Pamela Hansford Johnson (1912-1981), a critically-acclaimed novelist of the mid-twentieth century, is the author of several neglected classics. My favorite is the Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.
I just read This Bed Thy Centre, published in 1935, her energetic, poignant first novel, organized around a small group of characters who live in the same South London neighborhood. Although I am a Johnson fan, I expected little of this book, possibly because of the title. I was thrilled to find it stylishly written and bold, the first of many brilliant novels. It belongs to a genre described by D. J. Taylor in The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, which I wrote about here, as a “panorama of capital life,” i.e, a novel set in a single London neighborhood or at a single address. Johnson’s book fits well with the “panoramas” he mentions, such as J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement, Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.
in This Bed Thy Centre, Johnson portrays characters of a wide range of classes and intelligence, most of them women. Her explicitness about women’s sexual desires caused an uproar when the book was published. In the preface of the 1961 edition, Johnson, who wrote the book in two months when she was 22, explains she did not mean it to be controversial.
Times have changed since, and it would be quite a feat today, to provoke such a succès de scandale as I did, without trying, in 1935. Words like “outspoken,” “fearless,” “frank” (dirty words, the lot of them), flashed out of my headlines. I was shocked and terrified. That wasn’t what I had meant, at all. Living in isolation from literary people, I shrank beneath the reactions of some of my kin, and some older acquaintances less than kind. I was given to understand that I had disgraced myself and the entire area of Clapham Common.
At the center is a teenage girl, Elsie Cotton, who, in the beginning, has a crush on her art teacher, Leda, partly because she does not even know what sexual intercourse is. “How are the facts of life?” a friend asks cruelly the day after Elsie asks her how babies are made. But soon Elsie drops out of school and falls in love with a self-centered young man, Roly, who two-times her with a girl from the library with no twinge of conscience until he is found out. Elsie tells her widowed mother, Mrs. Cotton, how much she wants sex with Roly, but she is also terrified of getting pregnant. Mrs. Cotton chides her for talking so candidly, and Elsie asks if she didn’t feel the same way. Mrs. Cotton cannot remember if she ever wanted sex much.
The other women in the neighborhood seem to belong to a lower class than the Cottons. Mrs. Maginnis, my favorite character, is a cheerful, brave widow, well-liked in the neighborhood, but Elsie’s boyfriend Roly nastily refers to her as “the best unpaid whore in the neighborhood.” She has an unemployed lover, who comes to her for food and angry sex. She is sensuous: she admires her body after a bath. When she discovers a lump in her breast, she refuses to see a doctor.
“I haven’t,” she answered,” and I’m not going to. I don’t like them. My husband, Bert his name was, had the TB, so they packed him off to a ‘sanny,’ and it’s my belief that they froze him to death. Draughts, not enough bedclothes, snow and rain blowing in on him… I shall never forgive myself for not making them leave him at home with me. I would have nursed him well again.”
This attitude can perhaps be seen as representing the lower middle class (actually, I’m not sure about British class at all), but I know many middle-class women who still doubt the medical profession.
Mrs. Godhsill, a Bible-thumping religious fanatic who preaches in the park, dominates her sickly daughter, Ada Mary, who works to support the family, and secret drinker son Arthur. Maisie, the owner of a bar called The Admiral, knows all the doings in the neighborhood, and is not astonished when Arthur comes to the Admiral, drunk and vomiting. Like Maisie, Ma Ditch, the cats’ meat woman at the market, knows the neighborhood gossip. The only educated woman in the novel is Leda, the art teacher, who has a passing fancy for Elsie, but when her writer lover returns, she reverts to her obsession with him. She is both sexually attracted and repulsed, realizing she will have to support him financially.
Hardly anybody writes as well as Johnson about women’s sexual desires, and the book seems very modern in that respect. Elsie is sensual but is also very anxious about sex: perhaps she is a predecessor of Lena Dunham, writer and actress in the TV show “Girls” and author of the memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. In Not That Kind of Girl (a very good depiction of a millennial woman), Lena is so ambivalent about sex that, rather than go to bed with men, she has sleepover dates. Her mother thinks sleeping together without sex is more perverse than having sex. (I agree.)
Johnson’s This Bed Thy Centre has many dark moments. There are anxiety attacks. There are suicides. Her boyfriend Dylan Thomas, her only literary friend then, came up with the title, from one of Donne’s sonnets. (She wanted to call it Nursery Rhyme, which I think is better.)
Last year I read Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times. ( I interviewed her about it here.) Her second husband was C. P. Snow, another neglected writer. Many of Johnson’s books have been reissued as e-books by Bello. I hope this means there is a revival of her work.