Johnson, Pamela Hansford 1912–
Pamela Hansford Johnson is a British novelist, critic, and dramatist. She is best known for well-made novels with precisely depicted social milieus and "intensely individual" characters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
A Good Listener is a quiet and almost representative 'novel': it is not dull, but then it is not particularly astonishing either, and the prose keeps so low a profile that the plot becomes the thing….
There are some faux-naifs, of course, who proclaim that sheer 'story-telling' is a rare and much denigrated gift; Pamela Hansford Johnson certainly has it, but it is by no means enough.
What she does, of course, she does well and there is a sensible formality about the book. She has a gift of presenting character without overt commentary…. Of course there are flashes of the old wit and percipience, and some of Miss Hansford Johnson's sentences are turned very nicely; but although there is an acute intelligence at work, it is one that is generally in abeyance. (p. 748)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 21, 1975.
An intelligent, if creakily paced, novel—it is actually the third volume of a trilogy and was published originally in England in 1948—["A Summer to Decide" is] about the baroque love lives of a small, stickily incestuous upper-middle-class London family in the years after the Second World War. This concluding volume disposes of Helena, the mother and leading light of the first two volumes, in its opening pages. She seems to die of a cold. The rest of the book is about her daughter Charmian…. This is the sort of novel in which the mother-in-law is called "belle-mère," romantic crises and family disasters are discussed over delicious little teas, and the depth of a character's reaction to something or someone upsetting can be gauged by the non-directness of his or her response, as when Charmian, who is being bullied by her mother-in-law, "got up, lit a cigarette and set herself violently to the task of rearranging a rack of books." Literate people, lots of faintly absurd action—the sort of thing you might like to have handy under a beach umbrella. (p. 98)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 30, 1975.
The structure, the leisurely tempo, and the hero's psychology make much of The Good Listener read like updated Turgenev. If at times the prose bears an air of déjà lu, especially in the similes, these are occasional distractions from a wise percipience…. [We] are left with the sad but irresistible conclusion that for some, banking is more reliable than love, and surrogate forms of happiness as satisfying as real ones. (p. 30)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 4, 1975.
["Important to Me"] is much more interesting when [Miss Johnson] is recalling her experiences with friends and family, acquaintances and lovers, than when she is communicating her ideas and opinions. That's not too surprising, after all, for someone who's a novelist by trade. Novelists don't need opinions, indeed it can be argued that they're better off without: think of Céline and Dostoevsky, think of those essays of Tolstoy on history. Let us, therefore, thank Miss Johnson for her reminiscences but not for her views, which run from the banal to the curmudgeonly. (p. 18)
[The] further Miss Johnson strays from the immediate reality of people in their setting, especially known people in a known setting, the less well does she persuade us of the value of her observations. When she describes an air-raid shelter in London where she and her mother waited out the bombing raids, we see it and smell it, we hear the sounds and voices of war. But enter politics, let the literary friends she is recalling be Russian instead of British, let her find herself a visiting lecturer on an American campus, and her vision blurs into generalities.
One must sift much chaff to find little wheat. Nor does Miss Johnson's anti-Fascist, left-liberal past seem to give her an imaginative sympathy with social change. Those were honorable views, and it is not true that they were more easily upheld in a simpler world than that of today. It wasn't a simpler world. It was a different one, however, and though Miss Johnson certainly knows that, she does give one the feeling that she's applying an old moral yardstick to new cultural dimensions.
And that, I suppose, is a problem for all aging writers, less acute, perhaps, in Europe than here where Scott Fitzgerald's judgment that there are no second acts in American lives still seems applicable on the literary side, if not on the political. Is it better to sit solidly and stolidly on one's duff and one's philosophy, cranking out volumes shaped by the revelations of experience a generation past? Or should one risk making a fool of oneself by monitoring new trends and mouthing new watch-words? To grow in strength through the decades, to see and say in one's sixties and seventies and eighties more clearly and daringly than in earlier days, is a reward few win. If Miss Johnson hasn't achieved that, it's less a fault of hers than it is the expression of a human defeat—not universal, but sadly common. Only—damn it!—why do the painters seem to do better? (pp. 18, 20)
Elizabeth Janeway, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1975.
[In "The Good Listener," the protagonist's] "moral nature," suggests the author Pamela Hansford Johnson, is elusive, and he lacks anything that might be recognized as a temperament. Toby marvels that a girlfriend, the radiant, unearthly Maisie Ferrars, could want him so much—and we share his wonder.
What a tour de force: a novel of social mobility, spun around an absence of a hero. If only Miss Johnson had brought it off….
In much contemporary fiction, empathy for the characters is considered a 19th-century or middle-brow esthetic preoccupation, and the reader is beguiled not by the characters in the novel's world so much as the authorial sensibility through which the world is projected. But Miss Johnson's style doesn't transform her subject; it only sporadically disguises its meanness. Squandering her gifts, she speeds events forward in cool, filmic ellipses, her touch light as a hare's foot, her ear attuned to nuanced class differences in speech. Yet these people are, oh, so very decorous, their well-bred pain like tepid tea. Though glad to be spared today's de rigueur crotch-view accounts of Toby's amours—sex is so polite here [that] … one longs for some respite from all the mannerliness, a primal bellow or two, an orangutan in Mrs. Ferrars's plover eggs. Even the final irony of Toby's comeuppance is just too tidy…. (p. 30)
Erica Abeel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1975.
["The Good Listener" is a] … moderately entertaining, if irritatingly long-winded, book about a young English social climber who is unable to have much feeling about anyone or anything. Miss Johnson has a particular flair for this sort of person …—the man or woman who is likable in every way but is nonetheless emotionally vacant…. As is frequently the case in Miss Johnson's books, there are lots of delicious picnics and dinners, lots of thick English atmosphere (here, of Cambridge and London), and many savory, eccentric characters…. As is also frequently the case in her work, however, there are a few too many addenda about secondary, or even tertiary, characters and, throughout, an air of strained gentility that is sometimes suffocating. (p. 171)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 3, 1975.