Lead book review

Lonely hearts and guilty minds: the world of Pamela Hansford Johnson

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

The revival of interest in mid-20th century novelists is one of the most positive and valuable developments of our time. This has particularly brought about a reconsideration of the work of women. Beginning, perhaps, with the creation of the Virago classics, female authors have been brought back into print and given the sort of serious treatment they rarely received in their lifetimes. The Virago list of classics is not what it was, but the excellent Persephone Press has carried on the task of rediscovering out-of-print authors. Occasionally, other mainstream presses have wondered whether a new readership might be found for names from the past, and Hodder is now trying its luck with five novels by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

She was an immensely influential and powerful figure in the world of literature, plugged into the British Council’s networks and much relied on in official circles. Those circles no doubt valued her efficiency and productivity. She was Dylan Thomas’s girlfriend, and in the 1950s married another writer of very high official esteem, C.P. Snow.

The two of them were a formidable presence to writers of the time, dispensing approval or censure through book reviews, lectures and public patronage. Many authors frankly loathed either or both of them. Elizabeth Taylor, whose place among the rescued novelists of the period now seems assured as supreme, suffered a good deal at Johnson’s hands. A chilling photograph shows Taylor and Johnson attempting to smile at each other at a cocktail party. After Snow’s death in 1980, his (to me) almost unreadably pedestrian roman-fleuve Strangers and Brothers sank rapidly out of view, despite a lengthy television dramatisation; after Johnson’s death, less than a year later, she too more or less disappeared. Is she worth returning to?

The career bears some interesting comparisons to Anthony Powell’s faintly dogged character Ada Leintwardine, whose imagined novels have precisely the same dustily tawdry titles as Johnson’s, the scandals of long ago; and as Johnson did, Leintwardine marries a dispenser of cultural values. Opening Johnson’s novels, one has the curious sensation of being allowed at last to read the real-world originals of Leintwardine’s Bedsores, The Bitch Pack Meets on Wednesdays and I Stopped at a Chemist.

Hodder has reissued five of Hansford’s novels: her first, published in 1935; three from her heyday in the 1950s; and a late one from 1972. The first, This Bed Thy Centre, caused a minor scandal with its supposed sexual frankness. This edition includes a later preface by Johnson rather remarkable for its self-congratulation and its disingenuousness about the intention behind the sex scenes. (‘I was absolutely miserable. My dreams were black with fear of the Public Prosecutor.’)

The novel actually appears quite calculating in its SA, as the period would have put it. Women characters take off their clothes and gaze at their bodies for no adequately explored reason; lesbian erotic longings strike without warning; bold bedroom scenes between unmarried couples are tiptoed around. She is doing the best she can to make a splash with this first novel. It has a modish literary element, too, in flurries of Dorothy Richardson-like stream of consciousness. ‘Night, so suddenly forlorn, so scentless in the nostrils. Nothing to do now but go in. You’ve failed. He thinks you stupid and slow.’ It’s quite a bad novel. The group of characters is inadequately differentiated, and a lot of the writing is genuinely terrible:

Even then all might have been well, had not little Teep risen from the corner and made his way towards her, seeing, in her Juggernaut chestiness, the symbol of the whole social system he so deeply deplored.

What is interesting in this first novel is its social setting, faded Clapham respectability. Johnson came from here, and it is done rather better in the 1954 An Impossible Marriage. It’s quite a striking account of an abusive relationship; the pressures on a powerless woman from all sides are feelingly done, and, with some subtlety, the fundamental weakness of the abuser. The detailed scenes of office life, and the mentality underlying practical tasks, are rather engaging: ‘I took letters from Mr Fawcett without hearing a word he dictated, so that when I came to transcribe them they appeared quite unfamiliar and interesting.’

Perhaps the most intriguing of these novels is The Last Resort, written in 1956. It rather selfconsciously explores a louche social circle and the first sense of postwar indulgence and extravagance. Its surface is primarily dialogue, falling between the scrupulously realist transcriptions of Henry Green’s last two novels and the formality and performance of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s characters. The frothy surface of chatter is perhaps over-indulged, but there are some effective and striking characters here, especially Junius Evans, a malicious, theatrical queen that Iris Murdoch would have enjoyed. It isn’t quite like any other novel of the period.

Johnson was extraordinarily prolific. Ivy Compton-Burnett, with whom she attempted without success to ingratiate herself, thought that ‘she works in such haste that her words cease to have a meaning, and a mind seems to be going to waste’. She rather shockingly mistook what gifts she had in attempting a comic novel, The Unspeakable Skipton in 1959. Two years before, the denigrated Elizabeth Taylor had written a novel of marvellous subtlety about the career of a very bad novelist, Angel. It is hard not to think that Johnson was imitating her in this slapdash story; as Johnson took the trouble to inform her first readers, she was actually writing about Frederick Rolfe. Angel is a beautifully written novel that contains stretches of its heroine’s awful prose; The Unspeakable Skipton certainly contains some horrible prose by its hero, living in exile in Belgium and rooking tourists. But Johnson’s own prose is capable of atrocities, too:

Tantrums of rain burst across the Grand’Place, wild winds, stiffened by the sea, scolded the café blinds and slapped the skirts of the women over their legs. Priests, their cassocks turned into sails, found themselves blown into flight as they rounded the corners; and with the wind the gulls came inland, wet and screaming, to plop upon the roofs and bridges.

The plot is desultory and repetitious; no inventiveness of language, incident or character sustains forward momentum. A disaster.

A late novel, The Holiday Friend, has more to recommend it. It isn’t without its problems; a 100-page novella has been extended to novel length with absurdly repetitious scenes, and the final catastrophe has no connection with the main drama, and (worse) no effect on it. But the central triangle between a happily married couple who find themselves the target of a disturbed female student of the husband is rather effectively explored. Though we never quite believe in her love, the attempts of the reasonable couple to contain and deal with these embarrassing irruptions are excruciating. A little more work would have turned this into something really memorable. Even an hour’s thought might have resulted in a less hopeless title.

On the whole, there are things here worth looking at. Johnson was an effective reporter from a particular streak of suburban London, and explored, almost without knowing, the mores and conventions of a forgotten way of living. But I don’t think Hodder will find a readership to match the once despised Elizabeth Taylor’s, or Barbara Pym’s, and I might gently suggest that there is nothing here to match the novels of Francis King, Robert Liddell or even C.H.B. Kitchin. It is worth reporting, too, that the books have been given a retro-kitsch look, inappropriately like pulp paperbacks of the 1950s (the designer struggled with the 1970s setting of The Holiday Friend) and they have not been effectively proof-read after being reset. Amusingly, the heroine of This Bed Thy Centre, who is called Elsie, has been renamed Elise in the blurb. I suppose Elsie was not a suitable name for a sexy romp. But that rather shows that the redoubtable Pamela Hansford Johnson was not always very good at getting her point across.

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