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...
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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...
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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...
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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.
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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 dream—forces into the background. Suddenly you are in the grip of tragedy, poignant, silent tragedy that makes no show; and you realize how very far Pamela Hansford Johnson has come in the few but pregnant years that separate this beautiful, pain-dogged book from her promising first novel.
This also is a young book; but it is not youthfully tentative. The dream was youth's prerogative. The tough, clear-eyed decision that gives the finale its strength and special significance is the writer's answer to the challenge of contemporary events. Pamela Johnson, looking back on her own generation's less than thirty years, has taken stock of them, given them their meed of due, nostalgic longing and swept them into the discard. With quiet...
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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 is in describing these early years that Miss Johnson is most satisfying to read. But there is a disturbing undercurrent, even in the best of the opening chapters: a portentousness of address and a further vagueness beyond each attempt at precision, which remind one increasingly of Charles Morgan. The young artist in a luminous afterglow of reminiscence, already shadowed with philosophising—it is Portrait in a Mirror which comes to mind as the most apt comparison. And sure enough, with Claud's puberty accomplished, Miss Johnson can find no objective but the agonised adultery of morganatic marriage. Cecil, the magnetic cabaret-singer, embodies nothing more than the Tin Pan Alley truism that Glamorous rhymes with Amorous. Claud,...
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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 the artists; the excitements and depressions; the extreme chances and changes—all of these are given with ease and assurance. In the overall picture of one aspect of London life "The Trojan Brothers" is in the true Dickens tradition, and can stand with Mr. Patrick Hamilton's incisive etchings of the darker corners of the great city….
All the main characters are astonishingly life-like; and Miss Johnson shows unusual skill in giving the reader, by a phrase or an incident, a key to the nature of these people—the primness and possessiveness of Maggie, the humility and occasional fury of Benny, the greedy, self-pitying lust of Betty and her essential vulgarity, the tender understanding of Hockaby, the female impersonator,...
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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 worries. Paradoxically, so long as she is concerned with life around and about the theatre, the author gives us reality; it is only when she probes into the everyday impulses and motives of her actors that a sense of the theatrical begins to overwhelm us.
For Sydney, the protagonist, is believable only so long as he sticks to his normal role: a squat, freckled man with a clown's face and a philosopher's mind. When he gives way to his obsessive love for cousin Betty Todd, who married out of her class, his behavior needs more explaining than is to be read into Miss Johnson's rather misty analysis. (p. 15)
Miss Johnson seems more shrewd than deeply perceptive, so that her characters are of a first-degree...
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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 fact that it hasn't any other qualities, that the whole thing is flat observation without background or depth, is in one way rather … frightening?… depressing?… while at the same time it sharpens the factual authenticity of the tale as a depiction of contemporary life. Miss Johnson puts the whole thing together with the most expert unobtrusiveness, so that one reads rapidly to the end, to find the story has merged imperceptibly, as it seems, into the world around.
D. S. Savage, in a review of "An Avenue of Stone," in The Spectator (© 1947 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 178, No. 6205, May 30, 1947, p. 634.
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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 about her are too severely condemned for an inevitable attitude.
Sympathy with the heroine could have been won only by an extraordinarily vivid and vital presentation of someone who was an exception to all the rules. This Miss Hansford-Johnson does not achieve. Judged by her conversation and behaviour, Helena is a tiresome, egocentric and devouring personality from whom it would be a duty to flee at any price. Nor does the stilted dialogue of the other characters contribute anything to the desired illusion. Miss Hansford-Johnson has been most successful with her portrait of the neurotic young man who has to be propped up by some woman in order to survive. His combination of slyness and charm, devotion and complete...
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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 twopence-coloured background lie outside the diocese of the critical conscience and one must read her book in the spirit in which she appears to have written it. Certainly, it is an indiscretion that I thoroughly enjoyed sharing. The author has visualised the Belvedere Theatre and its inmates with such a passionate imagination (and, in the case of some of her characters, with a perceptive sharpness that recalls her earlier novels) that one forgives her for modelling her hero's traits on Irving and basing incidents on theatrical history. One even forgives her for rewriting Clement Scott's notices and getting Mrs. Charlotte Charke's name wrong (but would Cibber's disgraced daughter ever have adorned a green room picture gallery?) Miss...
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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 six lesser works which she has sent us since 1935. With her new novel, Miss Johnson has unmistakably arrived.
Remarkable for its poetic sweep and penetration, "Catherine Carter" unfolds most of its action at London's Belvedere Theatre, where a repertory company headed by the rising young actor-producer Henry Peverel is putting on Shakespeare and contemporary plays. Egocentric, dedicated to greatness, surrounded by carefully selected mediocrities, Peverel tolerates no rival for his place at center stage. Certainly he does not suspect that 22-year-old Catherine Carter, the worshipful, fervent child to whom he patronizingly gives acting lessons, will one day reach his own eminence.
Peverel has missed his...
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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 a new name and an unseparate life. All the minor figures in the story are wonderfully well done—the heroine's rude old father and leech-like mother, the lover's dying wife, the impersonal narrator who provides an undistorting mirror through which the story is seen.
At the heart of the book, however, is Celia; and Celia's small passages of arrogance and uncertainty, her devouring love for Eric Aveling and her last throw for happiness when he rejects her, are somehow not acceptable in Miss Johnson's terms. A compromise has been made somewhere in the course of writing, by which the severely realistic conception in her mind has been sentimentalized; with rather confusing results, because our original idea of Celia as upon...
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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 the week, runs a typing bureau and has a lover. Yet it is only too evident, as she stalks through these pages of understated prose, jangling her bracelets, buying company but not companionship, that her emancipation only enslaves her more. Despair and ineptitude have somehow got into the marrow of her bones, as if a Bad Fairy had presided over her christening to insure that all the good wishes made there should come true unhappily, to no avail, or after a corkscrew twist into mockery, like the wedding of the title.
Does it sound a depressing tale? Well, so it is, in a way, but Miss Johnson's crisp prose, her observant, satiric eye, and her gift for the smaller prickles of suspense keep the reader going. What I did miss, I...
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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 dangers. It can degenerate into formula. The professional novelist's be-setting sin is always what Norman Douglas called 'the novelist's touch', the falsification of life through failure to realise the 'complexities of the ordinary human mind'. It is not a failure the novelists we read and re-read are guilty of; and one of the inspiriting qualities of The Last Resort was precisely Miss Hansford Johnson's skill in rendering the complexities, the contradictions, the discontinuities of behaviour, so that in the end the action she described could stand as a satisfying image of life itself, one rendered with a sad, lucid, honest acceptance that made it not silly to be reminded of George Eliot.
There was something else,...
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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 the competent is an injustice.
Skipton is presented as unspeakable but we are persuaded, though never told, to like him. And yet never once, no, not for a sentence, does the author entice our sentiments or our emotions. You could not care less what happens to Skipton or the rest but you thoroughly enjoy reading about him and them. Now that is an achievement worthy of unqualified praise and admiration. I don't know of an American who is capable of it.
As for engaging the affections, well that is something, as Miss Hansford Johnson no doubt knows, that is beyond the reaches of art. At least it should be. (pp. 549-50)
Thomas F. Curley, "Celebration of an Author's Doom,"...
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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 presence of a Novelist at Work. Indeed, the book's structure, prose, settings, and characterizations have been exquisitely handmade, and they emit a fat, pleased Currier & Ives glow…. (p. 169)
The hero-villain is a penniless English writer, Daniel Skipton, who, the author of a once mildly celebrated avant-garde work, lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium, where he passes his time in writing scurrilous letters to those who support him, and in pimping, lying, cheating, boasting, and being generally execrable. Miss Johnson slowly circles Skipton, covering every inch of him with the thick blue paint of her prose, but, just as day and night would be meaningless without each other, Skipton, too, is meaningless, for she has...
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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 only for purposes of historical elucidation, with the British woman novelist generally regarded as the best of our times, Virginia Woolf. Miss Johnson justifies the comparison, not because she possesses anything like Mrs. Woolf's verbal magic—she does not, though she writes with masterly precision—but because she goes deeper, knows her people better and faces up more squarely to their problems. If Mrs. Woolf was a Bloomsbury stylist reacting against the crudities of H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, Miss Johnson is a post-imperial social scientist reacting against the elegant estheticism of Bloomsbury.
In "The Humbler Creation" she considers the overworked, underpaid, middle-aged, tone-deaf, unimaginative vicar of a London...
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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 principles are "illuminating," Libby "glows" only at bazaars and as Alice's father-in-law lies dying in "moneyed brightness" the author takes us into the "stained-glass windows of his mind." Alice's room is literally and symbolically the brightest spot in the book. Maurice comes to adore the light she is so fond of.
The Humbler Creation is dominated by the themes of resignation, renunciation and unhappiness. It has been written without the touches of humor evident in other novels by this prolific writer; smile we may but laughter would be inappropriate. But although it so colorfully pictures people who are content if they can "cope" with life, not to mention enjoy life, this is by no means a despairing book. That...
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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 distinguished Harley Street consultant married to a big, gay, gadabout wife called Emily. Gradually, through the mild, quizzical eyes of a decent little man called Victor, who somewhat improbably becomes Setter's confidant, the anatomy of a tortured soul takes shape. Because he has so far restrained his perverted urge to cruelty, has, in fact, turned it to virtuous effect, Setter cannot accept the idea of a God who will judge him worthy of salvation; the only hope, he believes, is to do nothing, to alleviate the strain of hypocrisy by abnegating moral responsibility….
Miss Hansford Johnson spares us none of the agonized soul-searching which must attend the predicament in which Setter [finds himself when it becomes clear...
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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 likable but not notably discerning. The author makes us see Setter thru a combination of what Hendrey sees and a realization, from the bare facts, of aspects that he does not see….
The core of the book is Setter's abrupt decision to abandon his practice. It is a shock to everyone and undermines his own already weakened marriage. He takes the drastic step because of his conviction that there is an ineradicable streak of sadism in him to which the practice of medicine offers too many subtle temptations; he has become a consultant to get away from the simpler physical ones of inflicting pain legitimately. In his newer role the temptations are more complex and psychological.
Is Setter right? That is the...
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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 murder. Miss Johnson has turned away from sociology to metaphysics; she is now examining evil.
In doing so she has put aside her talents of empathy, style and structure. It is difficult to identify oneself with Dr. Setter, who does his work with conspicuous—if literarily unconvincing—skill until one day he is obliged to recognize that his wife loves another man….
Miss Johnson has chosen to study an irrelevant kind of evil. Setter possesses no general or symbolic significance; he is an unappealing crank who raises expectations he does not fulfill. Excessive preoccupation with one's own sinfulness does exist, and the Calvinist mentality is far from departed from the modern world; but as treated here, it...
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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 surroundings. The book's quiet, even tone, though monotonous, allows for a certain cumulative strength, and there are places where the very usualness of the human cycle of grief and reconciliation gives dignity and feeling to the otherwise flimsy characters. The historical events are just sufficiently seen and no more: they are not allowed to create any panorama, but only to intensify or to weaken the various relationships that are established within the group.
I suppose the book offers a fair picture of the lives of certain middle-class and lower middle-class London types (there are a few shadowy proles who, unlike the others, have not read their Donne and Proust). But does the narration really rise above the essential...
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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 muted, close to cliché, never sharp. In her wartime trilogy Pamela Hansford Johnson created in precise detail a whole world of black market, shell shock, rationing, requisitioning, button-polishing. Here she builds with a few light touches, appealing to the memory of 'those days' (the 'wild' Fitzroy Tavern, firefighting, Spain, Hiroshima), giving the reader a sense of remembering, even where he cannot, fictional characters and real events. Pure states of emotion stand out as they do in memory, intense, detached from all but the most significant (and usually stock) objects and descriptions. There is a general feeling only to be fully grasped at the end, of a world, people and relationships that really aged and changed, yet still contain their...
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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 English private educational ladder, Eton or Winchester or Harrow. The peculiar intimacy, even devotion, which develops between masters in schools like this and their wives on the one hand, and certain students on the other, is affectingly shown—the way in which these people whose lives are devoted to their schools watch students come, help them to flourish, and watch them go, rarely to return. The depiction of this rich, poignant and true relationship instead of the usual brutal, uncomprehending clichés is enough to lend distinction to the novel.
The essence of prose fiction is particularity, concreteness, the portrayal of a world about which the reader, largely ignorant of it, will say, "Yes, it must be like this,...
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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 her neck reading "Indecision," with subtitle: "Young widow, may try one or two men, this or that job, or even toy with the notion of a luxurious titled marriage, before making the right choice." (Who is, of course, the terribly devoted young master of obscure origins, a rough exterior and a heart of gold.)
All the same, there are modest rewards in this unassuming little novel, small touches that persuade absolutely by their accuracy of insight. The only schoolboy who is realized as a character (the rest being merely plastic fixtures) goes through a cruel battery of qualifying exams while ill, and both his agonies and those of Annick, suffering along with him, are compelling. But the fine moments are too few, the faultless...
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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 candid. She understands, but does not stress, the limiting influences on her own life, the necessities imposed by her own character. Was it remarkable that her mother should live in the same house with husband and wife during both marriages? To me yes, but she makes it seem inevitable although, as she says, perhaps unwise. The memoir of her mother is beautifully done, perhaps the most tender and delicate thing in the book.
The portrait that emerges is of a very intelligent and humane woman whose commonsensibleness conceals a powerful romantic idealism. She never cared for arty bohemianism…. She admired Edith Sitwell, wrote a book about Thomas Wolfe. She loved in Dylan Thomas the romantic boy, not the boozy teller of tall...
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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. Money has to be earned, accommodation sought, envelopes addressed for the Labour Party. A more complete world is mirrored here than the slimness of the book might suggest. The craftsmanship can't be faulted, and yet … And yet dissatisfaction lingers. It is a good train read (and, goodness knows, quality entertainment isn't to be sneezed at) but this reviewer anyway, recognising it all so well, longed for just a little fresh illumination. (pp. 20-1)
Gillian Wilce, "Fiction and the Railway Public," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2615, May 1, 1981, pp. 20-1.∗
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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 sexual gratifications, blessed or unblessed, have irrevocably destined her for "the everlasting bonfire"?…
The cynic might comment that if Emma had been less preoccupied with her own sins of the flesh—and with the wagging finger of suburban disapproval—she could not have complained of an unhappy life: her innocent blinkers, briefly cast off in 1936 when, "despite her own troubles, the events of the previous year had not left her unmoved" and she addresses envelopes pleading for "milk for Spain", are there to protect her against the greater sins of envy and pride, and the author clearly wants us to admire in Emma the guts and defiance of convention so lacking in her dreadful mother Agnes.
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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 blissful world are certain undercutting details that hint towards the introduction of a less idyllic tone. Hitler is rising in Germany, the family parrot indulges in some vicious behaviour, and a prim old lady is embarrassed by a broken loo-flush. Then suddenly the bombshells begin to fall, turning Emma's life into a catalogue of catastrophes.
Why do these things happen to a nice girl like Emma? That is the mystery that keeps one reading this book. Emma herself seems to think she is being punished for her sexual appetite which has set her on 'the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire.' As no other explanation is given, one is left with the conclusion that the author either shares Emma's belief, or that she is suggesting that...
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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 lucidity and humaneness. (p. 175)
Gradually her interests seem to have developed from the general toward the particular, and in the novels that she wrote during the 1940s she analyzes man's romantic nature and his tendency to fall in love with an unobtainable dream. In the novels of the 1950s she becomes more preoccupied with the workings-out of an enduring relationship and turns her attention to the circumstances that cause it to disintegrate. Truly successful relationships are rare in her fiction and suggested rather by a promise of their being so than by their actual attainment. Catherine Carter and The Honours Board are the only two novels in which she describes a successful union between her major...
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