Between 1958 and 1994, Celia Fremlin produced 16 novels and 3 short story collections, yet so far I am only on my third read by her, so I’ve got a little way to go! However, each of these books have been roaring successes in ‘elegant, razor-sharp …writing’ and in their depiction of ordinary women going through various stages of life. Although using the everyday, Fremlin manages to add ‘an atmosphere of unease’ and I have to agree with Chris Simmons in their conclusion that ‘she succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’
The book commences with a middle-aged woman on the run; her name, Milly Barnes, from the get go is a fake one, as she attempts to scramble a new identity together. The reader is immediately assailed with a number of questions. Why is this woman continuously riding the underground? What did she do at her house that morning, which caused her to grab her handbag and run? She is a victim or a villain? Or maybe even both? Despite limited funds she makes it to Seacliffe and surprisingly manages to land accommodation and employment, (as a Daily Help), despite any reader misgivings. In between current events the reader gets to find out more about her background, often through flashbacks of her first marriage, which falls apart and then her second, which has consequences neither the reader nor Milly can anticipate… But it is foolish to think Milly has out run her pursuers, (whoever they may be) and as the reader watches her build a new life for herself, as an in-demand cleaner, we’re waiting for her past to finally catch up with her. But is it what we think it is?
Intrigued by the opening of this book, I have to admit a modicum of disappointment a few chapters in, as I was feeling that maybe Fremlin should have doled out the key information a little more slowly. As it seemed like she was allowing the reader to make a lot of easy inferences about what Milly has been up to. However, it did eventually dawn on me that one reason Fremlin was giving the reader a seemingly easy ride was in fact because she was creating a trap for the reader, caught by their own plot expectations and predictions. This is so easy to do given the subtly of the deceptiveness and trustable nature of the narrative voice. In addition, I think there is a prioritising in the narrative of the new life Milly is creating and its effect on her, rather than what she may or may not have done in her past. Reinventing yourself, was something very important to Fremlin personally, as family members recall her tendency to recreate her own past, happily changing key places and dates.
I also love that this text does check up on whether you’ve been paying attention or not, as at the denouement of chapter 3, with Milly having recently obtained a job and a roof over her head, the narrative smoothly poses this challenge:
‘as she lay there, basking in the contemplation of her own cleverness, it never dawned on her that, for a person planning to vanish without trace, she had already made two glaring and awful mistakes; one of them so foolish that, really, even a child might have thought of it, and taken more care.’
Can you spot the errors Milly has made? Answer (for me): No, but thankfully they are brought up at the end of the book.
A fundamental reason why this book is so successful as a story is the Daily Help component and how it is wonderfully explored and depicted. It adds such vivid and sharp characterisation, which may be due to Fremlin having worked as a charwoman during her university days. The way she depicts the power dynamic and relationship between Milly, as a daily help and her home owning employers, is masterfully accomplished. From the husbands who panic and are generally frightened with any social interaction with them to the wives who yes, may be so absorbed in themselves they call Milly, Mrs Er, as they don’t know her name, but who are also terrified that she may leave them. The power in many ways is in the hands of the Daily Help.
There are so many examples of Fremlin entertainingly poking fun at middle class mothers, yet it never comes across as cruel, perhaps because she is writing about the social strata she inhabited. You could almost say she was poking fun at herself. Nevertheless, here are a few of my favourite bits within this particular theme…
First up we have Mrs Graham who assumes all her dirty dishes are cleaned in the dishwasher and hence keeps no cleaning rags, yet equally points out the incredibly messy items which the machine can’t do. She is a woman who is keen for Milly to use all her labour-saving devices, yet of course all they do is make the job longer and less successful and I love the line in which Milly’s thoughts on her employer leak into: ‘But once she had a labour-saving appliance in her hands she was like a gangster with a gun, nothing could turn her from her purpose.’ It is a given that such an employer is also lacking in self-awareness when it comes to her deficiency in consideration to others. Fremlin pulls this off well in lengthy listing, which makes reveals a simple request to be anything but simple:
‘If you could just get her up and, change her nappy? And then keep her with you while you the dining room? She’s no trouble: you just have to see that she doesn’t pull down the ornaments, or open the sideboard, or put anything in her mouth, or interfere with the papers on the couch, or get at the china in the cabinet, or play with the lamp flex, or pull the books out of the bottom shelf, or pinch her fingers in the door – Oh, and watch out for the vases, won’t you, Mrs Er?’
The free indirect discourse style of the narrative means we get to see the progression of Milly’s thoughts and her voice in these strengthens as the book unfolds, with her inner remarks becoming ever wittier about those she is working for. I love the moment when she decides to not get annoyed at an inconsiderate employer, as doing so will entail the latter having to grovel to the former to keep her in their employ. She goes onto think: ‘But, noblesse oblige. Like other ruling classes before them, the Daily Helps of today must learn to wield their power decorously, and to resist its heady corruptions.’
You also get lovely social details in this novel and I must say I was impressed by the lower cost of living and how far a few pounds could stretch in the 70s. Milly only works for 40p an hour, then again she did manage to get her hair set for 80-90p!
Whether a character has a small or big part in the book, each one adds to the story and is intricately, yet concisely portrayed. From university students trying to play down their rich backgrounds, whilst equally trying to avoid work and responsibility, to Mrs Mumford the landlady, who you know you’re going to enjoy reading about from her very first scene:
‘The heartfelt sincerity in her voice seemed to bewilder her prospective landlady. After all these years in the business Mrs Mumford knew well enough when she was being “got round”. She could have taken her PhD any time, in identifying “soft soap” and “flannel”, and all the other rent postponing tricks that the wit of tenants could devise. But this sincere and qualified admiration for one of her ugliest and most over-priced rooms was something that she could not place. If you can’t place it, it’s dangerous.’
One last area, which I haven’t touched on is the ending, which understandably I am not going to give explicit information about. But it is a rather good one to say the least and not one which I had predicted at all. It may irk some readers in some respects, but I think it fitted the author and characters rather well. In some ways I think it is another moment of deception by Fremlin, in that on further reflection it doesn’t appear to be quite what it seems on the surface. I appreciate this is rather a blitz-like review, darting from good point to good point, but I hope it encourages you to give it a go, as it definitely gets a big thumbs up from me.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Author from your country
Calendar of Crime: August (7) Book Title has a Word Starting with A