Literature's least attractive power couple

A review of ‘Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times’, by Wendy Pollard, which takes this spiky novelist – and her dreadful husband, C.P. Snow – at their own inflated valuation

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times Wendy Pollard

Shepheard Walwyn, pp.499, £25, ISBN: 9780856832987

This book charts the rise and fall of one of the strangest power couples of modern times. The senior partner was initially Pam Johnson, a rising literary star, 28 years old and happily married with five novels under her belt and a fiction column on the Liverpool Post, when she singled out a novel by an obscure Civil Service scientist called C.P. Snow. He responded with a fan letter assuring her she could if she wanted ‘become quite easily the best woman writer in the world’.

Snow at 35 was tubby, pop-eyed and lumbering but his effect on her was electric, ‘like a current of magic energy’. She hailed his next novel as a masterpiece, and was as shocked as he was by the disobliging view taken elsewhere of what Anthony Powell in the TLS called ‘a painstaking and reliable account of university life’. By this time Snow himself reckoned he could hold his own with Flaubert and Turgenev, if not yet level with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

The pair were already planning what became their lifelong campaign to save the nation by rescuing the novel from extinction at the hands of delinquents like Simon Raven (‘a pansy with rabies’), Bernard Levin (a snake) and F.R. Leavis (‘Ass Leavis’). ‘We must get it into the heads of the public that we are Bigger & Better intellectually,’ Johnson said firmly to Snow. If she was the more aggressive campaigner, he supplied intellectual drive and ponderous purpose, dinning into her the need for popular success so as ‘to get hold of our steady 30,000 public — which is what we must have’.

But Snow himself was getting nowhere.  Then the third novel in his projected grand survey of the contemporary condition managed to make runner-up to a Book of the Month in 1949, he felt ‘like Aeschylus receiving fourth prize in the Greek drama festival’. Drastic action was called for. Or, as a suitably sententious would-be biographer put it, ‘CPS was coming to the conclusion that his literary prospects would best be advanced were he to enter into marriage with Pamela Hansford Johnson.’

She was all for it, organising her own divorce with characteristic speed and efficiency, but Snow proved unexpectedly reluctant. Even after the ceremony, he refused to enter the marital four-poster, let alone move into the new house they had chosen together, returning at night instead to his own bachelor flat. Although he relented later, there were still times, according to Johnson’s diary, when she might as well have been living inside a slab of cold pudding.

True passion for him seemed largely confined to the bouts of rage alternating with abject misery induced all his life by every mediocre review, missed award or bungled chance to come top. ‘The most unpleasant fact, which we’ve got to face, is that my reputation hasn’t crystallised enough to force attention,’ he wrote when US critics failed to come up to scratch in 1951: ‘An occupational risk of being passed over… is the greatest danger in front of me.’

Slowly his wife’s unswerving faith in him backed by his own tireless self-promotion shifted the balance. By the end of the 1950s the Snows had come to symbolise a union between science and the arts that touched a contemporary nerve at home and abroad.  For the next two decades their presence was mandatory at political and literary conferences across Europe, the US and the USSR.  Enemies who complained about their obdurate literary conservatism, or their uncritical public endorsement of Soviet systems and values, were dismissed by Snow as cretins or madmen, by Johnson as weevils and body lice.

Snow warned his wife against associating with unsuccessful old friends (‘this kind of literary subworld is the worst possible for people of our present standing and future hopes’), accepting a knighthood himself because, as he said, ‘people who compare me to Trollope ought to realise that I’ve gone much further in the Public Service than he ever did’. In due course he became a life peer and scientific adviser to Harold Wilson’s socialist government. Both of them worried about what his wife’s biographer calls ‘the concerted campaign to deny him a Nobel prize’.

Wendy Pollard writes as respectfully as even the Snows could have wished, itemising every last public appearance, social engagement and press mention, as well as doggedly outlining the plot of each of Johnson’s 29 novels. Other people barely figure in this narrative except in so far as they aggrandise the Snows. Deference coupled with incuriosity makes for a smooth surface of unremitting triviality.

The impact of Johnson’s amphetamine addiction is never investigated, nor are the anonymous poison-pen letters she received at intervals for much of her life, nor for that matter Francis King’s suggestion that Snow led a secret life like his friends, the novelist William Cooper and the Cambridge historian J.H. Plumb. All three had been taught at the same Leicester school by the same charismatic schoolmaster, who caused consternation 40 years later when the police threatened to arrest him on charges of paedophilia. A strain of suppressed homosexuality might explain much that remains mysterious about the Snows’ marriage: the aridity of his private life, her ongoing sexual frustration, the bland evasiveness that deadens his fiction, perhaps also the fact that he has had no biography in more than 30 years since his death.

A graver problem ignored here is the effect he had on his wife, always by far the better novelist with higher sales and a faster production rate.  She fought a losing battle to reconcile his implacably lofty tone with his increasingly mercenary requirements  (the endless money drain imposed by their smart houses, large staff and hired cars was aggravated in their final years by his horrendous tax arrears). She seems to have ended up a cash cow, turning out books at top speed: ‘And I can get money on it as soon as it is typed,’ she wrote on finishing the last one he lived to see. Increasingly dependant on drink, drugs and heavy smoking, she died of chronic emphysema in 1981, nine months after Snow. It was a sad end to a career that might have developed quite differently without her husband’s relentless emphasis on power, status and strategic advantage.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £23. Tel: 08430 600033. Hilary Spurling was literary editor in the 1960s. She is writing the authorised biography of Anthony Powell.

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Show comments
  • Kitty MLB

    Welll I neveer they say real liffe is strangger then fiction,
    they werre a very strange couble indeed.’hiss efect on her like an
    electric currrent’..mayybe that sam old gay mann and straigh
    woman isue.The puding remark..cuttting!

  • rjstove

    Well, of course, Pamela Hansford Johnson had the audacity to suggest (in On Iniquity) that there was such a thing as original sin; to defend Christian morals; and to argue that in certain circumstances, censorship was essential for high civilisation. So of course England’s chattering classes can never forgive her.

  • Janke Elliott

    I will always be thankful to Pamela H J for her wonderful extended correspondence with Dylan Thomas when they both were very young:)

  • I can’t really fault them on their opinion of the awful Levin and that old pseud, Leavis who, together with his dreadful wife,Queenie, made up the partnership which had by far the most toxic effect on English literature in this country in the last century.

  • Simon Fay

    They really sound like a pair of…so-and-so’s. If only they’d had Twitter and Instagram back then…

  • david cooke

    This article clears up a few mysteries for me about my early days at Alderman Newton’s Boys school, which C.P. Snow also frequented. The school master was still there and he interfered with virtually every boy that studied history with him. Part of the ‘studies’ involved getting dressed in skinny rags and performing reconstitutions of historical events. It was ‘any event you want, doesn’t matter about the script. It was so bloody obvious what was going on that even now, 50 years after his suicide in Paris, I still feel indignation against other teachers in the school. I still haven’t worked out how he got away with it. He denied even having been to our school for a long time.