Mother needs something today to calm her down.
And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill.
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.
"Things are different today," I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for her husband's just a drag.
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak.
And she goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day.
"Doctor, please, some more of these."
Outside the door, she took four more.
--from "Mother's Little Helper," by the Rolling Stones
|it helps get her on her on way--to where?!|
Hilary was, loosely speaking, another human being, a voice and a full set of complaints to keep her occupied. "Would you like some apple-sauce--that goes down easily--and milk? and I'll bring my coffee in, shall I?"
She felt caught in a dangerous spiral from which only activity, any kind at all, could release her.
Margaret could never remember having spoken aloud to herself, in whatever extremity; when she had heard people do it on stage, it smacked of self-consciousness. Now, hands still tight against her face, she said to the neat blue and white pantry, "Oh God, what shall I do?"
A year after the publication of American crime writer Ursula Curtiss's novel Hours to Kill (1962)--quoted in the four excerpts above about the novel's angst-ridden protagonist, Margaret Russell--Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique--a non-fiction book about the angst-ridden lives led by many American women--appeared in print. Having been asked in 1957 to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion, Friedan had concluded from the responses she received that dissatisfaction with their lot in life as housewives was rife among them. This shocking finding--perhaps not so shocking to Friedan--led her to begin researching her book, which became the bestselling non-fiction book in the US in 1964.
Two year later NOW (the National Organization for Women) was founded, with Friedan as its first president. The group's professed aim was bringing women "into the mainstream of American society now in fully equal partnership with men."
The same year that NOW was founded that noted feminist British rock group (sarcasm!), the Rolling Stones, rose to #8 on the American pop charts with Mother's Little Helper, a catchy, snarky little ditty about Sixties wives and mothers popping Valium pills to get themselves through their days.
Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Feminism and the Holocaust, Friedan and Hitler--it's all pretty comparable to the folks at Human Events, evidently (Hitler comes in at #2 and Friedan at #7, that dynamic ideological duo Marx and Engels claiming the top spot as world harmers of the last 200 years). Tellingly, perhaps, the only woman Human Events apparently managed to find to serve on the panel of "15 scholars and public policy leaders" who served as judges was the late Phyllis Schlafley, the feminist-battling late president of Eagle Forum, whose last political act before her death was enthusiastically endorsing Donald Trump for president.
Meanwhile The Feminine Mystique rolls triumphantly on, over a decade after Friedan's death. A few years ago Norton published a special 50th Anniversary Edition, complete with a cover blurb by the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, drawn from O, the Oprah Magazine. We are a divided country still.
Putting all the controversy aside, since this is, after all, a mystery blog, I couldn't help being reminded of all the above by the subject matter and the cover of the English edition of Ursula Curtiss's marvelous little (I mean this literally, the book at 160 pages is less than 60,000 words, and none the worse for it) 1962 suspense novel, Hours to Kill.
The artful jacket, by Christopher McCartney Filgate, depicts a jaded looking, orange-hued woman holding between her fingertips a little greenish-blue pill (actually a blue and yellow capsule in the book). Though not in fact a Valium, the sinister pill, which is prescribed to a woman, plays a major role in the nightmare of horror that unfolds over a few days in the life of imperiled house-sitter and child-minder Margaret Russell.
|mornidine: making cooking fresh food |
for her husband fun again
Once arrived in New Mexico, helpful Margaret, who once had been engaged to Philip herself (awkward!), is tasked for a few weeks with caring for the attractive adobe house that Cornelia and Philip rented from a certain Mrs. Hadley Foale, as well as for the rambunctious eight-year-old little girl, Hilary Reverton, who was dumped on the couple by her carefree, Greenwich Village denizen parents, who are said to be trying out a marital reconciliation in Mexico City.
Margaret knows those Village Bohemian types, of course, who are frequent ill-favored stock characters in mid-century crime fiction: "Margaret had never seen Hilary's parents, but she was suddenly and uncomfortably sure that they were legendary Village types: sneakered, turtleneck-sweatered, so casual...."
It isn't long before Margaret has been left alone with Hilary at the house that she starts imagining all sorts of things, and that a sense of mounting unease slips in unbidden, whispering to her a series of insinuating questions....Where exactly is Mrs. Hadley Foale, anyway? Why do these strange visitors keep coming to the house asking about her?
Although naughtily inquisitive Hilary has been told to leave Mrs. Foale's possessions alone, she has a knack for snooping and finding the most cryptically unsettling things....
And why does she not hear from Cornelia and Philip? Why don't they ever call?
|in Hours to Kill|
little Hilary Reverton
ties Margaret Russell
all up in knots (figuratively)
Margaret only ever manages to leave the house a couple of times, once to take Hilary to the movie theater, where--in an act that doubtlessly would be considered child endangerment today--she leaves the girl unaccompanied to watch a film so that she can get an hour of two of comparative peace.
Margaret becomes increasingly dependent on her phone, fretfully waiting for call that don't come, leaving her prone to fearful imaginings. She occupies her time with domestic tasks, which start to overwhelm her, despite having "all the modern household conveniences," like jars of instant coffee (now there's something scary to modern readers!) and bags of frozen vegetables in the fridge. Although even somethign as simple as making instant coffee can be a trial when you're...unsettled:
It was the kind of morning on which catastrophe seems built-in, a smell of smoke hovers just around the corner, cups and glasses topple of themselves. Margaret had begun it by opening a fresh jar of instant coffee and, in her distraction, forgetting what happened when vacuum seals were punctured at high altitude. A geyser of brown powder shot up and then settled down over her hair, her dress, her hands. It was somehow, at just this point, the most natural thing in the world, and after the merest washing of her hands she wore the powder as grimy as a hair shirt while she waited for water to boil.
|another of mother's little helpers|
"These people are gentle as a rule--courteous to an extreme," a (white) doctor, come to treat Hillary, tells Margaret. "I suppose now and then one of them gets a wine-drinking streak on...." There does seem to some distance, doesn't there?
To be sure, one can push this Friedan scenario too far. Readers can judge for themselves just how feminist the resolution to Hours to Kill is. In all the Ursula Curtiss books I have read there remains that stock figure of so much mid-century domestic suspense fiction: the handsome (and ultimately eligible) male who helps get our heroine out of her jam and promises pleasant romantic diversion in the future.
I suspect that Betty Friedan, a critic in The Feminine Mystique of the lulling content of mid-century women's magazines, would have been pretty dubious about these sorts of fictional happy endings. Among women domestic suspense writers in the English-speaking world, I think Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin pushed a bit harder against comforting conventions.
Like Friedan, some of Curtiss's readers may well have found domestic life dull and dreary (and desperately unfulfilling), but I don't know that they all were willing to go as far along with Friedan in the search for prescriptions to ease that sense of personal malaise.
|don't be deceived by appearances--danger lurks inside|