Pamela Hansford Johnson 1912–1981
English novelist, essayist, critic, dramatist, poet, and mystery writer.
Johnson was a prolific writer whose novels defy rigid categorization. This is perhaps because her style ranged from early twentieth-century experimentalism to the third person narrative typical of nineteenth-century British novelists. Her plots, themes, and settings varied with each work. Johnson's variability is also indicated by the fact that her first novel, This Bed Thy Centre (1935), an immediate critical and popular success, focused on ignorance of sexuality and was viewed as rather "permissive" in its day; years later, in the tract "On Iniquity" (1967), she questions the mores of permissive society.
In the mid-1930s Johnson was briefly engaged to Dylan Thomas, who suggested the title of her first novel and with whom she shares similar literary devices, such as the use of interior monologues and the "stream of consciousness" technique. Johnson married Neill Gordon Stewart, though, and collaborated with him on two murder mysteries under the joint pseudonym Nap Lombard. The stories were written as escapist fiction and are not representative of her oeuvre. Subsequently, Johnson married C. P. Snow and together they composed several short plays which they both later dismissed as frivolous. Her novels have always received the most attention.
Although Johnson wrote two trilogies and has several characters appear in more than one volume, each of her novels is unique, differing from the others in some way, whether in presentation, resolution, or character types. In general, her characters attempt to achieve a balance between their inner and outer lives. Her comic touch helps to ease her studies of modern morality.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vol. 104 [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
Miss Johnson is distinguishable from the many intelligent novelists of the day by the fact that she is not in the least afraid of people who are ordinary and good. Most writers would run a mile to avoid such people as material for fiction, partly for fashionable reasons (someone might murmur "Priestley," and then where would they be?), but principally because the virtuous are so very difficult to do well. But characters of simple goodness, when realised in fiction without either insipidity or sentimentality, are encountered by the reader with a delight that is quite unforgettable. What a pleasure it is to think of Trollope's Mr. Harding, or of Peter Schulz, the old Professor of Music in Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe. Miss Johnson attempts nothing on that level, but her new book [World's End ] shows that she is sensitive to the quality of natural goodness and can present it to the reader when she sees it. And yet the world which she depicts is one which many novelists would have wanted to cram with nicely touched-up iniquities: a needy, uncertain, semi-artistic group living at World's End, Chelsea. The most disreputable of them are the drink-soaked pianist Sipe and his worthless wife, Irene, about whom there is something of the flavour of an early Huxley (Coleman or Spandrell): but, if they are less witty and horrifying, they are also more real. At the heart of the book is a love-story, although the lovers are seen nine years after marriage, not a few months before as usual. Arnold Brand is middle-class, intelligent, wanting to write, often unemployed and generally depressed: the footling jobs that do come his way—snobbish little travel agencies and so on—bore him to death. Doris is 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...
(The entire section is 13,484 words.)