-flap bio chirped that “she finds the running of a house and the writing of novels an ideal combination of jobs, as … neither demands a rigid adherence to set hours.” At three in the morning, though, set hours start to look underrated. In what were coming to be known as “bedroom suburbs,” wives took the night shift while husbands slept: the suburbs segregated the sexes not just in space but in time.


Sleep and Synchronicity

By David Henkin

Fremlin’s training for a second-class circadian status came as an air-raid warden, but the Battle of Britain turned out to be nothing compared to a colicky daughter. When Louise, desperate to remove the crying baby from earshot so that her husband can sleep enough to wake in time to catch the next morning’s commuter train, trundles the stroller off to the playground at midnight, she reclaims for women the same right that men enjoy: to work outside the home. She ends up being escorted home by a policeman.

What does Fremlin have to offer US readers? Think of her as the lovechild of C. Wright Mills (personal experience generalized into “sociological imagination”) and Shirley Jackson (dark humor limning maternal misery). The Hours Before Dawn might be an ancestor to the 1992 US box-office blockbuster The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the main difference being that as the scene shifts from postwar London to post–Cold War Washington, the lodger becomes a live-in nanny. Where Fremlin’s novel looks forward to the surveillance of the welfare state, Curtis Hanson’s film embroiders on an ancien regime fear of the wet-nurse, showing Rebecca de Mornay’s clock alarm beeping at 3 a.m., when it’s time for her to sneak into the baby’s room and unbutton her nightgown. Fremlin, always matter-of-fact, would have known that the hours before dawn are the worst possible time to tiptoe around the parents of a baby.

Yet the closest equivalent to Fremlin’s patch of North London may be the canyon housing developments of Southern California. Those were chronicled by the noir novelist Margaret Millar, as great as Fremlin and as inexplicably forgotten. Millar shared Fremlin’s insight that the novel could skewer suburban gender relations more nimbly than could essayistic satires like Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique.

Fremlin’s characters aren’t jumping into bed with anyone; they rarely make it into bed at all.

Millar too zeroed in on women keeping watch through the picture window over the open-plan sink. A Stranger in My Grave (1960), for instance, aims to reconstruct what happened in her own life on a particular day—December 2, 1955—that remains a blank in her memory. Where realists of Henry James’s generation substituted irritation for rage as their characters’ dominant emotion, Millar and Fremlin make scatterbrained forgetfulness do the work accomplished in gothic fiction by concussion-induced amnesia. Fremlin’s con artists get away with murder because their victims distrust their own memories after a bad night’s sleep.

Now that Hampstead is being bought up by Russian plutocrats, the not-yet-cool Britannia of The Hours Before Dawn may feel distant. Postwar housing shortages generated lodgers, postwar real-estate speculation generated bedroom suburbs, and postwar social welfare generates an alibi for a psychopath who wants to pose as an orthopedic visiting nurse. Yet Fremlin’s domestic gothic comes out of a more durable tradition. Uncle Paul (1959) is only her most explicit riff on Northanger Abbey—the main update being to replace Austen’s Bath with an off-season RV park.

Fremlin’s turf centers on what Henry James called “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.” James was referring to Victorian sensation novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose plots hinge on sex, whether in the form of seduction or more decorous bigamy. Fremlin’s characters, though, aren’t jumping into bed with anyone; they rarely make it into bed at all. After some red herrings hint that the lodger might hanker after Louise’s husband, the final plot twist reveals the real tug-of-war to be over Louise’s baby. In a space devoid of men during the workday, the Victorian courtship plot gives way to plots of motherhood.

Make that landladyhood, for in recasting Bluebeard’s chamber as a bedsit, Fremlin changes the unit of narrative interest from a family—whether husband or baby—to a household. Hours opens with a neighbor warning Louise to think carefully about making up for her lost wages by renting out a room. It turns out to be good advice, though at the time the neighbor’s grounds for worrying sound lurid: she knows a landlady whose lodgers moved in with a suspiciously heavy parcel, then flitted, leaving behind their imbecile sister.


Shirley Jackson's Two Worlds

By Karen Dunak

By the end of Hours (spoiler alert again), the lodger has walked off with Louise’s baby. Perhaps the most frightening thing about its plot is the spectacle of an older economy in which crime serves to avoid caretaking responsibilities—hiding your disabled sister in a cardboard box or, more classically, drowning your baby in the pond—being replaced by a low-birth-rate welfare state in which the need to be needed drives crime.

In a later novel, Possession, from 1969, Fremlin depicts an overprotective mother who inspires in more permissive mothers “the same flush of pitying scorn that virtuous women used to feel on coming into contact with prostitutes.” Since that time, the replacement of husband by baby has become nigh-on complete. So far, how-to books and satire are the main genres to have emerged from American attachment parenting. One wonders what new novelistic forms will eventually do justice to the dark nights of its practitioners’ souls. icon