Celia Fremlin died on 16th June at the age of 95. She had been a member of the CWA for many years, having written 16 novels, between 1958 and 1994, as well as three volumes of short stories. The volumes have been variously labelled as ‘domestic suspense’, ‘domestic mystery’, ‘psychological thriller’, and ‘crime novels’. They are in no sense ‘whodunnits’ – more a case of ‘who’s going to do it?’
Her first book was published in 1940 when she was twenty-six – The Seven Chars of Chelsea, which was a sociological study of domestic servants. She took various menial jobs herself as part of her research – and used the same material again in her novel Appointment with Yesterday.
She worked with Mass observation during the war, and produced another book War Factory in 1943, which is still recognised as a valuable resource.
Her novels make much use of her own life. In particular With No Crying, which she was writing when her youngest child committed suicide, can break your heart when you know the reality behind it.
Celia was a difficult person to know well, being very skilful in evading questions about her personal life. Instead she gave her full attention to whoever she was with, showing a true writer’s curiosity about one’s life and activities and opinions. She was a brilliant listener – so much that only much later did one realise how little she had disclosed of her own feelings. She did, however, hold firm opinions about everything. It was Celia who made a memorable TV programme about challenging people’s fears of urban streets at night. She walked alone through many parts of London in the small hours, partly to see what it was like and partly to prove a point. Celia was fearless when it came to that sort of thing. She was also a very loyal and attentive friend.
Her personal life was, in fact, full of tragedy. From the death of her mother when she was seventeen, she went on to lose three children and two husbands, before going blind and slowly sinking into a twilight world that lasted for several years. Her books are light and humorous at first glance, but just below the surface is an acknowledgment of the truly terrible things that can happen to a person. Her style is distinctive and the books immensely enjoyable.
Celia had a wisdom that was inspiring to other people, especially other writers; a way of challenging accepted opinions and making you pause to think. She was a great debunker of myths.
She is survived by two grandsons, who live in America as well as a nephew and niece. Many people will remember her with great fondness.
By Rebecca Tope