Johnson, Pamela Hansford (Vol. 27)
Pamela Hansford Johnson 1912–1981
English novelist, essayist, critic, dramatist, poet, and mystery writer.
Johnson was a prolific writer whose novels defy rigid categorization. This is perhaps because her style ranged from early twentieth-century experimentalism to the third person narrative typical of nineteenth-century British novelists. Her plots, themes, and settings varied with each work. Johnson's variability is also indicated by the fact that her first novel, This Bed Thy Centre (1935), an immediate critical and popular success, focused on ignorance of sexuality and was viewed as rather "permissive" in its day; years later, in the tract "On Iniquity" (1967), she questions the mores of permissive society.
In the mid-1930s Johnson was briefly engaged to Dylan Thomas, who suggested the title of her first novel and with whom she shares similar literary devices, such as the use of interior monologues and the "stream of consciousness" technique. Johnson married Neill Gordon Stewart, though, and collaborated with him on two murder mysteries under the joint pseudonym Nap Lombard. The stories were written as escapist fiction and are not representative of her oeuvre. Subsequently, Johnson married C. P. Snow and together they composed several short plays which they both later dismissed as frivolous. Her novels have always received the most attention.
Although Johnson wrote two trilogies and has several characters appear in more than one volume, each of her novels is unique, differing from the others in some way, whether in presentation, resolution, or character types. In general, her characters attempt to achieve a balance between their inner and outer lives. Her comic touch helps to ease her studies of modern morality.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vol. 104 [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
Miss Johnson is distinguishable from the many intelligent novelists of the day by the fact that she is not in the least afraid of people who are ordinary and good. Most writers would run a mile to avoid such people as material for fiction, partly for fashionable reasons (someone might murmur "Priestley," and then where would they be?), but principally because the virtuous are so very difficult to do well. But characters of simple goodness, when realised in fiction without either insipidity or sentimentality, are encountered by the reader with a delight that is quite unforgettable. What a pleasure it is to think of Trollope's Mr. Harding, or of Peter Schulz, the old Professor of Music in Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe. Miss Johnson attempts nothing on that level, but her new book [World's End] shows that she is sensitive to the quality of natural goodness and can present it to the reader when she sees it. And yet the world which she depicts is one which many novelists would have wanted to cram with nicely touched-up iniquities: a needy, uncertain, semi-artistic group living at World's End, Chelsea. The most disreputable of them are the drink-soaked pianist Sipe and his worthless wife, Irene, about whom there is something of the flavour of an early Huxley (Coleman or Spandrell): but, if they are less witty and horrifying, they are also more real. At the heart of the book is a love-story, although the lovers are seen nine years after marriage, not a few months before as usual. Arnold Brand is middle-class, intelligent, wanting to write, often unemployed and generally depressed: the footling jobs that do come his way—snobbish little travel agencies and so on—bore him to death. Doris is...
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Edith H. Walton
Partly due to her precocity—her first book was published when she was only 22—but more to the fact that her talent is genuinely individual, Pamela Hansford Johnson has attracted considerable attention in England. She has never, I believe, had an equal success here [in America], nor up till now has she deserved it. Although full of vitality and color, "This Bed Thy Centre" was a confused and ill-organized story, while "Blessed Above Women," its successor, had a morbid, macabre quality which was definitely unpleasant. Skillful technically, it was mainly a tour de force. With "World's End," however—a very moving though quite unpretentious tale—Pamela Johnson has suddenly acquired a new depth and maturity.
By one definition—the simplest—"World's End" is a love story, dealing with a struggling young couple, Arnold and Doris Brand….
As to their personal story, it is so ordinary, so unexceptional that the book can barely be said to have a plot….
As the story progresses from one small crisis to another, the emphasis remains constant upon the relationship between these two. Their quarrels and reconciliations, the ebb and renewal of their passion, the moments of pain and delight which checker the course of their love—this is the essential stuff out of which "World's End" is fashioned….
Due to its very simplicity, it is hard to explain why "World's End" is so exceptionally good. For one thing it is a novel unspoiled by trickery and artifice. These young people, Arnold and Doris, are presented with scrupulous honesty. Their moments of pettiness and weakness, their rather pitiful frailty, serve somehow merely to heighten the poignance of their passion. The English critic who likened Miss Johnson's novel to Hemingway's "Farewell to Arms" was not so far astray as one might think. It gives one the same live sense of an over-mastering love.
Finally, by deliberately stressing the odds which the Brands and their kind must face, Miss Johnson has greatly sharpened the contemporary significance of her story. Her lovers are symbols of all the frightened little people who do not know, these days, where security may be found.
Edith H. Walton, "A Moving Tale of Simple Folk," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1938 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 27, 1938, p. 6.
Jane Spence Southron
"The Monument" is a novel reflecting a world on the brink of unimaginable disaster. If you had not before read a word by this young English novelist you would only have to get well away into the opening paragraph to realize that here is a writer of fiction who should matter. There is a sudden downward sweep into the heart of a widely comprehensive subject. There is plain, pregnant wording. There is realism. There is poetic thought. There is a warmth of feeling that embraces mankind not only in the individual but in the aggregate. And there is directness. The story that follows bears out the expectation aroused.
Miss Johnson's first novel, "This Bed Thy Center," gave promise that has yet to receive its complete fulfillment; which is better than if, at so young an age and with all life before her, she should have been able to crystallize her possibilities into too small and too neat a success. "World's End" established her securely among those contemporary fictionists whose appeal is, to a large degree, quietly emotional. In "The Monument" she has essayed a more ambitious task—one not only calling for an intimate acquaintance with conditions that, ultimately, underlie most of the unrest of our time but demanding, also, an uncommon endowment of courage.
She deals uncompromisingly with the appalling poverty and sordidness behind the façade of London's dignity and wealth, and is not content with showing us what is wrong. She gets down among it, fighting. Annie Sellars, a young married woman of the working class, one of the four main characters chosen, we are told, as representative of the world visioned from the top of a...
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John Kenneth Merton
Miss Johnson is a young English writer who already has produced five novels and who with her "World's End," published early this year, achieved a certain amount of success. The facility with which she writes, combining with the praise she has received (in England there is a disposition to rank her rather highly) seems to have gone to her head. For in her latest ["The Monument"] she has attempted something beyond her powers, and in her youthful overconfidence has even attempted to show off. The result is not merely a failure but a muddle.
Her idea is good enough. It is that of carrying forward simultaneously four separate stories, and of letting them all be seen against a background of the most up-to-date contemporaneousness. Unfortunately we gather the impression that Pamela Johnson's characters are concerned only with Spain and are hardly aware that such a person as Hitler exists. As for the separate stories, each is too unsubstantial to make up, even when combined, a web of sufficient firmness. Good scenes are to be found, but the general effect is vague.
John Kenneth Merton, in a review of "The Monument," in Commonweal (copyright © 1938 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 26, October 21, 1938, p. 680.
Jane Spence Southron
["Too Dear for My Possessing"] is a book of queer enchantment; of strange, astringent realism; a book stripped utterly of sentimentality but deep with feeling that is both psychic and sensuous. You are not rushed into anything. You drift along as quietly, at first, as did 13-year-old Claud Pickering in his little old boat on the stream that opened out of the Bruges Canal. A boy's world; but an exceptional boy. A boy with an unordinary endowment of sensibility, of artistic perception.
The pace quickens imperceptibly. The boy is a youth; a young man. He is married, is successful; but haunted, always, by a dream, a vision, a reality that life—or he himself or the girl who was the heart of the...
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Pamela Hansford Johnson belongs, with R. C. Hutchinson and Romilly Cavan, to a new generation of respectably popular novelists who are just arriving, or have just arrived. In [Too Dear for My Possessing] she writes in the first person, as a boy and later as a man; a difficult feat of male impersonation which is strikingly successful and which must inevitably be labelled tour de force….
This is a full-fathoms-five novel to drown in, ample in dimension, leisurely and detailed in development, packed with carefully elaborated characterisation and incident. The recollections of a boyhood in Bruges have an individual atmosphere and a sharpness of vision which carry full conviction, and it...
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R. Ellis Roberts
Sidney Nichols was the hindquarters of the famous horse which, with his partner Benny Castelli in front, paraded the musichalls of England in the years after the last war. The act was called The Trojan Brothers, and the farcical, impudent animal was brought on to the stage by Benny's wife, known in the profession as Miss Maggie. Sid came of a family long connected with the stage: Miss Johnson, in this brilliant and moving story ["The Trojan Brothers"], is extraordinarily successful in her description of the variety world. The bars and eating-places between Glasshouse Street, back of Piccadilly, and the Roman's in the Strand; the glare and smell of hot dressing-rooms; the generosity and pettiness and childishness of...
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For the purposes of "The Trojan Brothers," her latest novel, Miss Johnson has given up the wholesale manufacture of character types in favor of a well-constructed plot. The result is the most tightly knit and satisfying narrative she has yet produced.
In a London music hall her English Pagliaccio moves toward tragedy in the hindquarters of a horse….
While doom is still rumbling off stage Miss Johnson gives her own best performance. There are authentic outlines of drab, matter-of-fact lives behind the honky-tonk of the music hall; the miasma of jealousy and intrigue hanging over backstage like a queasy cloud; sounds and smells of plain homes; acrid flavor of small, nagging...
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D. S. Savage
An Avenue of Stone is a skilful piece of contemporary reporting about our post-war lives, or the lives of a few selected personages whom Miss Johnson happens to have had, it would seem, under her observation. Her central character is a reluctantly ageing, but still captivating, beauty whose last bid for youth and life takes the form of a pathetic attachment to a spineless young man who apologetically sponges on her until he finds the girl to make him the kind of capable and dominating wife he requires. It is an authentic piece of observation, with few false notes, and has the unintense interestingness which the opportunity of peering into other people's lives, so like our own, and so unlike, always carries. The...
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The Times Literary Supplement
The elderly beauty who cannot quench her desire for love is a stock figure of fiction, though no doubt the theme still contains unexplored possibilities. Unfortunately Miss Hansford-Johnson, who does not seem to feel any compelling interest in her subject, has treated it in a mechanical way [in her novel An Avenue of Stone]…. One is not quite sure whether Miss Hansford-Johnson fully realizes that the woman who cannot grow old is a pathetic rather than a tragic figure. The attitude of the devoted though impatient stepson who tells the tale suggests that the reader is meant to see a grandeur in Helena which cannot possibly be there. The young protégé who leaves her without warning and the friends who gossip...
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Catherine Carter once again raises the question of the historical and the "period" novel. Where does the one end and the other begin? One thinks of a "period" novel as an artificial, impressionistic potboiler and the majority are little better than that. Indeed, Miss Hansford Johnson's book bears signs of the atmospheric writing that we associate with the film script. Yet, long before we have finished this 460-page evocation of the Victorian theatre we realise that this book is far from being a potboiler. It is, rather, a clever writer's purple indiscretion. Miss Hansford Johnson is an accomplished novelist who has surrendered to the impulse to hurl her creative bonnet over the windmill. Her gaslit heroine and...
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What could be a more satisfying antidote for today's literary malaise than a lovingly executed Victorian novel of the London theatrical world in the Eighteen Eighties? A distant, gas-lit, perfect period it was, more antique and fustian for most of us than the Elizabethan. On deck to shape its historical personality were Ouida, Wilde, Henry James, George Moore, Gilbert & Sullivan…. The Impressionists were stirring and a fresh wind was blowing through the arts, but the decade must have seemed comfortably stable to most extant adults. In "Catherine Carter," the youngish, London-born author brilliantly reconstructs this time and mood, amply fulfilling the promise of "World's End," "The Trojan Brothers," and five or...
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The Times Literary Supplement
Miss Pamela Hansford Johnson is a very cool and intelligent writer, and if she always promises a little more than she performs, her performance is still well out of the range of most novelists. She writes very carefully, building up a character with small, ingenious strokes; her observation of social and intellectual nuances is acute; yet in the end much of her work is softened by an emotionalism which blurs the outlines of character and weakens the story.
The Last Resort [published in the United States as The Sea and the Wedding] is about a well-to-do girl who is rejected by her lover after the death of his invalid wife, and marries a homosexual in the desperate need to obtain at least...
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How long have unmarried British females in their thirties suffered from stifling family relationships and anemic love affairs? Is it only since World War I slaughtered thousands of potential husbands? Or does it go further back, to Victorian papas a là Mr. Barrett, and fiancés dead of fever on the North West Frontier?
Celia Baird, the heroine of Pamela Hansford Johnson's new novel [The Sea and the Wedding], is one of the most convincing, as she is one of the most pathetically repellent, of the whole genre. She has achieved, indeed, a semi-escape from it. That is, though she spends week-ends with Mummy and Daddy at a gruesome seaside hotel, she occupies a flat in London during the middle of...
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The Unspeakable Skipton represents a new and perhaps unexpected development in Pamela Hansford Johnson's talents. Together with The Last Resort, which appeared in 1956 and is surely one of the best novels of our time, it shows that there can no longer be excuse for failing to recognise that Miss Hansford Johnson is as good as any novelist writing in this country today. She began her career as a novelist when very young, and from the beginning she has been admirably professional; she has always known how to make the most use, in the most economical way, of her material. Short of the daemonic genius of an Emily Brontë, there is in the long run no substitute for professionalism. But it has its attendant...
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Thomas F. Curley
[In The Unspeakable Skipton Miss Hansford Johnson proceeds to a] celebration of Daniel Skipton's doom. That is what the novel is about. From the very beginning, from the time Skipton hears and sees, through his pocket mirror, Dorothy Merlin say of him, "Why is that man like a carrion crow," you know Skipton is lost. Not that you care. Insufferable in victory, magnificently spiteful and enraged in defeat, Skipton on his death bed conquers, but only esthetically, his gross tormentors.
It's amazing how well all this is brought off. At first reading, I put the book down as a better than competent but not a great work. It is not great but it is so very accomplished that any comparison with...
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Two recent English novels—Pamela Hansford Johnson's "The Unspeakable Skipton" and Penelope Mortimer's "Cave of Ice,"… are forceful suggestions that perhaps the irrepressible magnetism of the novel lies, when all is said and done, in its elusiveness, its basic indefinability. Miss Johnson's book, which has been described in the English press as a remarkable work that enlarges the boundaries of the novel, appears to have changed shape in crossing the water, for here it seems only a highly skilled imitation of a conventional novel…. (p. 167)
"The Unspeakable Skipton" has everything that Mrs. Mortimer's book hasn't, and nothing that it has. From its beginning one is conscious of being in the...
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Quite possibly a portent of stiffening literary morality, this excellent novel ["The Humbler Creation"] reverses two of the major trends of good modern fiction. It shows almost none of the frank subjectivity, the recognition of imaginative limitations that so frequently make the modern novelist more interesting than his characters. It also breaks sharply with the bohemian attitudes of those writers who seem to secede from their society in a way that Pamela Hansford Johnson … most clearly does not….
Miss Johnson writes so well in a traditional vein (one obvious ancestor is Trollope) and at the same time shows such an intimate realistic grasp of modern minutiae that she suggests a comparison, if...
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Susan M. Black
[In The Humbler Creation] Miss Johnson's style and her material are in tune—almost too much in tune. Only her descriptive, figurative and symbolic use of light and color call attention to the prose. The author writes of skies that are transparent, violet, cobalt, brilliant with stars and lime-green. She described blazes, bubbles, gleams and lozenges of light that may be pale, deforming, dull, reflected, lemon, sallow, torporous or sour and that comes from fire, lamp, sun and moon. Characters radiate light figuratively: there's the "so inhumanly bright" assistant vicar whose romance "suffered from the limelight of a parish" and who was wont to send "an azure gleam of amusement in Maurice's direction." Fisher's...
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The Times Literary Supplement
One need not be a Christian to believe in Hell—to be aware, that is, of an irredeemable blackness of soul from which there is no escape, for which there is no consolation. The central character of An Error of Judgement is an agnostic, to all appearances a wise and unusually good man, but he is obsessed by the idea that deep inside he is vile, cruel, and forever damned. Corruptio optimi pessima might have provided Miss Hansford Johnson with one suitable motto for her new novel, though the tortuous and startling series of circumstances she has devised suggest a moral complexity which should challenge most conventional Christian or, indeed, humanist ethical judgments.
William Setter is a...
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Pamela Hansford Johnson's distinguished body of work is characterized by the range and diversity of her subjects and treatment. Alike in a high, and developing, quality of workmanship and human feeling, they are immensely varied otherwise. She does not repeat; she is always trying the unexpected. "The Unspeakable Skipton," "The Humbler Creation," and this novel ["An Error of Judgement"] suffice to demonstrate the point.
Here she examines the complex nature and abruptly terminated career of a successful Harley street consulting physician, William Setter. He is drawn in depth, and one of the adroit aspects of the portrayal is that he is seen wholly thru the eyes of a narrator, Victor Hendrey, who is...
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Early in 1960 Pamela Hansford Johnson … published a remarkably effective novel called "The Humbler Creation." It was written in the Victorian tradition of Trollope, and it read somewhat like an imaginative social worker's report on the joyless career of a London clergyman whose acceptance of his frustrations made him seem to symbolize a middle-class British preference for public duty over private fulfillment. Now, two and a half years later she has published ["An Error of Judgement"], a more ambitious but artistically less successful study of a London physician who behaves quite differently, kicks over the traces when he makes an unpleasant discovery about his wife, stops practising medicine and finally commits...
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There is nothing of the fantastic in Pamela Hansford Johnson. The Survival of the Fittest is wholesome and sustaining and dramatically un-American. It describes the lives of a group of friends, all of them in or close to 'the literary world', during the 1930s, the war years, and, briefly, up to the Sixties…. [They] become entangled with one another in various love-affairs and animosities, marry unexpectedly, or divorce, or fail to marry; come to tragic ends, or flourish in middle-aged prosperity beneath the apple-trees in Sussex. Technically, the book is impeccable—except for one disruptively high-pitched excursus to the Russian steppes, where the real writer of the group dies dramatically in picturesque...
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A. S. Byatt
Reading [The Survival of the Fittest] is a curious experience; vague and casual from moment to moment, it is nevertheless compulsive and cumulatively gripping. Its mood is elegiac: characters, places, periods, history, are evoked, suggested, rather than solidly dramatic. There are moments of drama—Polly's terror, the richly amoral Georgina's blank and intense misery over a one-page divorce, her convincing and detailed discovery after remarrying her husband of a sexual satisfaction that precludes the need for further exploration.
But events are subordinated to a sense of the long emotional shifts and structures of whole lives, and the group's corporate life. All the time tone and style are...
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Miss Johnson's is the humanistic, not the satirical, eye…. [In "The Honours Board"] she gives us telling portraits of the people in and around [a] small, not very distinguished, upper-middle-class school (all of the characters begin by saying that class distinctions don't matter in Britain any more, and end by suspecting that they do). Central are Cyril and Grace Annick, the aging headmaster and his wife, devoted equally to the school and to each other, and the much longed-for and at-last acquired truly scholarly student, Peter Quillan. It is on him that they fasten their hopes to put their preparatory school on the map intellectually, by his winning a scholarship to one of the great schools on the next rung in the...
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Dorothy L. Parker
[In "The Honours Board"] as in so many middling-good English novels …, a tidy group of characters has been summoned for some contrived, artificial reason made recognizable immediately by a series of deftly executed but superficial gestures—and assigned roles to play, virtues to represent, some outlandish deviancy to display or endure ("kleptomania!" "suicide!" "alcoholism!") without their really having much to do with each other—a congeries of ciphers to be pointed at, exhibited, stage-managed. Even a character whose part is thoroughly ordinary—the Annicks' daughter Penelope, for example, a nice girl really, has an antique shop, recently lost her husband, you know—has a large pasteboard sign suspended from...
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[Pamela Hansford Johnson's Important to Me] is basically an autobiography, done with an apparent casualness that conceals a brilliantly skilful shaping and placing of material. Behind headings like 'Education', 'The Liberal Package-Deal', 'Instructions on the History of Art', 'Edith Sitwell', there is a self-portrait and the account of a life. Without dramatic revelations, but with no great reticences either, she tells us about childhood, parents, two marriages, children, times of depression and times of anguish like those of her husband's (C. P. Snow's) two eye operations, during the second of which he suffered cardiac arrest. Within the limits of being well-mannered, she is straightforward and admirably...
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Already widely praised, A Bonfire does possess those qualities noted by others—a modest style conveying an honest perception of the way things were in the Twenties and Thirties. This much-remarked-upon feel for period is perhaps not as impressive as the psychological accuracy. After all, it has been possible much more recently for a young woman to feel the same half-real fear of the eternal bonfire at the end of the primrose path of sexual self-indulgence that lurks in Emma's consciousness during the three marriages and one one-night stand which occupy her up to age 26. The fondness, irritations and fluctuations of influence between mother and daughter are also faithfully reflected. Life is about making do....
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A Bonfire is an odd novel and its mix of memory, morality and mundane fancy is finally less than satisfying. It is like a plot retold by a child who sees quite clearly a detailed pattern but hasn't been warned against starting sentences with "And then". But it has the same sort of direct appeal, plunging matter-of-fact into emotion and event with brisk and plangent language. Emma is full of innocent yearnings when her father dies the night of the Guy Fawkes party, which is also the night her mother Agnes has explained to her the meaning of adultery and Emma, aged fourteen, thinks she'd prefer being a nun. Can it be this chance but traumatic conjunction which leads to the poor girl's final conviction that her...
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Pamela Hansford Johnson is an expert at lulling her reader into a cosy sense of security, and then rudely shocking him out of it. Sections of A Bonfire are pure domestic idyll, and one could imagine finding them in women's magazine stories of the period between 1924 and 1937, in which this novel is set.
Emma, the heroine, grows up doing and feeling all the things one expects from a girl in that safe, middle-class world: she loves Rochester in Jane Eyre and hates brussell sprouts, she goes to parties where well-behaved young men make remarks like, 'This is a boopsy tune eh?', and she marries a man who is almost too good to be true.
Placed in the background of this...
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Any critic faced with the task of defining the nature of Pamela Hansford Johnson's novels finds that, like many of her characters, it belongs to a class that is extremely difficult to label—too good to belong to the middle range but not good enough to belong among the really great. Yet, if, as Iris Murdoch firmly maintains, "it is the function of the writer to write the best book he knows how to write," there can be little doubt that Pamela Hansford Johnson has more than fulfilled her function as a writer. Throughout her long career as a novelist she has demonstrated the seriousness of her commitment to her art and explored those aspects of life that touch upon the experience of most readers with a great deal of...
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