When Pamela Hansford Johnson died in 1981, the New York Times described her as ‘one of England’s best-known novelists’. I knew her name, or thought I did, but couldn’t recall the title of any of her books. Her 27 novels are mostly out of print. The New York Times briskly sets them aside, along with their author:
Her death came almost a year after that of C.P. Snow, the novelist, playwright and scientist to whom she was married for 21 years [sic]. Lord Snow was 74 and died 1 July 1980. Although her fame was often linked with her husband’s, Pamela Hansford Johnson had an independent name and career in British letters. In fiction that grappled with contemporary social and human concerns, her writing occasionally paralleled Lord Snow’s thematically. After her husband was raised to the peerage as Baron Snow of Leicester by the Labour government in 1964, she became Lady Snow in private life.
Whose obituary is this? Johnson published a scandalous, bestselling novel at the age of 23. By the time she married Snow, her second husband, she had written 13 books. The biographical note to these new Hodder editions says, somewhat slyly, that ‘for thirty years they formed an ambitious and infamous couple.’ The Encyclopaedia Britannica summarises her as an ‘English novelist who treated moral concerns with a light but sure touch’, as if she were being praised for her pastry. Johnson’s writing is more industrial than domestic. From an early age, she kept the show on the road. Her absentee father, a colonial civil servant, dropped dead when she was 12, leaving Pamela and her mother penniless. She left school at 16, worked as a secretary, and wrote stories and poems to bring in cash.
She met Dylan Thomas after their work appeared in the same paper: ‘He had won a prize for a poem … I knew it was derivative and I knew from what.’ They were briefly engaged, and she and her mother visited his family in Wales. She remembers someone remarking on Thomas’s clothes on the washing line: ‘Such little trousers!’ Johnson’s men tend to think of themselves as more substantial than they really are. She does not correct them. Her fiction is full of women seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing, or going ahead with the thing they dread, usually sex or marriage. The insubstantial man is met by a woman who is not so much a version of Johnson as her avatar. She observes, formulates and narrates as if inhabiting the book she’s also in the process of writing. Sometimes she is a writer. Reading the new editions, I realised that it was Johnson herself I was getting involved with rather than her characters, and not because the fiction made me curious about the facts.
Her debut, This Bed Thy Centre, was published in 1935. Its title, which she regretted, was Thomas’s idea and is a quote from Donne. These new editions have scrappy covers and are littered with typos. The blurb on the back of this one even gets the protagonist’s name wrong: she is plain Elsie not frilly Elise. Set in Johnson’s own suburban world of Clapham Common, it is her strangest and best book. Mrs Godshill, an evangelical, wakes thinking about unruly sexual activity, while Mrs Maginnis, whose hair is the colour of the sun and who has no god, brews tea for her lover. Maisie, the landlady of the Admiral Drake, is stroking the stool on which Mr Wilkinson sat last night. He is making his way to the candle factory, worrying about his bad luck on the dogs and the ten shillings he owes Parsons, the grocer, who is thinking about the same thing as he cossets the apples on his stall. Desire leaks and decays and persists alongside ‘the sickly draining of a forgotten hope’.
These people are bent out of shape by their hidden selves. There is something of another contemporary, Henry Green, in Johnson’s invigorating harshness. As Elsie passes on her way to school, Parsons ‘gave her a sidelong glance, sniffing up the hairs in his nose. Sidey little runt, he thought.’ Elsie, abruptly adolescent, is in love with her art teacher, Miss Chavasse, who is having complicated thoughts about her pupil: ‘I’d like to kiss Elsie … I’d like to paint her, too.’ Her lover, a poet in need of a place to stay, has turned up: ‘Sick at the sight of his small, padded mouth, dark and dried at the corners … she bent her head to his.’
Sex is Johnson’s true subject. She respects its power and repeatedly enacts a woman’s right to sexual realisation. Physical contact is something so fraught and regulated as to be inherently violent. Violence can come out of detachment too: ‘He dragged at the vee of her dress and put his fingers to her breasts.’ Elsie is intent on discovering the facts of life and perturbed by ‘the knitting of her flesh’ when she passes a couple kissing under a tree. When she acquires a boyfriend, Roly, he says he’ll take her clothes off and thrash her if she looks at someone else. Elsie counters that she’d rather like that before realising she has ‘said something very wrong’. She lies down with him but resists. On the way home Roly stops off to see Mrs Maginnis. He orders Nietzsche and Freud in the local library, and arranges a date with the librarian. He blames Elsie’s resistance on the ‘whole social system … When a man loves a woman, he ought to be able to sleep with her right away, and then there would be no repressions or inhibitions.’ When they finally get married and go to bed, ‘there was no fear in her, nor love, only a great loneliness.’
Clapham in the 1930s is a land of ‘Real Homes at Easy Terms’. The pub’s parlour and bar have been knocked through and filled with glass tables, potted palms and tub chairs. Blocks of houses are being demolished, replaced by ‘a large picture palace, with one thousand seats for seven pence, and a noble façade, moulded with stags and Greek notabilities’. It is characteristic of Johnson to note the architectural detail as well as the ticket price.
She returned to this time and place in An Impossible Marriage (1954). As before, teenagers gather on deckchairs on the Common on summer evenings and boys play ukuleles. Christine is a teenager, but far more sophisticated than Elsie. Her boyfriend, Leslie, who wears purple Oxfords, gets excited about the rumour of a brothel in Balham. ‘I was six months older than he and had read more. I said I had always imagined there might be several.’ Leslie goes into linoleum and turns up later as a travelling salesman.
Like Johnson, Christine is a successful author on her second marriage recalling her adolescence. On an awkward blind date, the teenage Christine glimpses Ned across a room and falls in love, though both his presence and focus are inadequate: ‘He did not seem, as it were, part of the party. He might have been some kind of inspector, called in to pass an opinion on the organisation, the band, the structure of the building itself.’ He asks Christine to dance but so generally that her friend takes up the invitation. He later confesses to being in the process of abandoning a fiancée.
Johnson’s characters are described as if pinned out on the page and, once fixed, remain there. They are unchanged by the disenchantments they endure, which is perhaps the reason they’re so uninvolving, for all their talk of feeling. This firm grasp also translates into a rather more successful visual attentiveness. Snow in the city is a ‘crusting of black and silver beads along the privets … stacked, hard as steel, in the gutters’. In the country it lies ‘vast and cleanly over the land … marked by the deep blueness of distant woods. All white and blue; I had never seen such ink-blue distances.’ There is more emotional aliveness in this snow than in Ned and Christine put together.
Christine’s father dies suddenly and Johnson steps forward: ‘And of all the rest that I cannot write, as it is the routine commonplace of sudden death, the ordinary procedure, and to me the unlookable, the unthinkable.’ The most intense moments of life are described in deadening terms. Desire is suspended in its own analogy as buds packed so tightly that they can find no room in which to open: ‘The fretting in the buds, close-packed as the microscopic flowers within a paperweight, grew almost beyond bearing – a wonder and a pain.’ The novel also records the death of D.H. Lawrence. Aldous Huxley ‘flattered our intellects’ but ‘Lawrence made us face what was in the dark of ourselves, whether we liked it or not.’ Ned is dismissive: ‘Anyone could do that if they put in all the dirty words.’ When Christine has some poems published, ‘he read them through, half smiling, and then handed them back in silence. I put them in my bag. It was an hour later before he referred to them.’ ‘If you’re only writing,’ says her stepmother, ‘perhaps you could lay the table.’ Most of the women I know who write would recognise these scenes.
He announces that they will marry. She arranges for him to meet her friends. Her old chum Dicky takes one look at Ned and puts his ukulele away. Their honeymoon is a week in Bournemouth (Ned had promised Paris). The sex is good: ‘He brought me quickly to an understanding of pleasure. I felt for a while as if the earth had steadied itself under my feet.’ Ned is deep in debt and hates his job, and the novel concludes with Johnson’s habitual combination of insight and surrender: ‘Now I saw the shape of my marriage clearly, and wished to think of other things.’
Two years later Johnson published The Last Resort, a continuation of Christine’s story set in the present. Her benign, absent second husband, Gerard, ‘to whom life was a long, complex, image-clustered novel’, might be C.P. Snow. Christine is staying at a hotel because she is ‘tired after finishing a book’. She is without character. Once or twice she mentions loss or pain but these moments have neither detail nor resonance. Christine is everyone’s confidante but it’s hard to see why. This time it’s her friend Celia who gets involved with interesting and uncertain men. When Celia talks about someone stepping out of their part, Christine asks what her own part is. Celia responds: ‘Oh just to be here. I don’t really know.’ Perhaps Johnson is saying that she doesn’t know who she is herself or what she’s there for or why she’s writing another bloody book. She keeps reminding us of Christine’s success. Everyone she meets has read her books. People stop in their tracks to remark on them and Celia even checks on the stock while passing through a shop. Christine’s writerliness is underlined by spasms of ostentation: ‘the sparkling, cineraria sea’, an ‘isodontic smile’, a ‘hebephrenic man’. One imagines Johnson and Snow lobbing such words at each other over dinner.
There is also talk of ‘strong women’. ‘It’s a dreadful fate to be one,’ Celia observes. ‘In the end we get left quite alone, you know, and nobody bothers to find out how we are getting on. They’re so sure we’re alright.’ This is repeated thirty or so pages later: ‘She longed to be rid of her own strength.’ While Snow slept with his secretary and dined at the House of Lords every night, Johnson endured.
While Celia and Christine sit indoors making drab statements about human nature, on the beach there are ‘girls in bathing suits spreadeagled on towels as if to be torn by horses’. Such images give the book a welcome jolt of electricity, but its characters loll about half-formed, waiting for the next thing Johnson requires them to say. The wider world, rapidly modernising, is more interesting. Celia’s father is a doctor who retired ‘as a protest against the National Health Act’. People are starting to worry about the effects of salt and cigarettes. Young architects are designing maisonettes, launderettes, comprehensive schools and a hospital that looks like a ‘yellow packing case’. The doctor hates the theatre because all they do is talk: ‘One longs for somebody to fall downstairs.’
By the time Johnson wrote The Holiday Friend (1972), her marriage was miserable and her health terrible. Her descriptive energies are depleted: ‘The shower was short and light’; ‘The skies were dark’; ‘The sea was leaden’. Air is ‘damp and cold’ and things look ‘sodden and dull’. Scenes are given in partial detail – not the kind that allows us to see the whole. It lags behind, forcing the reader to look at the scene again: oh, there are lots of people having dinner and the room is full of ferns!
The Holiday Friend is set in a Belgian seaside resort which is timelessly genteel, though there is infrared heating on the terrace and ‘middle-aged women in trousers or even bikinis, men in flowered beach-shirts’. There is talk of the ‘generation gap’ and being ‘trendy’ and ‘randy’. ‘Pop’ takes a capital letter. Academics might be recognised from the television and sometimes devise interdisciplinary lectures. The headlines show ‘trouble everywhere. Ulster, Rhodesia, Pakistan’. But people still wait to be invited to use someone’s first name and manners are so powerful that a person can impose themselves simply because it’s not done to turn them away.
Gavin and Hannah Eastwood are on holiday with their 11-year-old son, Giles. Johnson’s child characters are among her best. They tend to be self-determining if ostensibly compliant. Giles ‘knew that he was supposed to be unobservant’. Led by him, they all anticipate their meals – the croques monsieur, the blanquettes de veau, the éclairs, fondues and meringues – as if their thoughts need constant smothering. Gavin lectures in history of art and is experimenting with being ‘trendy’ by growing his hair and sporting a broad orange tie. They are modern enough to burn Giles’s school report without reading it because it made him anxious but conservative enough to bankrupt themselves sending him to private school. Their holiday is interrupted by a student, Melissa, who encountered Gavin for the first time a few days before and fell in love. She has followed him here and contrives a meeting. Melissa resents Hannah’s marital complacency, her evident sexual satisfaction and relaxed womanliness. When someone mentions buying lace in Ghent, Hannah replies: ‘I don’t know what one does with lace these days. One goes to Marks and Spencer’s for underwear, or I do.’ The couple are working hard not to break the surface of their marriage. They make the mistake of thinking that because they can see what’s going on between them, and with Melissa, they can see everything. Their son has secrets, large and small. Johnson wants to draw our attention to darker subjects but falters. She doesn’t lack courage, quite the opposite, but she runs out of energy. The ending is horrifying and too abrupt. The clues and diversions she lays out fall flat.
Diana Vreeland called Johnson ‘a brisk, amusing, small woman ready for an argument’ and Anthony Burgess described her as ‘witty, satirical and deftly malicious’, which makes her sound like pure veneer. She seems to have toughened early, through and through. Her prose toughened early too. She can do many of the things that constitute good writing, but separately: she can’t make the thing flow. Johnson’s suffering, eased in malice and literary spats, was not productive. Her diary records that some ‘callow youth’ had asked why she had been included in a book on the Modern Novel. ‘I have to watch the talented but lightweight Spark and the absurd Iris Murdoch (The Unicorn, God help us!) getting everything.’ She was attentive to the modern but some rigidity or opacity meant that she was not a writer of the Modern Novel. She was not going to interrogate her own imperatives, methods or psyche. She needed to be more interested in, or less afraid of, herself.
Her grandfather was treasurer to the impresario Henry Irving. ‘He had always detested Irving’s secretary, Bram Stoker,’ Johnson writes in her memoir, Important to Me, published in 1974. ‘One day he came home with a greyish volume in his hands, and said to his children, “Stoker has written a beastly book. It’s all about people who suck other people’s blood and lunatics who eat flies.” He put it straight on the fire. It was, of course, the first edition of Dracula.’ If only her anger had made Johnson throw a few of her own books on the fire and write something beastly instead of something Modern. She would have been good at that.