He wants me no more

Tessa Hadley

  • Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times by Wendy Pollard
    Shepheard-Walwyn, 500 pp, £25.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 85683 298 7

Pamela Hansford who? When I asked friends and family, they vaguely knew the name but couldn’t place it – until I said she was married to C.P. Snow and then they vaguely remembered that too. They were much clearer about him: the two cultures argument, and Leavis’s vituperation, and some novels revolving around Cambridge colleges. Someone had read one of those novels long ago but couldn’t remember anything about it. In the context of all that forgetting, this biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson reads as a meditation on time and fame and oblivion.

It isn’t meant to be anything so subtle. It’s the second best kind of biography, the innocent kind, which doesn’t think with much penetration about its subject but doesn’t interfere with it either, no flashy stuff. Wendy Pollard’s record of Johnson’s life is scrupulous; she sticks to the diaries and the letters and the work, and her admiration for her subject and enthusiasm for Johnson’s writing is unflagging. By the end of the book the enthusiasm feels touching, a feat in itself; the story ends in darkness, really, though she doesn’t quite say so – and not just the darkness that ends all biography. Pollard is quite sure that this life needs to be put on the record, because the work has made the life important. The reputations of quite a few novelists of the mid-20th century, particularly women novelists, have been brought back from the brink in recent decades – why not Johnson’s too? She would certainly be quite astonished at having been so forgotten, so quickly. If there’s any afterlife jostling for position in posterity, you can be sure that the Snows are both of them feeling indignantly overlooked and putting it down to the worst kind of élite conspiracy – even while they try desperately to muscle in on whatever kind of élite there is in heaven. Or the other place.

The biography really does have its fascination, though, only not necessarily in the way that Pollard hopes. In all its rich, accumulated detail it’s a feast for anyone hungry for the otherness of the past. The story of noisy, clever, bossy, ambitious Pamela Hansford Johnson – caught, to begin with, in the unselfconscious prose of her adolescent Boots Home diaries, 8” x 5”, a week to a spread – gives us privileged entry into the textures and flavours of a vanished time, the nuances of its class structure and language. You might have guessed that a girl in the 1920s and early 1930s could have ‘a topping time’ and be ‘divinely happy’, that things could be ‘jolly nice’, or that she had scared ‘the cat into fits’ – but not that at the cinema she might have ‘clicked with an artisan bloke!’ When Johnson was depressed she was ‘pipped’, and when she was Cleopatra in the local am-dram (Shaw, of course, not Shakespeare), ‘the play went simply marvellously! Raging success’ and had ‘awfully good notices’ in the local paper.

She was born in 1912 and grew up the adored only child in a fractious household of women, with her mother, Amy, her aunt and grandmother. Her father, ‘R.K.’ Johnson, was a minor colonial administrator, chief storekeeper on the Baro-Kano railway (you couldn’t make this up). He was usually in Nigeria, where he never took his family, and died when Pamela was 12. The family background belongs on the slippery edges of social status; Amy’s family were vaguely theatrical – her father had been a manager for Henry Irving – and thought of themselves approvingly as ‘bohemians’, too good to marry into ‘trade’ (though Amy’s mother was from a family of grocers). The large brick terraced house in Clapham belonged to Amy’s family and its hallway was hung with Irvingiana – ‘playbills, programmes, sketches of costumes, photographs’. Money was short even before R.K.’s death, and most of the house was let out to lodgers (including one who pretended to be a doctor but was actually in the pornography business). Amy and her daughter had to share a semi-basement room. We need a London Dubliners to do justice to the atmospherics of this little world, and its symbolic language.

Hansford was Pamela Johnson’s middle name, from her father’s family; but she always used the whole lot, and this must have been part of an aspiration to everything that double-barrelled meant in those days (they also announced her birth in the Daily Telegraph). Yet her class consciousness, and class aspirations, don’t feel in the least desperate or flattening in these early years; there’s an exuberant confidence in herself, and no sign of a Howards End cultural cringe, or contempt for her own milieu. She was educated at a Clapham girls’ grammar (after R.K.’s death they had to plead to have her fees remitted) and she thrived there; in a photograph of the school Pierrot troupe she’s inevitably at the centre of the front row. She wrote poetry for the school magazine, then became its editor. There was no money for her to go to university, but her mother was determined she should attend a good secretarial college so that she could go ‘straight into a really high-class post’ – she began as a shorthand typist in a bank in Regent Street. In later life Johnson said that she never doubted ‘that I should have had a fine acting career, if migraines hadn’t stopped me’; this is characteristic of her resilient self-belief – or defensive bluster, depending which way you read it. ‘Aut inveniam viam, aut faciam,’ she wrote on the flyleaf of all her diaries: ‘I will either find out a way, or make one.’ For a ‘creative writer’, university would have been ‘nothing but a hindrance’: ‘A course in Eng. Lit. has rotted many a promising writer. It is only as a critic that I should have welcomed it.’

From the beginning literature mattered, no doubt both as a marker of superiority, distinguishing her from the grocers, and in itself, as an entrance into imagining and longing and learning. In her teens she belonged in a set of keen young readers and writers, girls and boys – they shared around Shakespeare, Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Hugo, Proust and Yeats as well as Michael Arlen, Clemence Dane, P.G. Wodehouse and G.K. Chesterton. Johnson kept lists of all the books she read (90 in 1931, although she was working full time), with ratings: ‘bunk’, sometimes, or ‘the worst rubbish of the year’, or ‘dull, dull, dull’. (This left its mark on her reviewing style.) The voraciousness reminded me of D.H. Lawrence and his friends in Eastwood thirty years earlier; these aspiring working-class and petit bourgeois grammar school children fuelled their appetite for change through the democracy of books available in the public libraries, balancing between highbrow and middlebrow culture.

Johnson found out a way, or made it. She won a Sunday Referee poetry prize (‘one of the most exquisite word artists of our day’, the adjudication raved), and began to be taken up, and to move in the demi-monde of the arts, meeting writers and painters. There was a ‘tremendous blurb’ about her in the Referee: at a party afterwards she ‘was ghastly embarrassed and nearly went mad’. Another occasion ‘was a yell … about 20 there. An awful swine … would make a speech about me, and sat at my feet, a perfect beast. Everyone else nice – everyone was decent to me.’ Pretty and vivacious and popular in a crowd – she was dark-haired, with a striking, flat, heart-shaped face, keen distinctive eyes, small mouth – she was ripe for a transforming arty love affair (she had been engaged two or three times by the time she was twenty). She wrote to the 18-year-old Dylan Thomas in Swansea when he in turn won a prize in the Referee’s ‘Poet’s Corner’ and soon they were sending each other passionate worked-up letters. Thomas pretended that he was 21; when he first came to visit the Johnsons in Clapham ‘he looked,’ Pamela later wrote, ‘like a brilliant audacious child, and at once my family loved and fussed over him as if he were one.’ The Johnsons made return visits to Swansea, and Thomas begged Pamela to marry him.

In hindsight they make an improbable pairing, the future doyenne of the Book Society and the future Soho boozer and enfant terrible; but both had their idea of the kind of life an artist ought to lead, and for a youthful moment those ideas overlapped. It doesn’t sound as if the affair was quite consummated, for all the steamy talk; lots of ‘osculatory adventures’, no doubt. ‘Virginity should be regarded as a crime against the dictates of the body,’ Thomas wrote to her hopefully. And later: ‘I’m just on the borders of DTs darling and I’ve wasted some of my tremendous love for you on a lank redmouthed girl with a reputation like a hell.’ (Pollard thinks the redmouthed girl is poetic licence.) Thomas was soon making fun of ‘Poet’s Corner’; he smelled something second rate in the tastes and affectations of the set around the Referee, and perhaps in Pamela, and saved his poetic honour by moving on to a more fashionable wilder side (‘his rather revolting Bloomsbury fun and games’). The Johnsons gave him furniture and an encouraging set of a dozen yellow dusters when he moved to London, but he didn’t telephone and stopped answering her letters; when Pamela visited him the beds were upended and the dusters pinned as decorations on the wall. This wasn’t her kind of bohemianism. ‘No letter from prize pig Dylan … Am afraid the little terror is in trouble again.’ ‘Am sure of one thing – that he wants me no more.’

*

The problem for Pollard’s project of recovering Johnson’s writing for a new generation of readers is that the writing just isn’t good enough. It’s a failure of form and vision, but it begins in a problem of language. ‘That he wants me no more’! Why can’t she just say it straight? ‘He doesn’t want me any more’ is ten times as eloquent. Something is broken – or dissembled – in Johnson’s relationship with her words; real life is written in a slang which pretends everything’s either ‘a yell’ or ‘lousy’, while writing, art-writing, is high-toned and sonorous like a school magazine. The only mediation possible between those two registers would be irony, and she can’t do it. This, for example, is from Too Dear for My Possessing (1940): ‘as I stepped out into the warm twilight, the dream came to meet me, and with a full heart I accepted it … I walked the Paris streets under the rainbow glory of the lamps, walked on night-green grass and over pavements shining like diamonds.’ This is from The Philistines (1949): ‘She shivered a little in the chilly young air of the day … All sensation was beautiful, even to the movement of a finger, the flutter of a lash … Having doubted so long, she found herself a proper woman.’

Johnson’s first novel was published when she was 23, and there would be 27 altogether. They sold well in her lifetime, and there were plenty of adulatory reviews: she was ‘in the first flight of contemporary women novelists’; the New York Times Book Review compared her favourably with Virginia Woolf; Edith Sitwell said that she and Emily Brontë were the two great woman novelists, and so on. Her career was well established even before she married Snow, and they became a significant double act, acclaiming each other’s masterpieces; for decades she was a figure on the literary scene, a regular reviewer and lecturer and broadcaster. Not everyone thought she was a good writer, and a lot of her reviewing energy was expended championing ‘the ordinary cultivated reader’ against his enemy, ‘the esoteric critic’ who wrote for the ‘coterie journals’ and wanted to divert the English novel away from affirming ‘the indestructibility of the spirit of man’. Her own reviewing style was fairly uncompromising; one book was ‘a commonplace piece of simple rah-rah bunkum by a very clever man who ought to know better’.

As the years and the novels pass, Johnson’s tone in her fiction gets less artificially elevated – but then its plainness just feels tired. (‘They had hopes of all kinds for their son, that he should become tall, handsome, and perhaps even be clever. They felt he was a late developer, but that sooner or later develop he would’ – and much more of the same dogged prose, in The Holiday Friend, from 1972.) There’s an odd satire, The Unspeakable Skipton (1959), a novelised portrait of the eccentric Baron Corvo (even that doesn’t quite achieve irony). Over-elaborated plots, like fiddly bits of moral engineering, provide the seriousness the language can’t; there’s usually a priest tangled up in things somewhere. In An Error of Judgment (1962), narrated by a hypochondriac personnel officer, a charismatic doctor decides to execute, secretly, a delinquent who’s got away with murder; the writing is infected with Snow’s ponderous faux sophistication: ‘If he believed in God, he said, that would be easy: his misery would then be something seeded in him from the beginning, from God’s will, and to some inscrutable (therefore perfectly satisfying) purpose.’ Her 1974 memoir, Important to Me, although it’s unfailingly self-serving, is at least gritty with the oddity of real life in places.

Snow was Johnson’s second husband; she was married first to Neil Stewart, a drifting leftist would-be journalist, who toiled to produce a history of Chartism and didn’t make any money. They had two children and then she had one son with Snow. Marriage to C.P. Snow sounds ghastly, although Johnson determinedly loved and served him, investing her own importance inside his as women mostly did in those days when they’d elected to be married to great men. She wrote in her diary after reading his 1956 novel, Homecoming, that

I hope he gets his due now. I have no doubt … that posterity will give it him. It is deep & true & heart-rending: & for once – for him – joyful. [I] needed to be alone with C., and close to him, just to let him know how I feel about him as a husband – whom I could not love more profoundly – or as a writer – whom I could not honour more profoundly.

For both of them, the achievement of writing was painfully bound up with getting your ‘due’. They were devoured by anxious vanity, and achievement was always expressed in terms of an ultimate recognition, of proving something finally to some imagined, exacting, resistant audience out there.

Does this anxiety have to do with class? Snow wasn’t born into the Oxbridge establishment he was so eager to become the spokesman for. Both of them were Left Wing (Pollard gives it those nice capitals, which feel right) in that peculiar 1950s and 1960s variant which mingled enthusiastic visits to the Soviet Union with admiration for the Cliveden set and an appetite for titles. Snow’s self-importance and self-doubt were certainly monumental. About one of his own novels he wrote with superb deprecation that ‘it’s not in the class of War & Peace or Karamazov, but I think it can hold its own with Fathers & Children or Bovary, i.e., the rank of novels just below supreme masterpieces.’ Their household fell into peaks and troughs of elation and despair depending on his reviews and his sales; if he wasn’t a Book Society choice he sulked for weeks. He dragged Johnson to the US again and again although she hated it, collecting honorary degrees (his brother said he ‘hoped to set a record in the number collected and variety of places in which he had been given them’), being fêted and celebrated while she hovered in the background as Mrs Snow.

His vanity, trumping Johnson’s own, makes us more sympathetic to her. When she was grieving after her mother’s death he resented it: ‘C. is not very patient about me – I don’t think he likes ill women much. I do try to keep up … Menopause or not, I am feeling so very lonely.’ She was never certain that Snow loved her, and he was intermittently unfaithful – women threw themselves at great men, even paunchy and jowly old buffers. He doesn’t seem to have been very interested in sex, and if there’s one thing Johnson writes about rather acutely here and there in the novels it’s the failure of desire, unhappy couples lying together and apart in the dark:

Putting her head up, she kissed his throat. He did not stir or speak. ‘Maurice,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Love me?’

He patted her, squeezed her shoulders. Still he was silent. She stretched herself against him, as if she were climbing a wall. Her toes and her knees touched his. He shot away from her and sat up. ‘You’ve left a tap running.’

‘I don’t think I have.’

‘I can hear it. I’ll go and turn it off.’

When he came back he kissed her briskly.

The anxiety (and probably the sex) wasn’t helped by the fog of drink and pills and tobacco smoke; Johnson was prescribed amphetamines for depression, and smoked sixty cigarettes a day. When their doctor advised them to cut back on alcohol, they reduced their monthly order to 12 bottles of Haig. They were frequently ‘popular’, Johnson’s euphemism for drunk. Getting back after one party, they spent an hour in a heap on the hall floor – ‘Says a lot for the drinks Peter pours.’ On quiet evenings they enjoyed the Benny Hill Show. By the end of their lives Lord and Lady Snow had become a half-comical duo, not at home in a new world (‘the left was going all wrong on the cultural front’) and easily parodied. It was Olivia Manning’s inspiration to call them the Snows of yesteryear, and John Bird and Eleanor Bron sent them up on The Late Show (Johnson sued).

These lives are interesting now because they’re history; but I suspect there’s nothing to recover from the novels. All writers are susceptible, it goes without saying, to vanity and panic, but these things drove the Snows crazy; and in their case too much obsession with the outer forms of success looks in the long run like a failure on the inside – it reflects something hollow in the work, as if the writing has failed to be its own fulfilment, its own life.