There is a Dickens Fellowship, a George Eliot Fellowship, a Winston Graham and Poldark Society, a Betsy-Tacy Society, a Philip Larkin Society, a Barbara Pym Society, a Booth Tarkington Appreciation Society, and a Katherine Anne Porter Society.
Everybody has a society.
Why isn’t there a Pamela Hansford Johnson Society?
I started rereading Johnson’s A Summer to Decide after I learned it had been reissued as an ebook by Bello Macmillan.
This stunning novel, a chronicle of restlessness in relationships and work, should never have gone out of print. The third in Johnson’s Helena trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alone, the story of Claud Pickering, an art critic struggling with inertia as he tries to make sense of his life. (I myself started with the second volume, An Avenue of Stone, and then went back t the first, Too Dear for My Possessing).
And the trilogy reminds me slightly of Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. Both are narrated in the form of reminiscences by intelligent male characters who possess a strong sense of irony; both weave psychological insights about love, marriage, adultery, art, and business into the narrative. Powell’s sequence, published between 1950 and 1975, spans the 1920s to the ’70s, but Johnson’s, published between 1940 and 1948 and spanning roughly 25 years, came first, and I wonder if she influenced him. I do, however, prefer the voice of Johnson’s self-educated Claud Pickering to Powell’s public-school-Oxford-educated Nick Jenkins. (But I would have to reread all these books to make good comparisons, so don’t take this too seriously.)
In A Summer to Decide, Claud, 38, is Hamletishly at loose ends, cushioned by money. He plays at working at art galleries to learn the technical side of dealing. He feels no need to commit to serious work or to a serious relationship. And, later in the novel, his girlfriend, the beautiful, hard-working Ellen, dismisses his job as insignificant.
The truth is, work doesn’t define him as it does most men. His life revolves around his family, particularly his stepmother, Helena, an Irish singer who, years after morphing from mistress into respectable wifehood, intermittently brawls with her friends, adding panache to otherwise dull, pre-scripted events. Claud and Helena have a love-hate relationship: hostile when he was in his teens, the relationship is now a bickering Oedipal alliance and odd cohabitation in London. One senses that Claud will never be free while he lives with outrageous Helena.
Both are devoted to Helena’s daughter and his half-sister, Charmian, a kind, sociable, charming young woman whose liveliness has faded through the difficulties of her marriage to Evan Sholto, a drunken adulterer. Evan pretends to go to “appointments” day and night looking for jobs, while living off Charmian’s money. Charmian, pregnant and tormented, cannot break off the relationship, and when Evan’s mother moves in, it becomes intolerable.
Near the beginning, Charmian goes to a nursing home to give birth to her daughter, while Helena, who has become unexpectedly ill, dies in a hospital. Claud chose to visit Charmian instead of hurrying to see Helena when the doctor called—-life over death? He has to live with that. So he is now free and must redefine his life; Charmian, who hadn’t had a close relationship with her mother, now hears her voice when she must make decisions. Now that she has the baby she badly wants a divorce.
We’ve seen the wrong relationships. What happens when you have the wrong kind of work? Claud, who has written a few books, is vaguely aware that he wastes himself at the gallery; the women in his life strongly disapprove of his dilettantism.
Charmian’s husband Evan really finds the wrong kind of work, and his dishonestly drags the family down into a quagmire of white-collar crime.
But of course it is Johnson’s intelligent, vivid writing that makes this book. great. Here is Claud near the beginning meditating on his despair.
“For a long time I had been, not in a state of drift, for that implies movement of some sort, however, sluggish, but in a state of suspended living. I had not been in particularly good health, and had lost weight. My work seemed futile; I was pleased when Crandell fond me a job at one of the Bond Street galleries, because I had wanted to learn something of the technical side of picture dealing and connoisseurship, and had been content to take a small salary. Now I could only see myself as one of the legion of the uselessly and futurelessly employed, sitting on a sun-warmed but very small rock in the middle of quicksands.”
Again, there is so much to these books.
Isabel Quigley, in her book Pamela Hansford Johnson, says:
“Possibly the three volumes of the trilogy [Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide] are together Pamela Hansford Johnson’s most impressive achievement. In them, for the first time, she used the public and private lives—the outer and inner worlds—of her characters with complete assurance, and manipulated a large number of these characters and worlds, covering a wide social field, without any sense of strain.”