Wendy Pollard, the author of a brilliant new biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, kindly agreed to an e-mail interview.
Pamela Hansford Johnson (1912-1981), a critically-acclaimed novelist whose books are now neglected, wrote some of my favorite novels, among them the Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide. She was married to C. P. Snow, another brilliant but neglected novelist.
I raced through Wendy’s engrossing biography, which is one of my favorite books this year.
Kat: What drew you to write about Pamela Hansford Johnson, a brilliant 20th-century novelist and influential critic whose work is largely forgotten?
Wendy Pollard: I’ll have to go back quite some time to explain! I did not go to university at 18, but decided to catch up much later by taking an interdisciplinary degree with the wonderful institution we have in the UK – the Open University. I became drawn to the literature element of the various modules, and was fortunate enough later to be offered a place to study for a PhD in Cambridge. I chose 20th century literary reception for the topic of my dissertation, focusing on the novels of Rosamond Lehmann. Even at the comparatively recent date of 1996, some eyebrows were raised in the English Faculty with regard to the suitability of that choice, since Lehmann was regarded as falling into an unnamed category between highbrow and middlebrow.
In the 1920s, when what Virginia Woolf later labelled ‘the battle of the brows’ was occupying the minds of the literati, J.B. Priestley had suggested a cross-over category, ‘broadbrow’, only to receive a hostile reaction from the highbrows who held sway. This seems to me to have been a great shame, and when I was trying to decide on a writer for a biography which I hoped would appeal to appreciative non-specialist readers as well as to academics, I remembered how much I had enjoyed Pamela Hansford Johnson’s novels while I was growing up, and realised that she could be regarded as the epitome of ‘broadbrow’.
I have to admit that, at that time, I knew very little about PHJ’s poetry, plays and works of criticism, nor about her interesting life she had led and her circle of friends and acquaintances in the UK, the US and Russia, and I certainly had no idea of the biographer’s dream of an Aladdin’s Cave of source material awaiting me. This leads on to your next question.
Kat: How does a biographer shape a coherent narrative? Does the research suddenly click and fit together? What material was especially helpful?
Wendy Pollard: I had the greatest good fortune to receive the co-operation of Pamela’s daughter, Lindsay Avebury, who is her mother’s literary executor, together with her brother, Andrew, and also Philip Snow, the son of PHJ and her second husband, C.P. Snow.
Lindsay allowed me to read and transcribe the diaries her mother had kept from the age of fifteen. Pamela would have had no idea of a biographer’s future interest in them at the outset, but they provided the perfect framework. Lindsay also reminisced to me about her mother and showed me her collection of as yet unarchived letters, photographs and other family memorabilia. I was able to locate further material in literary archives both in England and in America. It can be so exciting to come across a missing piece of the jigsaw. I get huge pleasure from research, but sometimes have to discipline myself to leave out descriptions of events or anecdotes enjoyable in themselves, but not strictly relevant to the story being told.
Kat: This is a very literary biography, containing precis and critiques of her books and a history of their reception. Was it more difficult to write about her life or her books?
Wendy Pollard: I enjoyed writing about the connections between the two, although PHJ did not write directly autobiographical novels on the scale of CPS. Literary theory, when I was completing my first degree, was agreeing with Roland Barthes that the author was dead, but fortunately that school of thought has given way.
I did experience some guilt about revealing some aspects of her life. In her diaries, towards the end of her life, as you will have read, she did occasionally directly admonish any would-be biographer, but I felt a responsibility not to suppress relevant facts.
I found the history of the reception of her work particularly interesting as her novels generally received excellent reviews during her lifetime, but I maintain that contemporary literary feuds have played a significant part in the posthumous and (as I’m so glad that you and I agree) unjustifiable neglect of her writings.
Kat: What is your favorite book by Johnson?
Wendy Pollard: This is a tricky question and I’m going to hedge a bit. She was so prolific, and her novels encompass several genres: the answer might depend on my mood. Too Dear for My Possessing, the first novel of her acclaimed ‘Helena’ trilogy, is very fine, combining romanticism with a compelling account of the social and political background of the 1920s and 1930s. As a girl, I loved Catherine Carter, her Dickensian novel about the Victorian stage, and I still reread this from time to time for comfort. Finally, if I wanted to tussle with one of the moral problems which feature in her later novels, I would choose The Humbler Creation, which, despite its central dilemma, does also illustrate PHJ’s sardonic sense of humour.
Kat: What are you reading now?
Wendy Pollard: The final stages of proofreading, indexing, and book launch events very much interfered with my usual reading habits, and I have a pile of books awaiting me (for which I must thank my daughter who always sends me exactly the ones I have been meaning to buy). Having recently returned from Amsterdam, I am now very much enjoying Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, and I am looking forward to reading Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan.
Kat: Thank you for the interview about your important and fascinating biography. It is one of my favorite books of the year.