Tag Archives: virago modern classics

The Hours Before Dawn: Celia Fremlin (1958)

Celia Fremlin’s Uncle Paul explores the relationships between sisters, a past crime and a threat in the present. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother, Louise Henderson, who is so overwhelmed by motherhood, nosy, nasty neighbours, and a critical husband that she ignores the warning signs about her new tenant.

the hours before dawn

Louise has two little girls and a baby boy named Michael. The novel opens with Louise saying:

I’d give ANYTHING-anything-for a night’s sleep.

Louise is so sleep deprived that she even nods off in the waiting room before the baby’s checkup. She tries to tell the nurse that she can’t get the baby to sleep at night; she’s probably hoping for advice, but all she gets is a disinterested, patronizing woman who doesn’t want to hear complaints.

And the patience in Nurse Fordham’s voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.

“You see, Mrs. Henderson,” she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms–“you see, as I’m always telling you mothers, you mustn’t worry. He’s gaining splendidly–

Poor Louise. Her husband, Mark, comes home expecting cooked meals (including cooked lunches) and a clean calm house. It doesn’t occur to him to pitch in and instead he complains constantly telling her to keep the children quiet. One of the neighbours hints that she might take her concerns about Louise’s capability as a mother further, and Mark’s mother makes it clear she’s not lending a hand. According to Louise’s mother-in-law, “the most wonderful moment in a woman’s life is when her last child clears off and leaves her free.”

Amidst all the domestic chaos, the sleepless nights, and a husband who acts like the kids are nothing to do with him (I wanted to smack him upside the head), Louise rents out a spare room to a single woman. The new tenant is a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. It occurs to Louise that there’s something off about Vera Brandon. She’s a little too old and successful to be renting a room, “not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.” Why would anyone want to rent a room in a house when the baby cries and fusses all night long–especially if the prospective tenant has options? While the warning signs flash in the periphery of Louise’s brain, she’s overwhelmed, living in perpetual distraction and exhaustion so doesn’t act on her instinct.

This is a domestic crime novel published in 1958 long before the genre became popular. While some novels rely on glamour to whip up the plot, The Hours Before Dawn (the title makes me think of an execution) concentrates on Louise’s life and her isolation in domestic hell. The claustrophobic nature of the plot is alleviated with humour–mostly found in the other characters who either commiserate with Louise or condemn her. She forms a relationship (and I’m using the term loosely here ) with another  mother, the delinquent Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper, who believes in letting her children be ‘independent,’  frequently dumps her neglected children (Christine and Tony) on Louise, and Louise can’t say ‘no.’ Louise finds that she likes Mrs. Hooper but can’t quite articulate why.

“Hullo-I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class,” remarked Louise. “Look-can you get your pram out first? No, -Turn it a bit sideways-that’s right.”

A violent jolt form her mother’s rather heavy-handed manoeuvres sent Christine’s cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.

“I always think that’s such a natural way for them to get their vitamins,” beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dangled from Christine’s mouth on to her knitted jacket. “She got it all by herself. you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked,” she added wistfully, with the far-way look of one recalling past triumphs. 

The novel is its strongest in the depth of the domestic details of Louise’s life as she tries to cope with constant criticism, no help and very little sleep. The crime element of the plot is not shabby either–after all we’ve all read stories of similar sorts of things happening. But it’s the claustrophobia and Louise’s desperation that rings true here.

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A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

“Marriage is such a sordid, morbid relationship.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s dark novel A Wreath of Roses explores the relationships between three women–relationships which cause them to question the choices they have made. Each of these women: Frances, Liza and Camilla, have chosen different paths in life with varied success. Frances, at one time, was Liz’s governess, but since retirement, she’s concentrated on painting. Liz married a vicar while her childhood friend Camilla, a school secretary, damaged from a long-ago relationship slides into spinsterhood. Camilla travels, as she does every year, to the country home of Frances, where she will spend the summer with Liz, but this year is different. Frances is ill. Liz now has a baby, and for the first time, Camilla is shut out from experiences she has not had, cannot understand, and professes to reject.

A wreath of roses

A Wreath of Roses opens ominously. Camilla has reached a point in her life where she realises that life has passed her by. Being in Liz’s company serves to reinforce Camilla’s unhappiness: yet her observations about Liz are not black and white, not simple. On one hand, she can’t understand why Liz chose to marry a self-absorbed vicar, and the demanding presence of Liz’s baby has served to place a distance between the two childhood friends. Camilla is independent and can please herself while Liz frets about her baby’s health and her husband’s wandering attention.

Frances, who is ill, contemplates death, the meaningless of life and now paints from “an inner darkness.”  She has maintained a long-time correspondence with Mr Beddoes,  a rather lonely bachelor whose “spiritual” relationship with Frances is about to change when he travels to meet her for the first time. As a film director and an ardent observer of human nature, he’s the first person to recognise that Camilla is heading into danger through her relationship with Richard Elton, an enigmatic man, a charmer, also on holiday. Richard claims to be writing a book about his war experiences. ….

Camilla, who wants to return to her boring employment with memories to help fill her sterile life, finds herself attracted to Richard in spite of several warning signs and in spite of the fact that he’s not her ‘type’ at all. He has the “conventional good-looks of the kind that she, Camilla, believed she despised,” and Richard, for his part, dismisses Camilla as a “schoolmistress.”  A terrible event brings them into each other’s orbit, and once there, Richard and Camilla sense a need that can be fulfilled.  But they need different things:

“And women. Love.” he went on impatiently. “Where does it lead to, I wondered.”

“Must it lead somewhere?” She smiled.

“For a few days it didn’t need to. Then it would all seem like a play I was acting in. Been acting in a long time. A long run, and I knew all my lines too well and was stale and boring everyone. But most of all myself. Then I tried death.”

“Death?”

“In the war,” he said lightly. “I went up very close to it. My own and other people’s. And there it was. Unlike all the other things, it never changed. It was always real. I seem to carry the thought of it about with me.”

“You mustn’t.”

“Oh … I shan’t … it’s just that people are like doors. They lead you into empty rooms. You pass through and are left with yourself. Only death goes through ahead of you.”

Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the darkest undercurrent in this novel, and the novel’s tone is lightened by the gossip borne by Mrs Parsons, the cleaning lady, and by Liz fretting about her relationship with her husband. Liz acknowledges that her husband being a clergyman added to his initial attraction, and hinted at “inner mystery.” Liz is beginning to wonder if she made a mistake:

“I did think, though,” she continued, at once disregarding her own instructions, “that a clergyman would have something more in him than was obvious at first glance. But I discovered there was even less.”

Liz finds she is irritated by her husband’s almost continual presence at home and that she “is left with a rather cold and greedy man sitting at his desk writing notes to other women–casual-seeming little notes which take him hours and hours to scribble off.” This summer is a period of adjustment for Liz: she must adjust to married life, motherhood, and her responsibilities (and sacrifices) as a vicar’s wife.

A Wreath of Roses examines the lives of three women who all wonder if they made the right choices. There’s Frances who “assumed” the act of being an old maid while her dark view of life and unexpressed passion erupt in her art. Acknowledging that she threw herself into raising Liz, Frances admits that she also “evaded the pain and the delight of human-relationships.” Frances sees Camilla making the same choices that she did and even at one point says that “even Liz’s marriage is better than no marriage at all.” 

“We go on for years at a jog-trot,” Frances said, “and then suddenly we are beset by doubts, the landscape darkens, we feel lost and alone, all at once that we must grope our way forward for we cannot retrace our footsteps.”

While Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the novel’s darkest point, another dark undercurrent flows from Frances’s nihilistic view of life.

“Life’s not simplicity,” she said slowly. “Not loving-kindness either. It’s darkness, and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves. The sooner we are out of it the better. And paintings don’t matter. They are like making daisy-chains in the shadow of a volcano. Pathetic and childish.”

She sat down on a kitchen-chair and looked at the lamp burning; her clenched hand beat nervously against her thigh.

“The only thing that makes sense of it all is looking up at the sky at night and knowing that even the burden of cruelty we’ve laid upon the earth, scarcely exists; must fly away into dust, is nothing, too infinitesimal to matter. All the time, the house is falling into ruin, and I run to the walls  and tack my pretty pictures to them as they collapse.”

Caroline’s Review is here.

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A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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