Enjoy Your Summer Holidays: Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin

published 1959

Uncle Paul 2

“You’re just in time for the bathe. I’m not allowed to without a grown up.” Grabbing off the floor of the caravan a sandy shred of navy blue worsted, twisted, as children’s bathing-suits always are, into a tight figure-of-eight, he waved it towards Meg in an encouraging half-circle that flipped damp sand in every direction...

[They eventually get to the beach]

By the time they had finished their bathe the sun had gone, and a cold, inhospitable wind was whipping among the deckchairs. The whole beach was astir with people bending down to pull woollies out of their bags, and turning their chairs this way and that to modify the chill. Isabel cowered closer into the Place [their regular beach spot]; Johnnie dripped his wet bathing suit into the bag of buns.

Uncle Paul

[Another trip to the beach on another day]

[Meg] continued to be surprised, though progressively less and less pleased, as the afternoon went by, and Freddy stayed firmly at Isabel’s side, laughing and talking with her, and paying the barest minimum of attention to Meg. He threw himself with extraordinary zest into Isabel’s preparations for a family afternoon on the beach; and, once there, he agreed with apparent alacrity that Meg should go and bathe again with the children while he and Isabel settled down in the Place. The tide was out—out, indeed, almost to vanishing-point; and when Meg returned, mottled with cold from partial and intermittent immersion in eight inches of water, followed by a quarter-mile walk through the wind in her wet bathing suit, she found the two of them warm and laughing.

commentary: Thinking of going on a British beach holiday in this nice weather? Read this book before you go…

Celia Fremlin wrote clever, tense domestic thrillers. All of them are short and sharp, very well-plotted with clues you only see afterwards – and funny, so witty. Fremlin had a knack for brilliant conversations, and for the endless irritations that people impose on one another. Her social observation is excruciating and brilliant. We’ve all seen this person out shopping:
She would stand with an air of infinite leisure and detachment while the assistant wrapped up her purchases, and then, at the very end, as he stood waiting for the money, she would suddenly rouse herself, as if astonished beyond measure, and plunge frantically for her purse in the depths of her handbag; frowning, peering, scrabbling, and growing more and more flustered under the assistant’s impatient gaze.
And endless funny and absurd conversations and lines:
“He’s so good! You know, you can’t ever really understand a man until you’ve thought he’s a murderer!”
She stared at Isabel speculatively, as if one could assess the exact size of a husband by a sufficiently careful study of his wife.
And the infuriating conversation with a neighbouring caravanner which ends in this situation:
Mrs Hutchins stared, helplessly, and a little aggrieved. By what features, she seemed to be wondering, could you be expected to recognise that a man had (or had not) been scrambling eggs?
The setup is quite complicated, and takes a lot of explaining. Meg & Isabel are sisters: Mildred is their much older step-sister, who ended up looking after them when they were children. Now as adults they are all holidaying in the same resort. But it is a place with a very unhappy history for all of them, and the mysterious Uncle Paul is a dangerous prospect – might he be coming back for revenge?

The characters move around the town from a dank, miserable and rather scarey cottage, to an excruciatingly ‘nice’ hotel, to the appallingly squalid family caravan:
“What do you mean, someone’s been here? How can you tell?” The question was justifiable. Indeed, any outside observer might have found it hard to conceive that any form of intrusion, from a smash-and-grab raid downwards, could have increased the chaos habitual to Isabel’s caravan.
The atmosphere of a miserable British holiday in 1959 is wonderfully well-done: the chance acquaintances in the hotel, the boy Cedric who knows everything, the mothers painfully trying everything to make their children behave, while disapproving (childless) elders look on, the difficulty of getting any kind of proper food outside a rigid timetable, the caravan park, the rain, the recurring theme of raincoats (always essential on a British summer holiday)…
Isabel had to decide whether or not to take her raincoat. This exhausting topic, which was apt at the best of times to reduce Isabel to quivering uncertainty, seemed on this occasion to be straining her powers of decision almost to the point of paralysis.
And there is the best use of a hatbox in any book – yes, even better than Anthony Gilbert’s The Clock in the Hatbox, recently on the blog, or this early YA book, The Gates of Bannerdale.

Fremlin’s The Trouble-Makers is on the blog here, and her The Hours Before Dawn is very good – but then, I have never read a bad book by her. They are short easy reads, but very clever and very memorable and very good-hearted.

HeavenAli’s recommended review of Uncle Paul alerted me to the reissue of this book.

Two pictures: the little boy – from the Tyne and Wear archives – is probably what it really looked like, and very nice too. But I couldn’t resist the weird glamour of the other picture and the flirtatious threesome as shown in the extract above (along with the long expanse of sand before you reach the sea): it’s from the Oregon State University archives, and shows the beach at the confusingly-named Seaside in Oregon - a place I have visited under false pretences. 

In the UK ‘seaside’ is a generic word meaning beach, coastal area. While living in Seattle, I told an American friend we were going to the seaside for a vacation, and she, thinking we meant the town, said ‘Oh we have a house there, you must come and visit us’. We were actually staying farther down the coast, but within striking distance, and so we were invited over and had a splendid time… The town of Seaside is, another fun fact, the end of the Lewis-Clark Trail, or perhaps the point where they first saw the Pacific Ocean, and there is a memorial marker on the edge of the beach.


  1. I can just feel the cold, damp weather when it rolls in, Moira. The descriptions you've shared are really effective! And I know what you mean about really well-written wit and conversation. It does sound like a good like at a beach holiday at that time, too. And what an effective atmosphere for a domestic thriller.

    1. There's a certain kind of atmospheric domestic thriller, with realistic details, that I think Celia Fremlin does better than anyone else. Most enjoyable: even if the holiday wasn't.

  2. I still haven't tried anything by Fremlin but I now have one of her books: Appointment with Yesterday. I picked it up at the book sale a couple of years ago. I should read soonish.

    1. Oh do read it - they are usually quick easy reads, and I think you will like her clever supspenseful plots..

  3. This review is a delight to read--the prose zings. And I can't wait to track down Uncle Paul. Barbara Pym is a favorite author of mine and, while not a mystery writer, she has a similar wit to Fremlin, as you describe her. Pym's characters are always carefully outfitted as well.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! and I know what you mean - I am a big fan of Barbara Pym too, and although the plots couldn't be more dissimilar, the brilliance and wit of the domestic descriptions do resonate.

    2. I just finished The Hours Before Dawn. Thanks a million for turning me on to Fremlin. I am hooked. Reminded me of Shirley Jackson.

    3. Excellent! So glad you liked it. And there are many more...

  4. Interesting photos, but probably not a book for me.

    1. She was definitely heading for domestic noir, but not quite right for you. As I was reading it, I knew I would be able to find some great seaside pics for it...


Post a Comment