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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.)
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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 humorous and good-tempered and wretchedly overworked in a draper's shop. Brand is miserably conscious of failing to provide for his wife, indeed at times he is kept by her; his shame makes him unkind to her and drives him into a flirtation with a second-rate dancer named Rosary, who hovers pathetically on the edge of the stage world. He does not want Rosary when he is happy; but when he is unhappy she represents for him a different world, a world in which he need feel no shame. That is well observed. Arnold and Doris live in a top-back room which they rent from Ma Hogben, and in this character, which might easily have become a shapeless receptacle for traditional Cockney good nature, the author has been uncommonly successful….
Round these figures the story moves with easy command of dialogue and invention of incident; and all the time we hear rumbling in the background the Big Noises and the Big Guns; wars and rumours of wars; the hateful mass-cruelties and stupidities. All the World's End people (except Macdonald, the Communist downstairs) are of the sort which for generations has regarded foreign affairs as something to be read about in the papers after breakfast and then left to their betters; and now they are caught in that terrible problem of our day: that the precise moment when we all feel that we can no longer afford to remain idle spectators should also be the moment which demands, even of the experts, more experience and knowledge and judgment than ever before. What sane idealist in England would not feel less sure of his own wisdom after being Foreign Secretary for a week? Ma Hogben is of course resolutely isolationist; Sipe shrugs his shoulders and retires, desperate but undeceived, to Montparnasse; Brand, broken but also strengthened by the loss of his wife in childbirth, leaves with Macdonald to join the International Brigade in Spain. He is doing what he believes to be right; but is it right? and, if so, for how many? As a novelist, Miss Johnson is not obliged to deliver judgment; it is a tribute to the sincerity of her book that it raises the whole question (without in the least solving it) of the relationship between "the world of the street corner and the world beyond the horizon."
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, in a review of "World's End," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1937 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XIV, No. 346, October 9, 1937, p. 567.
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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.
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"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 tower overlooking London, is a passionately convinced member of the Labor party. She is also, definitely, a woman whose young, ardent love for a man developed, after marriage and the births of her two children, into a devotion to home and family which she succeeds in reconciling with wider duties.
Annie's story is a tenderly human one with no "Party First" touch about it. Bob, her husband, hates her being jailed, marching in "Save China" parades and leading processions for the lifting of non-intervention. So does her young son. But Annie has humor, and she jollies them along with her. She has grit too; working her fingers to the bone when Bob is incurably hurt and she must fend for the lot of them.
A similar lack of one-sidedness characterizes the rest of the narrative. Another of the four "representatives" is a young and highly cultured Jew, Raphael Barrandane, born to affluence and surrounded by overmuch love and care by a doting father. Contrasted with him is Albert Whye, whose tentative gropings after the beautiful in life and art have been perpetually thwarted by extreme poverty….
"The Monument" is as close to today's news as it is possible for a work of fiction to be, but there is no conspicuous absence of perspective, since the issues dealt with, notably the wars of aggression now in progress or being contemplated, have been so long and so intensively with us. One of the two major themes, and one which is intimately connected with the stormy love story of Raphael and Mary Captor, the fourth "representative" of the time and place, is the anti-Semitism shown as having grown up lately, owing to fascist propaganda, among a particular class in London. Against this class the author wages no uncertain war.
Mary herself, a novelist with a book banned by the public prosecutor, is, to this reviewer, the least interesting figure of the score or so delineated. Her ultra-modernism cannot compete with the plain humanity that makes Jenny, Albert's frail sweetheart; Teddy, his wayward brother; Jim, his nearly blind old tyrant of a father, and many another of the lesser characters so satisfyingly pleasing. Perhaps Miss Johnson's strength lies in depicting not the sophistications but the simplicities of human living.
Jane Spence Southron, "A World Stands on the Brink of Disaster," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1938 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 11, 1938, p. 7.
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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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["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 confidence she speaks here—and not the less effectively because she speaks in fiction—for the young intellectuals of her day and country….
Miss Johnson has never done anything finer than the brief, episodic scenes that carry … [the story of Claud's] life from boyhood in Bruges to London and Paris and that link [Helena Shea], the gifted stage and cabaret star and the budding London-Paris art critic in a passion of young love that feeds on frustration.
It is a story with heartbreak in it; mystery, the mystery of personality, of spirit, before which science has nothing to say, and the occasional aching loveliness that is art's greatest gift to life. For Miss Johnson is a young artist but a real one, with the artist's unceasing dissatisfaction as insurance.
Jane Spence Southron, "New Work by a Brilliant Writer," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1940 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 28, 1940, p. 7.
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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, deliciously motionless between his Fata Morgana and the kind crumbs of dull marriage, reduces both his women to tears and offers a pocket-handkerchief. This is, of course, a tragic human situation—or at least a pathetic one—and I do not belittle it. But the novelist who is satisfied with it in terms of the mystique of Romance is merely adding density to an existing fog…. [Miss Johnson's] conception of character and moral situation is entirely commonplace. There are good moments in Too Dear for My Possessing, careful observation, moments of insight into human behaviour, promising scenes; but they all wash down to a couple of novelette profiles moaning over an investigation of former lovers…. (p. 214)
Desmond Hawkins, "The Ladies," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1940 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XX, No. 497, August 31, 1940, pp. 212, 214.∗
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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, the simple, anxious goodness of Mrs. Nichols, Sid's mother. Sid himself, the widower who, since his wife died in childbirth, thinks of himself as her murderer, Sid with his wild gaiety, his audacity, his self-confidence is admirably portrayed throughout the book, and not least when his infatuation for Betty drives him over the edge of control and leads to her death and his own. Miss Johnson's only failure, I think, is the portrait of Anna. Up to the last book she is beautifully drawn…. But Miss Johnson wavers into uneasy melodrama when she drives Anna into the position of a half-unconscious accessory to Sid's murder of Betty. Anna is too imaginative, too brave to allow herself thus to drift into this role. Still, in so ambitious and successful a novel as "The Trojan Brothers" this hurried disposal of a character who, I fancy, grew more important than her maker intended, is a small fault.
R. Ellis Roberts, "The Rear End of the Act," in The Saturday Review of Literature (© 1945, copyright renewed © 1972, Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 24, June 16, 1945, p. 28.
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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 subtlety not calculated to stand the strain of tortuous analysis. With precision and skill she can touch off the seamy side of a jealous, plain wife, a playboy husband, a shrill gossip. There are sharp, vivid scenes throughout the book which are effective and memorable; the cocktail party where Betty Todd serves humiliation to the Trojan Brothers, the week-end gathering where a shiny half-world attains a sub-Hollywood atmosphere; a theatrical row in a dressing room, frivolous and fateful. These are the highlights which the author creates with ease and proficiency.
But the case of Betty Todd and Sydney calls for more penetrating scrutiny. Betty must seem sharp and greedy enough to be a minor vixen, yet too confused and meager to have undermined the integrity of a natural philosopher. Always we will think of Sydney as an exceptionally nice man who had a bad dream about a murder. The book remains an excellent story which need never have wandered into the substratum of neopsychiatry. (pp. 15-16)
Jane Martin, in a review of "The Trojan Brothers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1945, pp. 15-16.
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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 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 unreliability is well conveyed.
"Enigmatic India," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1947; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2365, May 31, 1947, p. 265.∗
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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 Hansford Johnson's vision only fails her in the case of the Irvingesque Peverel himself. She is unable to communicate the man's greatness as an actor. Her heroine is enchanting but her hero leaves one feeling, as Hazlitt said of Kemble, that though the temple is unimpaired, the divinity is sometimes from home. (pp. 132-33)
John Raymond, in a review of "Catherine Carter," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1952 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XLIII, No. 1091, February 2, 1952, pp. 132-33.
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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 cue. The passionate conflict between these two determines the course of both lives just as it gives the novel its focus…. It is a climactic moment in a performance of "Antony and Cleopatra" when [Catherine] and Sir Henry at last face each other as equals, tying together the contrapuntal themes of a plot which has seemed to flow naturally and unhurriedly from events.
Isabel, Sir Henry's motherly mistress, and Willy Palliser, his malevolent factotum, would be memorable in any company, as would Mrs. Carter, Catherine's scheming mother, and Malcolm Rivers, her conjugal experiment. Proof of Miss Johnson's craftsmanship lies in the fact that she can portray love at many levels, conduct excursions into the minds of actors wrestling with Shakespeare, compile an impressive documentary of the theatre, and provide a historical period piece—all without confusion or lapse from serenity.
Some readers may feel that "Catherine Carter" is too special, too much of the theatre. But even these dissenters will be hard put to name a pleasanter way to step out of 1952 for the duration of 478 pages.
James Kelly, "Peverel Misses His Cue," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 20, 1952, p. 4.
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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 the whole an unsympathetic character is not easily countered by the later attempt to give her a cloak of pathos. To say all this is to judge The Last Resort by the highest standards—those, say, of George Eliot. On any lesser level it can be praised as a most penetrating and intelligent novel.
"The Bond and the Free," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1956; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2855, November 16, 1956, p. 677.∗
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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 confess, was the larger kind of suspense, the kind that entangles one in hope for and sympathy with the characters, the kind that depends not on plot but on immediacy of feeling. This is not here.
In part, I think, the trouble stems from the way in which Miss Johnson … has chosen to tell her story. Celia's situation—her loneliness, her bitter and hated dependence on her parents, her late precarious love which is mangled rather than cut off, her struggle to survive honorably and, finally, the fantastic solution she seizes upon—can be seen as tragedy; in which case it demands a warmer, more immediate telling than it gets. Or it can be turned into satire by a colder, crueler, recounting. But Celia's history is narrated by that troublesome, ubiquitous "old friend" who infests English fiction of the middle range, the "I" who is an observer but not a participant….
This tidy narrator is unimportant as a person; but as a device, she thoroughly hampers the story, for she not only forces it one remove away from the reader. She also narrows the range it can move through to what is seen by one pair of eyes, and to a rather narrow reportorial realism.
The result is a curious, almost exact reversal of the standard, well-constructed "happy ending" novel. The climax is supplied by the death of a love affair instead of its growth, by Mr. Wrong instead of Mr. Right, by irony instead of sentiment. Very well. The trouble is that the dénouement can be foreseen and the plot seems as relentless as if Celia were going to live happily, instead of unhappily, ever after. Miss Johnson has stood the happy ending on its head and done it with considerable skill. She has contrived a believable gallery of characters, pathetic, horrible, funny and touching—some of them all at once. Many of the scenes are distressingly real enough to make one's skin crawl. But her very success at this reversal of the "happy ending" novel involves her in the use of its technique. And in this technique there is no room for the surprise, the vitality, what British novelist Rex Warner recently called "audacity," which could have turned a competent and interesting book into a moving and absorbing one.
Elizabeth Janeway, "Unhappily Ever After," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1957, p. 4.
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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, too. It became slowly apparent that, very quietly, Miss Hansford Johnson was extending the territory of the novel. It was not that the types she was describing, or their milieu, were exactly new; but she had made them new: the retired, angry, self-absorbed doctor, his wife neurotically possessive of their daughter, the 'camp' architect, and the rest. She had seen all round them and caught them in a new light, in a new significance, so that in the end they were somehow bigger, richer as emblems of the human condition, than one might have expected them to be. 'The novelist's touch' was conspicuously absent from their delineation. So with The Unspeakable Skipton.
Here, Miss Hansford Johnson takes as her subject a type much more common in the arty pubs and clubs of Soho than it has been in fiction: the paranoiac artist. Until now, treatment of him has been marginal: one recalls Mercaptan in Antic Hay, and there are entertaining sketches in the early novels of Anthony Powell. The great exemplar in life is Frederick Rolfe, 'Baron Corvo', and Miss Hansford Johnson has admittedly drawn partly upon him for her full-length study of Daniel Skipton, Knight of the Most Noble Order of SS. Cyril and Methodius. But Rolfe has been no more than the starting-point: Skipton exists in his own right and in our time….
Skipton is a superb comic creation, and the final impression he makes is that of truth. Without sentimentality, without for a moment abating the rigour of her sardonic comedy, Miss Hansford Johnson brings out the full pathos of the poor wretch and his fate, which in essence is that of the dedicated artist without talent. And she embodies his fate in a plot marked by continuous and delightful invention and a set of characters that are wonderful foils to Skipton. The chief of these is the poetic dramatist Dorothy Merlin, author of Joyful Matrix, prophetess of the womb and a fertility goddess in theory and in practice. She is as magnificent a monster, almost, as Skipton himself; and the remarkable thing is that, though I can think of no one in contemporary literary life even remotely her counterpart, she emerges, with her hangers-on, as an acceptable symbol of the literary world and the literary values that Skipton in his dotty way is fighting. The setting—Bruges with its bells and its canals—adds a dimension of poetry to the comedy. The Unspeakable Skipton is a brilliant piece of sustained writing, which, as an original and successful comic work, challenges and compels us to revise our former notions of the nature and scope of Miss Hansford Johnson's talents.
Walter Allen, "Portrait of a Paranoiac," in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVII, No. 1452, January 10, 1959, p. 48.
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[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," in Commonweal (copyright © 1959 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIX, No. 21, February 20, 1959, pp. 549-50.
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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 forgotten—unlike Mrs. Mortimer, whose subject matter is equally unappetizing—to offset his wretchedness with any of its opposites, which would make him pitiable, and thus meaningful. Instead, in Medealike fashion, the book drones flawlessly along in a nasty, high-pitched whine, which is only intensified by the people who surround Skipton, all of them variations of him. The result resembles the sensation one might have after abruptly realizing that a beautifully finished cigar-store Indian is, after all, just a block of wood. (p. 170)
Whitney Balliett, "Now You See It, Now You Don't," in The New Yorker (© 1959 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 5, March 21, 1959, pp. 167-70, 173.∗
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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 parish who has the misfortune, when his icily handsome wife turns away from him, to fall in love with another woman. He does nothing improper, he only pours out his heart and kisses his beloved on the neck, but the mere existence of his unfulfilled emotion is sufficient reason to haul him before his bishop and threaten his suddenly obstinate passion with general ruin. In this unlikely material, free of any poetry, animal joy or religious ecstasy, Miss Johnson has had the novelistic prescience to see a rare opportunity. While presenting her wretched vicar against a humdrum background of church bazaars, organ practice, family quarrels, well-meaning officials and cheerless sinners, she has cannily dramatized the path of duty that is still for so many dogged, long-suffering Britons the only way to glory. She has created a symbolic portrait of Britain today.
Those of us who have not followed such a narrow path, who imagined such rigors had ended forever with the coming of an economy of abundance and a well-known trend toward ethical relativity, will yet be held by this story. It is no mere anachronism. Beneath each line it asks: "What happens to nations when they lose this despised mechanical morality? And how many individuals can live without it?" The book is a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress" for our times, except that this pilgrim makes no progress, but simply tries to carry on.
The novel is not grandly conceived; it is content to make its tough, neo-Puritan point, to tell its single story and be done. But it makes that story indirectly so pertinent, and tells it with such an effortless flow of flawless detail, that unless I am mistaken it is going to enter the small pantheon of the significant books of our day.
Gerald Sykes, "Pilgrim without Progress," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 28, 1960, p. 4.
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[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 the members of a parish feel compelled to put an end to a platonic affair that offers their vicar his only chance for happiness seems wrong, but the author insists on the rightness of their motives; their actions indicate largeness rather than smallness, strength and not weakness, and a sense of duty rather than whimsy.
Susan M. Black, "Virtue inside the Rectory," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1960 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 142, No. 12, March 21, 1960, p. 19.
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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 to him that his friend Sammy has murdered an old woman], but she is far too accomplished a novelist to offer simple answers or even to hazard faith. By choosing as narrator a man who, with ironical detachment, is half-convinced Setter is insane or at least a freak, she makes the whole nasty business a nightmare barely credible in the respectable, educated petit-bourgeois world he and stupid little Jenny inhabit; Miss Hansford Johnson sets her often lurid moments of horror against a sane and humorous domestic background. To be sure Victor, with his hypochondria and his mother-in-law troubles, is a bit of a bore, and his worries often seem chiefly an excuse to show Setter's personal charm and magnetism. Although Setter's story is made to seem more convincing by being scrappily recalled, the jigsaw is sometimes clumsily obvious.
But Miss Hansford Johnson becomes with each novel both more complex and more assured a writer. Plot and character are subtly embroiled and observed; there is plenty of meaty, provocative thought underlying the smooth surface style. An Error of Judgement is her most ambitious and serious novel so far. But it is a pity that, perhaps for the sake of the paradoxical doubt implied by the punning title, she has this time failed to make us care much about the fate of her characters, although they certainly succeed in shocking one into admiration.
"The Road to Hell?" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3151, July 20, 1962, p. 521.
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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 enigma which makes the book's fascination. He is an honorable, self-judging man, but how to judge ourselves is a universal problem….
There are memorable scenes, even peripheral to the main thread, such as a week-end at Setter's. Well-realized secondary characters include Jenny's mother and the Anglican priest, Malpass, also involved in the problem of Sammy. This is a remarkable and disturbing book with broad applications.
Edmund Fuller, "Remarkable, Disturbing Story of Self-Judgment" (© 1962 Chicago Tribune; reprinted by permission of the author), in Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1962, p. 3.
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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 seems more like a personal obsession of the author's than an analyzable force that we can study with profit or enjoy esthetically. The thought and the culture that should have gone into the underpainting of an ambitious canvas are simply not there.
This has led to frequent faults of structure and to a painful inadequacy of style. Unmotivated encounters abound, and dramatic surprises fail to surprise. Scenes are set with no sensuousness at all, and the story is told in a graceless language.
Miss Johnson threw away a great deal when she threw away her old-fashioned Victorian crutch. She is trying bravely to stand on her own feet, and we must applaud her courage, but she gives us nothing like the pleasure she once gave. Now this popular novelist faces the stern problems that more advanced novelists have long faced. We can only hope that she will be able to solve them with the new skills she now requires.
Gerald Sykes, "Dr. Setter's Obsession," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1962, p. 5.
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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 callowness of the characters in it? It is all rather genteel and rather complaisant. Even the tragedies, the strife, the waste and futility, the elegiac ironies, are easily absorbed into a general well-bred cosiness that suddenly becomes openly offensive in the picture of the group and their precocious children in later life: Eton, Winchester and the Sorbonne; champagne-and-pâté picnics in Richmond Park; brave regrets for the snows of yesteryear; and the son James, the Masterful Young Wykehamist who dresses so well, knows his Proust, and marries the girl who acted Rosalind for OUDS. Mummy, meanwhile, as good a socialist as the others, is marching to Aldermaston. It is such a twittering world, and it could only have happened in the south of England. (p. 640)
Kenneth Graham, "Varieties of Picaresque" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1968; reprinted by permission of Kenneth Graham), in The Listener, Vol. LXXIX, No. 2042, May 16, 1968, pp. 639-40.∗
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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 original force. (p. 655)
A. S. Byatt, "Elegiac Saga," in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 75, No. 1940, May 17, 1968, pp. 654-55.∗
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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, that's the way it has to be." At this Miss Johnson excels. All the tensions of faculty in-fighting are brought into the pitiless daylight, the most intimate secrets of each master and wife are shown to be the casual small change of everyone else's daily conversation, seams of adultery, kleptomania, lesbianism, alcoholism and most of all strangling loneliness are traced through the school, all set forth in a relaxed, clear, conversational prose.
Miss Johnson's aim in "The Honours Board" is limited, and perhaps because of that, very accurate. Her characters suspect that in the far off world people like themselves and private schools such as this have a small and steadily shrinking place. But just as they finally conclude that class distinctions may be durable, they conclude that the kind of education they offer may prove durable too. This kind of novel, with its author's implicit claims to omniscience about her characters, its conventional structure and attention to nuance, has a shrinking place in literary fashion today. But I suspect it will prove very durable too. (pp. 4, 42)
John Knowles, "At Last a Truly Scholarly Student," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1970, pp. 4, 42.
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[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 observations too minuscule, and though admirable, altogether unsurprising.
That's the source of disappointment. In addition to being a critic who has seriously pondered the nature and mysteries of the novel, Miss Hansford Johnson has been an accomplished practitioner of the art, the author of eight previous novels, the most recent of them a novel of impressive range and some depth. Yet here she takes no chances, and in consequence achieves no surprises—which is to say no illuminations, nothing that extends her scope or our awareness. Everything is exactly where it should be, where we knew it would be, because that's where we last saw it, where it has always been.
Dorothy L. Parker, "Rites of the English Schoolboy," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1970 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 22, 1970, p. 8.
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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 stories. There must have been for a while a considerable struggle between these two sides of her personality, but the sensible pragmatist triumphed. Certainly the pragmatist is in charge in the sizeable part of this book that discusses today's and yesterday's problems of What To Do about This and That.
What do the rich (and the not so rich) pay for in their children's education? 'Small classes and good manners.' A pretty good nutshell answer, and what do reformers offer but larger classes in any near future? What do opponents of 'streaming' want? Total fairness? But 'What is "fair"? And whom are we to be fair to?' Sometimes she is naïve—as about Orwell and Spain, or about the law's attitude to offences against property—but more often sharp. Liberals, Women's Libbers and total opponents of censorship get their knuckles rapped. The pragmatist is a good person to have around, although she is a bit school-mistressy for my own taste. The autobiographer is more complex and more interesting, reading Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw, enjoying the lusciousness of Renoir and feeling that Etty had 'a very rapturous time of it' with his nudes, making an Arabian Nights fantasy out of a smoky sunset seen on Battersea Rise. Such passages remind us that, although the pragmatist is dominant in the excellent realism of her novels, the best of them (The Unspeakable Skipton for example) have gained a depth and resonance of which she was perhaps not fully aware herself when writing, from her lifelong feeling for the strange, the excessive, the dark side of the moon.
Julian Symons, "Vintage Years," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 88, No. 2270, September 20, 1974, p. 386.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210
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.
But what should we make of a bizarre excrescence on the day-to-day events here recounted? At several of the important junctures in her young life, Emma is sent nasty (though not very nasty) anonymous postcards suggesting that she and Mum are scheming females who deserve all the bad luck coming to them. We are meant to speculate as to whether the villain is sharptongued Miss Plimsoll, a sour old family friend given to saying that more or less everything is a waste, and even to "tushing" girlish good news; but no detective skill is needed to guess that her brusque and gaunt person conceals a heart of golden generosity. The final truth about the poison pen pal is a big disappointment, and seems extraordinarily irrelevant.
Gratuitous and trivial as much of the detail may seem, however, it is here that Miss Hansford Johnson's old and welcome flashes of wit suddenly enliven the book. When Emma, aged sixteen, saves for a permanent wave, "which meant being strung up by the hair to a machine for three hours", her Aunt says "'Look at the curled darling' quoting from something or other"; when they discuss the American Stock Exchange crash, Miss Plimsoll speculates whether "all those men killing themselves know it's a mortal sin"; on the baby's first visit to the seaside Nanny remarks that "small boys always know just what to do, they throw stones at it." It is very nearly worth the platitudinous padding to happen on Miss Hansford Johnson's wry and wise comments….
Marigold Johnson, "Clapham Junctures," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4074, May 1, 1981, p. 484.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339
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 Emma's feelings of sexual guilt have somehow made her into what D. H. Lawrence would have called a 'murderee'. However, the tenor of the book bears out neither the authorial prudishness implied by the former, nor the ambitious psychological subtlety of the latter, and this failure to provide an adequate solution to the central question is the one major flaw in an otherwise well-observed and unsettling piece of fiction. (p. 26)
James Lasdun, "Axis Echoes," in The Spectator (© 1981 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 246, No. 7977, May 30, 1981, pp. 26-7.∗
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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 characters. In general her real gift lies in her ability to analyze pain and loss. The Humbler Creation is an example of how well she is able to convey such emotion and relate it to moral necessity. The novels of the 1960s seem to be characterized by a preoccupation with the problems of good and evil.
Ironically enough, two of the novels where she is most clearly concerned with the evil in man are ostensibly comic in mode. Her most recent novels are her most assorted since they seem to represent a return to forms and ideas she has tackled before and wishes to approach once more in depth and with maturity. Thus The Survival of the Fittest is a mature version of the early panoramic novel; The Honours Board, a well-balanced study of the personal relationships in a closed community; and The Holiday Friend, an exploration of the individual's ability to suffer through passion. The Good Listener is reminiscent of The Unspeakable Skipton, with its cadging hero, and it also indicts the society that permits such people to flourish. (pp. 175-76)
In spite of the seriousness of her commitment Pamela Hansford Johnson's books are never without humor. She writes with irony and compassion and does so with such skill that most situations in her novels are permeated with an ironic vision.
Some of the situations in her novels recur with enough frequency to draw attention to themselves as characteristic. Thus her protagonists are usually intelligent young men and women from the "middle-middle" class, with literary or artistic ability, whose experience has much in common with her own. She also makes frequent use of a dominant mother and a weak or absent father, and the relationships between mother and child, teacher and pupil are among the most poignantly drawn in her fiction. At the same time she displays an interest in the bizarre and abnormal: nymphomaniacs, homosexuals, old men and women painfully in love with the young, crazed passion, and murder all fall within her range.
In terms of technique Pamela Hansford Johnson has moved away from the experimental toward the traditional. Early in her career as a novelist she favored the form of the psychological novel and made repeated use of counterpoint, stream of consciousness, and interior monologues. Toward the 1940s, however, she seemed to settle for an objective narrator, and many of her best novels employ this device. Her use of it exploits the perspective that distance and the passing of time lend to an experience, and it is this aspect of her work that most readily comes to mind as evidence of her debt to Marcel Proust.
Since the 1960s she has not made use of an objective narrator and instead has moved over to the method of the great nineteenth-century novelists with an implied third-person narrator and a traditional chronological sequence of events. This technique has enabled her to explore character fully and to comment on the action without seeming to intrude. The increasing sophistication of her use of images and symbols as devices for structural unity is also evident in her mature work. Whereas, in her early fiction, images were evocative and profuse, in her later novels they are chosen with care and usually contribute to the total meaning. (pp. 176-77)
[At] present in Britain, writers like John Fowles, Malcolm Bradbury, and Christine Brooke-Rose reveal a renewal of interest in experimentation. Pamela Hansford Johnson reflects the pattern of her age in the development of her fiction, with the effects of the experimental period evident in the early novels, and the gradual acceptance of well-tried and tested techniques in the main body of her work. However, in some of her latest novels—for example, The Unspeakable Skipton, An Error of Judgement, and The Good Listener—there is evidence of a fresh search for new forms to express her particular requirements and a sign that her talent has by no means stagnated or become conventionalized.
Even the novel she was working on at the time of her death and which she intended to call "Adelaide Bartlett," represents a new departure in that it is based on historical material in a way that none of her other novels has been. It is clear that she made a significant contribution to the art of fiction, having written at least a dozen novels that will continue to demand respect. (pp. 177-78)
Ishrat Lindblad, in his Pamela Hansford Johnson (copyright © 1982 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1982, 204 p.