Celia Fremlin's The Hours Before Dawn is a witty and sharply observed portrait of motherhood in 1950s Britain.
Louise Henderson would do anything for a good night’s sleep. With three young children – Margery, Harriet and baby Michael – she is constantly juggling the demands of motherhood. It’s a thankless task, trying to keep a chaotic house in order. Mark, Louise’s husband, is not much help. When things get too much – the children are too loud or busy body neighbours drop in – he simply walks off. So harried and sleep deprived is Louise she seems constantly one step away from a nervous breakdown.
Into this domestic blizzard walks Vera Brandon. She has answered an advertisement that the Hendersons placed for a boarder. Miss Brandon is a classics teacher. Her cool and composed manner unnerves Louise. Odd things start to happen around the house and Louise’s suspicions about the lodger grow. When her baby Michael twice disappears, only to mysteriously reappear tucked up in bed at home, Louise wonders if she’s losing her mind. Or could it be part of Vera Brandon’s mysterious influence.
Published in 1958, The Hours Before Dawn was Celia Fremlin’s first novel. It’s written as a page-turning mystery, with its clever juxtoposition of a self-assured professional woman against an overworked suburban mum who’s brains are near scrambled. The real meat and potatoes of the story, however, is the unvarnished portrait of motherhood. Fremlin really takes the gloves off when it comes to describing every aspect of looking after a husband and three children in fifties Britain. She writes like she has a lot of get off her chest. That’s not to say that this is an angry book, but it is sharply observed, intelligently written and often very witty. It’s unique as a frank and fearless description of unappreciated motherhood. The only book like it is perhaps Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, but a more accessible version, without the operatics.
A minor literary gem, to be relished for its intelligence and honesty.
The Hours Before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin. Published by Faber. ISBN: 9780571338122 RRP: $19.99
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