It is not so much that I’m unsociable as absent-minded, so I was pleasantly surprised this year when I managed to read a couple of Viragos for Virago month and two books for Women in Translation Month. “So, Go for it, Kat! You can read a book from 1947,” I told myself. So It’s halfway through the 1947 week, and I was about to embark on a book published the wrong year. Yup. I have this thing: dyslexia with numbers.
Now that I’m on the right year, I would like to recommend one of my favorite books of 1947 (and of all time), An Avenue of Stone by Pamela Hansford Johnson.
If you don’t know Pamela Hansford Johnson’s stunning novels, you are missing out. Best known as Dylan Thomas’s girlfriend and C. P. Snow’s wife, she had enough talent and merciless observations to put those two boys in the shade. A few years ago I interviewed her biographer Wendy Pollard here. I appreciated Pollard’s serious work and hope it revived interest in Johnson. And it is a very good sign that Bello Pan has reissued Johnson’s books in paperback and as e-books. (Unfortunately the e-books aren’t available in the U.S.)
Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, of which An Avenue of Stone is the brilliant centerpiece, shows Johnson at the height of her powers. The first book in the trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing (1940), is a coming-of-age novel: Claud, the narrator, bickers with and competes against his beautiful, controlling, often wicked stepmother Helena. After his father’s death, his life is inextricably intertwined with Helen’s, for better or worse.
She continues in the intro to Avenue, “I was no longer giving way to a too-easy romanticism; I was able to give the book a rather more solid structure.”
An Avenue of Stone is an unforgettable masterpiece. In this brilliant novel, set at the end of World War II, the narrator, Major Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes the volatile relationships of his stepmother, Helena, amidst the deprivations of rationing and the disintegrating class boundaries of the postwar society.
The novel begins with Helena’s ramblings about class.
“As a class,” Helena said, “we are doomed…”
At first she uses Johnny as a lackey to pass appetizers at parties and install linoleum at her cottage , but later she is fascinated by him and insists that she can’t live without him. Claud and Charmian can’t bear the situation and move out. Johnny the unlikely gigolo, is, surprisingly, a magnet to older women. One of Lord Archer’s former lovers, Mrs. Olney, a lamp shade maker, also tries to lure him to live with her.
Claud’s observations of this unlikely triangle are the center of the novel. But his wry observations keep him in the forefront, and it is for his voice that we read. This very slightly reminds me of Anthony Powell’s novels.