Pamela Hansford Johnson is a very underrated English writer, at least in the U.S. How much have we heard this year about the centenary of Elizabeth Taylor and Lawrence Durrell, but nothing about the centenary of the intellectual, versatile Johnson?
Many of her books miraculously are back in print: Bello, Macmillan’s e-book imprint, has reissued 18 of Johnson’s 27 novels this year, Capuchin Classics published An Error of Judgment in 2008, and The Unspeakable Skipton is available from Prion.
Johnson (1912-1981), the daughter of Amy Clotilda Howson, a singer and actress, was a prolific writer. She left school at 16, worked as a secretary, wrote poetry, became a close friend of Dylan Thomas, married an Australian journalist, had children, married the novelist C. P. Snow, and wrote 27 novels as well as several works of criticism, plays, and other non-fiction.
I have read and reread Johnson’s stunning Helena trilogy: Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide. The middle novel, An Avenue of Stone, is my favorite. But to get to that, I have to reread the first book.
Too Dear for My Possessing, a bildungsroman, follows the life and adventures of the narrator, Claud Pickering, an art critic, from adolescence through age 30. At the heart of the novel is his tumultuous relationship with his stepmother Helena, a former singer whose beauty, humor, and wry honesty alternately amuse and annoy him. When the novel begins in 1921, Claud is enjoying an idyllic childhood in Bruges, where his father, Dicky, a writer of thrillers, and then-mistress, Helena, have settled in the wake of their scandalous affair. Though Helena regards Claud as a runt and a nuisance, she looks after him good-humoredly. Claud’s frail, pretty mother has reneged on guardianship, so Helena rather capriciously plays stepmother. Claud and Helena quarrel constantly, almost like brother and older sister, and when he blatantly disobeys her, she takes vengeance.
When Dicky gives Claud a boat for his 13th birthday, Claud is happy to explore heavenly Bruges by water. Helena is pleased, too, because she wants to have Dicky all to herself, but she does not neglect Claud, and says he must be back in two hours. He ignores her.
Yes, I was happy then, the sun browning my face in its own fat, my coat in the bottom of the boat, my sleeves rolled to my shoulders, my hair heavy with perspiration, my hands insensitive to blisters, my arms deliciously cold where I had plunged them into the water. Now an obstacle; a wooden bridge cracked across and trailing, under a weight of branches, into the stream that at this point was no more than two feet deep. How should I pass? On an ordinary day I would have turned back, but today I was a new man, a free man, a man in his fourteenth years.
When he gets back late, his father has been taken ill, and Helena hits him. Claud has no respect for Helena, and knows she resents him. There is another similar violent showdown later about one of Claud’s boating trips.
During a visit to his mother that same summer, two momentous things happen to Claud: (1) his mother gives him a set of oil paints, which sets him on his lifelong love affair with art; and (2) he falls in calf-love with a charming, talented young girl, Cecil Archer, the daughter of his mother’s boyfriend. Cecil grows up to be a singer (like Helena). Claud is half in love with her but the timing between Cecil and Claud is always bad. The first time, she gets sick during Claud’s visit, so he is only able to see her for a few hours. Years later, after Claud’s father dies, their paths cross in a completely unlooked-for way, and Helena marries Cecil’s father (a tycoon). Claud, now a banker and freelance art critic, marries a pretty, very conventional secretary, Meg, after he learns that Cecil is engaged. He knows he shouldn’t have married Meg as soon as he sees Cec again.
It’s a complicated novel, cerebral rather than emotional, and I am fascinated by Claud’s analyses of the times, the frivolous twenties, his knowledge of the coming war in the ’30s, his understanding of hypocrisy of condemnations of divorce (he loses his job at the bank after a divorce), and his observations of family relationships, with much emphasis on big, sexy, funny, unconventional Helena’s unpredictable relationships with men and forays into society, and the sweetness of Claud’s half-sister, Charmian, who is truly charming and is Claud’s best friend. Claud loves books and art, and we understand his emotional life partly through his dry art criticism (sounds odd, I know).
Claud’s tone here is a little like that of Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, though Claud Pickering is not an aristocrat: he lives more on our level.