Johnson is a very underrated English writer. She was the author of 27 novels, as well as poetry, plays, and books on Proust, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Thomas Wolfe.. The best of her novels, including the Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide, are bold, dazzling masterpieces. Even her most flawed novels are well-crafted.
But does anyone read her anymore?
Perhaps Wendy Pollard’s new biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, will rekindle Johnson’s reputation. I am making my way through it slowly, and finding it fascinating. Though it begins awkwardly with the assertion that Johnson and her husband C. P. Snow were the intellectual celebrity couple of the mid-twentieth century (do we need a mention of Snow on the first page?), Cope hits her stride by the second chapter. Now if only the British press would review it. The one review I read in The Spectator was simply awful.
I recently reread Johnson’s The Last Resort, published in 1956.
All right, this is not Johnson’s best book. Yet I couldn’t put it down. It is not stylishly written, but is rather a melodramatic page-turner about the tragic consequences of a love affair for a brittle woman in her late thirties.
How can you be happy if you are unmarried, even if you are the successful owner of a secretarial agency? That is the question Johnson poses. Christine, the happily married narrator, a novelist and the mother of a son, quietly relates the story of her friend Celia Baird’s passionate love affair with a married man. On vacation, Christine runs into Celia at the Moray, the hotel where she lives with her parents on weekends. Celia is aglow as she recounts the history of her relationship with her lover, Eric Aveling. But the situation is tortuous and guilty: Eric’s wife, Lois, is dying in the hospital; and Celia is Lois’s friend. After Lois dies, the affair fizzles out. Celia is devastated.
No one is Celia’s true friend, except Christine. Celia’s mother wants Christine to help her break up Celia’s affair with Eric. Celia’s homosexual friend (the business partner of Eric), Junius, is often mischievous. Celia attacks his campy insincerity in praising unattractive, eccentric old women: she says homosexuals disdain them. Even after Celia apologizes, Junius is furious. And this quarrel is part of Celia’s downfall: later he introduces a beautiful young woman to Eric.
There are many twists and turns to the plot, but Christine’s description of life at the Moray is riveting and Dickensian. When Christine and her family spend Christmas at the Moray with the Bairds, the hotel culture adds an odd sparkle to Christmas.
Christmas dinner was a curious meal. It was not the custom at the Moray for guests, whether resident or not, to pay much attention to one another. The Bairds knew all the residents by now, but they hardly ever exchanged more than a good-morning or a remark about the weather. I myself had commented upon two old ladies who, having lived there for more than ten years, occupied seats on opposite sides of the chimneypiece and had never spoken together in anything resembling friendship. “But they aren’t relations,” Mrs. Baird said, puzzled, “though they do look a bit alike. They don’t even know each other. At dinner on that particular day (it was served at the usual time, at half past seven) a feeble attempt was made at general comradeship. All through a well-cooked but poorly served meal…well-known solitaries braced themselves to look around, nod and smile blindly at random; elderly married couples, who wanted nothing but to be alone, bobbed quickly at other married couples, while hoping the gesture would not form a precedent; and one or two determined diners even leaned across with their crackers at adjacent tables.
The portrait of Junius, the gay friend who lives in a “chi-chi” beach house, talks frivolously, shows off his young men, and accuses Christine of not liking people of his “persuasion,” would be politically incorrect today. Although Johnson had lesbian friends, she denigrated gay men in her diary, says Wendy Pollard in her biography. And Johnson was upset by “adverse reviews from critics known within literary circles to be homosexual,”
I wonder if the relationship between gay men and heterosexual women was more fraught in the mid-twentieth century. In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), there is an even more disconcerting scene between the heroine and two gay men: Anna rents a room to a gay man, and all is well until his lover moves in. They they make loud misogynistic remarks about her and borrow her lotions and makeup. Eventually she has to evict them.
In The Last Resort, finally Christine turns to Junius, who helped destroy her relationship with Eric. He is indeed a “last resort.”
A gripping book, if slightly dated. We are all very worried about Celia, but know that Eric and Junius can take care of themselves. We hope that Celia hasn’t made a terrible decision.