Pamela Hansford Johnson Essay - Critical Essays

Johnson, Pamela Hansford (Vol. 1)

Johnson, Pamela Hansford 1912–

English novelist and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The novels of Pamela Hansford Johnson are the basic material of the publisher looking for a well-made, intelligent novel that stands the chance of a book club selection and will go well with a public that wants its fiction neither light nor heavy. It is the kind of fiction that keeps the novel going in between the valleys and the peaks. It handles ideas in terms of the people involved; it rarely aims at abstractions, and the conflicts themselves are those one encounters in daily life. Emotions are of course played down; there are few powerful climaxes, few dramatic intensities that would weight the novel unduly. In brief, the novelist makes no attempt to exceed the tight, well-controlled world over which he or she is a master.

Frederick R. Karl, in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, p. 275.

[Pamela Hansford Johnson] has been a professional novelist for many years now; This Bed Thy Centre (1935), a study of working-class life in south London, written when she was twenty-two, remains one of the most interesting first novels of the thirties. But through the years her talents have steadily deepened and her insights broadened until now she writes with complete authority. By that I mean that, having read her, one feels that the whole truth has been told about the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. One has a sense of her complete knowledge of them, and this sense is the effect, it seems to me, of her technical mastery and of her moral discriminations.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 258.

Admirers of the work of Pamela Hansford Johnson (Lady Snow) have not always seen a preoccupation with the problems of right-doing, sometimes resolving itself into questions of the final sanctions of morality, which lies hidden under the complexities of her novels, as well as their wit, accurate reportage, and delight in the surface of life…. As with Graham Greene (whom she in no way really resembles) we are tempted towards moral judgements that orthodoxy would not condone…. No novel of any complexity can ever have the directness of a moral tract, but the virtue of Pamela Hansford Johnson's work often lies in its power to present the great issues nakedly—forcing us not so much to a decision as to a realization of the hopelessness of decisions. If, that is, we are not saints and martyrs.

I ought to stress that all Miss Hansford Johnson's novels are notable for a kind of grave lightness of touch, they are never without humour.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 66-7.

[Pamela Hansford Johnson] commands respect because she never uses a formula or a gimmick; in a sense because she has never written a spectacular best-seller, and is never considered as the author of a single book, but must be judged for her work as a whole. (p. 5)

[Her] strong point … has always been social description, atmosphere, situation, a sense of how things feel, look, taste and sound in a particular group, at a particular level: her people are always part of the wider world they live in, they are professionally, socially, externally recognizable, as well as personally known and understood. Personal relations matter, of course, they even matter supremely to the people involved in them; but her people live a good deal in the world of telegrams and anger, they are conditioned by money and jobs and responsibilities and all the external pressures of work, friends, background, family, old loyalties. No one lives in a vacuum, no one nurses feelings in isolation from the rest of life, untouched by responsibility for others. (p. 6)

Miss Hansford Johnson does not see the world from a specifically feminine point of view, certainly not from a sheltered social position: she can even write credibly in the first person as a man—an unusual achievement for a woman. As an artist she is able to forget her sex, as she is able, in a sense, to enter backgrounds she cannot know as intimately as she appears to. (p. 6)

Pamela Hansford Johnson is untypical in that she deals with situations that are untypical, 'unfictional' in the sense that they have not the neat, ready-made air of so many chosen by novelists…. Even in the earliest books everything was seen as fluid with possibilites, the present opening into the future; life was never a series of compartments, fixed and sealed by a particular situation. Things were always relative, becoming, unfinished, open to every sort of possibility. (p. 8)

[In her first novel, This Bed Thy Centre] Pamela Hansford Johnson showed nearly all the basic characteristics of her later writing: its realism, its seriousness without solemnity, its use of social colour and atmosphere, its examination of love in many aspects, with very varied lovers and reactions to love, its lifelike dialogue—abrupt, easily embarrassed, totally 'unliterary.' (pp. 10-11)

Probably the three novels of the trilogy [Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide] are together Pamela Hansford Johnson's most impressive achievement. In them, for the first time, she used the public and private lives—the outer and inner worlds—of her characters with complete assurance, and manipulated a large number of these characters and worlds, covering a wide social field, without any sense of strain. (pp. 17-18)

None of her novels repeats what its predecessor has done, or even repeats the manner and methods of its predecessor…. After more than twenty years as a 'straight' novelist, she turned to the satirical Skipton, which may be her best novel; after Skipton she went back to realism of the most moving, feeling sort, in The Humbler Creation; then to a kind of metaphysical society comedy, or mixture of two genres: the philosophical and inquiring, and the near-thriller, socially observant, sharp, exciting. Then she was back with the Skipton characters, and something of the Skipton manner. Always she has been a novelist of minutely exact observation, pin-pointing exactly this or that class, time or age-group; yet within that class, time or age-group always dealing with people who are intensely individual, quite outside the run of fictional characters that can be labelled hero, heroine, young, old. Indeed her most memorable characters are the eccentrics, the outsize outsiders, who fit nowhere, certainly no exact category…. [Hers] is not the mild talent called character-drawing; it is the creation of people who live outside the novels' pages, who enrich our knowledge of others. It is probably the most creative—the most importantly creative—of the novelist's gifts: the ability to fashion people we come to know more vividly and closely and fruitfully than we know most of our friends, people full grown, credible, feeling, responsive, whose unmentioned feelings we can gauge, whose undescribed reactions we can always imagine, who do not fade and diminish when we shut the book. (pp. 43-5)

Isabel Quigly, in her Pamela Hansford Johnson, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1968.