Pamela Hansford Johnson & a New Biography

The brilliant 20th-century writer Pamela Hansford Johnson has fallen out of fashion.  Her books are out-of-print in the U.S.

But I am an ardent fan.  One winter day in 2009, while browsing at a university library, I found a copy of her novel,  An Impossible Marriage. I admit, I’d confused her with Pamela Frankau, but the error was serendipitous.  I scrawled later in my book journal:

I started reading Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage in the car and continued to read it till bedtime. Fascinating Virago-like material, the story of a strong-willed, intelligent young woman who knows enough to dump a young man with whom she is sexually compatible but not emotionally;  but then makes the same mistake with a beautiful man 14 years older than herself. That whole experience of falling in love at first sight: can that ever turn out well? The horror: it usually involves falling for someone one believes  superior to oneself (and groveling ). Johnson describes the affair with compassion and insight.

Since then, I have read 19 of her 27 novels.  I especially love the superb Helena trilogy (which I blogged about here), Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.  In these witty, elegant, addictive novels, the narrator,  Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes his fraught relationship with his histrionic stepmother, Helena, from boyhood through middle age. The cast of characters is so vivid that one day I absent-mindedly chatted about them at the dinner table, as if they were my friends.

And, lo and behold!  I was reading a book by Johnson when on Nov. 3 the TLS ran a review of Deirdre David’s new biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson:  A Writing Life.  (And that’s why it’s dangerous to read the TLS: too many fascinating books.)

Miranda Seymour writes,

Despite the fact that Pamela Hansford Johnson is now the subject of three biographies – of which Deirdre David’s is by far the most insightful – this once celebrated writer remains an intriguingly neglected figure. Most admirers of This Bed Thy Centre (the debut novel with which Johnson sparked a sensation in 1935, at the age of twenty-three) and The Unspeakable Skipton (1959; a maliciously witty account of literary skulduggery and lofty pretensions, set in Johnson’s beloved Bruges) might struggle to recall the titles of others of her novels. It comes as a surprise to learn that there are twenty-seven of them. Most are out-of-print.

My copy of the biography arrived in the mail today.  I haven’t shrieked so much since I found the huge Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary in a musty used bookstore.

I do hope it’s worth it!

More later.

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