The Critic in Novels: Cultured or Caustic?

Critics have a bad rap.  We picture them as cruel little men (somehow not women) who savage the books and movies we love.  “I never agree with the critics,” my mother used to say.  I seldom do myself, but I read reviews and discover good books by reading between the lines.  Personally, I have never known a critic.  I have known book reviewers, who are a milder bunch. But suddenly, last month, critics kept cropping up as minor characters in the twentieth-century novels I was reading.

In general, they were an unpleasant bunch.  I chortled over a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, set at a literary society meeting.   Jane, a middle-aged minister’s wife and writer of a collection of essays, attends the meeting to “absent herself from parish duties.”  Her old college friend, Barbara Bird, a novelist, chats about the good reviews of her latest novel.  She is pleased by the turn-out for the meeting.

“Better gathering than usual,” said Miss Bird; “quite a few critics.”

“Such mild-looking men,” said Jane, seeing one of them taking his seat near the front.  “Perhaps they compensate themselves for their gentle appearance by dipping their pens in vitriol.”

Later, Jane has an accidental encounter with a critic while conversing with Miss Bird.   “Oh, yes,’ agreed Jane enthusiastically, stepping backwards into a critic and causing him to upset his coffee over himself.”

Pym getting back at the critics?  But did Pym ever receive a bad reviews?


Critics are useful to writers, as we see in Some Do Not…, the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s stunning tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Mrs. Wannop, a brilliant novelist and freelance writer, arrives unannounced at a brunch and immediately corners a critic.    “…Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”  Ford is very comical about her, but, believe me, she needs the press, because she and her suffragette daughter are almost starving.

I am a great fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson, and recently reread the second in her Dorothy Merlin trilogy,  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  Dorothy’s friend Matthew, an aristocratic playboy, is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel masterpiece, the critics are difficult people, sometimes not quite of the writer/narrator Nick’s class.  He went to Oxford with Mark Members, a savvy social-climbing poet and critic.  In the fifth novel in the series, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we meet Maclintick, a bad-tempered music critic. He is not entirely unsympathetic, but comes to a bad end.  Nick describes him as follows:

…Maclintick belonged to the solidly built musical type, a physical heaviness already threatening obesity in early middle age.  Broad-shouldered, yet somehow narrowing toward his lower extremities, his frontal elevation gave the impression of a large rectangular kite about to float away into the sky on the fumes of Irish whiskey, which, even above the endemic odors of the Mortimer and the superimposed insistence of Mr. Deacon’s eucalyptus, freely emanated from the quarter where he sat.  Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations.  The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing on him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

What is the source of these satiric portrayals of critics?  Why do we recognize them?  Perhaps I first read about a critic  in one of the novels of Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, or a satire by Evelyn Waugh?

I do remember a critic in Sebastian Faulk’s relatively recent novel, A Week In December, published in  2009.  I loved the large ensemble cast, and wrote in my book journal:

My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell….   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.

So do you know of any critics in novels? Who are your favorites? And why do they have such a bad reputation?

A Catch-Up Post: Mary Gordon, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Marguerite Duras

Although this is a book blog, I do not write about every book I read.  Why not?  Well, it is my book journal.  Sometimes I transcribe notes from my handwritten diary, other times I prefer to muse on bookish topics like reading habits or unlikable characters.

But what happens when you have skipped critiques of so many books you have no option but to go back and look at your notes?  It is my obligation, isn’t it, to introduce you to the best books I’m reading?

And so this is a hasty catch-up post on three books I’ve meant to review.

1  Mary Gordon’s stunning novel, There Your Heart Lies, published in 2017, is my favorite book by this award-winning Catholic writer.  I was so moved by it that I didn’t want to blog about it. You read it, you love it, you think about it–but it spoils the mood to explain.  I scrawled in my notebook:  A gorgeous novel, really a double narrative, set partly during the Spanish Civil War, partly in Rhode Island in 2009.  After Marian’s gay brother commits suicide in the 1930s, she rejects her wealthy family and marries her brother’s lover to accompany him to Spain. Gordon alternates chapters about Marian’s life in Spain in the ’30s and ’40s with Marian’s retelling of  the story to her granddaughter when she is in her eighties.   Often Marian repeats in conversation the same words Gordon used in the third-person narrative.  It is surprisingly effective.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s (1965).  Johnson’s satire of the writing life in the 1960s is hilarious.  The pretentious poet-playwright Dorothy Merlin is writing an “Anti-Verse play”; Pringle Milton has published her first novel but gets sidetracked posing for an artist’s photo for a milk ad;  Tom Hariot is determined to write a play so obscene that it can’t be produced (this proves impossible); and Dorothy’s  husband Cosmo reluctantly hosts a poetry reading at his bookstore.

Cork Street is the third in the Dorothy Merlin trilogy, three books loosely connected by the appearance of Dorothy and her friends. When I say these satires can be read as standalones, I mean it.  The plot elements don’t overlap.  Why didn’t I write about Cork Street before?  It is so witty that I wanted to give the book to everyone for Christmas so I wouldn’t have to write about it–but it’s out of print. And so I have to write about it.

And here is why Cosmo Hines is my favorite bookstore owner in literature:

Though it was commonly believed that Cosmo never opened a book, this was untrue. He was a passionate writer with positive tastes who could easily get through a dozen advance copies in a week; but what he liked best was novels about mad people, and through sheer personal enthusiasm had managed to sell thirty copies of one of these the previous Christmas. He also enjoyed books about drug addiction, but kept this to himself, since he had a clientele wholly uninterested in the subject.

Marguerite Duras’s Wartime Notebooks (1943-1949).  These four small notebooks, written during the war, contain rough drafts of  stories and several alternate versions  of her novel The Lover.   The war stories are brutally effective: a woman tortures a collaborator (all the women leave the room in disgust, as would I have), and there is a powerful autobiographical account of waiting for her husband to be released from a concentration camp, and how she and a friend managed to save his life–he was a living corpse, unable to eat.  Later, when he is healthy at the beach, she laughs over the mriacle of his recovery.  This jumble of material is, I think,  more suited to someone who knows Duras’s work.  It is important work, but shouldn’t one first know the primary literarature?  And that’s why I put off writing about it.  It’s really not for me.


The Habit of Living Indoors: Are Narcissists the Best Writers?

Do you have to be a narcissist to be a good writer? Or a bad writer, for that matter.

For many years I eked out a living as a freelance writer. I scribbled book reviews, features, and PR at a rapid rate. I bubbled over with thousands of words a week, enjoying writing frivolous, fun pieces.  Alas, most of the articles were ephemera, and  I have hung on mostly to the reviews and pieces about writers.  But reviews are not lucrative:   I had to fund my habit of living indoors.

Books were my life and still are, but I have never written seriously about books. If only I’d been prettier, more charming, more political, perhaps I’d have been more successful…but I suppose I would not have liked that prettier, more charming, more political person. In that respect, I am narcissistic.   I often felt like Jo in Little Women, enjoying my blood-and-thunder stories but haunted by money worries and patriarchal disapproval–Jo/Kat’s not a serious writer! I stopped writing in my free time.   All I really wanted to do was read.

When I was 18 or 19 I was sure I’d write a novel someday–when I felt like it!  The first novelist I met, outside of a fiction writing class, was a friend’s handsome, pretentious boyfriend. I was awed that he had  finished a novel, and eagerly started to read his manuscript. He was very smart… but his prose was bombastic and unpublishable.   One sentence has stayed with me: “Even the crack of dawn made him horny.”

At that age, I had more talent than I have now.  Words unselfconsciously flowed from my pen in my free time, between classes, work, and a late dinner with my boyfriend.   One evening, when a friend and I were studying for an exam for a core psychology class we’d rarely attended and bought lecture notes for at the Union, she took time off from reading about lab rats to riffle through my desk drawers.  Why didn’t I finish my brilliant novel? she demanded after half an hour.  (There wasn’t much there.)   “Well, it’s not a novel,” I tried to explain. Fiction was not my forte.  If it was, I’d have written it.  I specialized in short ephemeral articles, and now in a blog that is really just a journal of my reading!

I did write one novellla, at a rapid pace. To show how little writers know themselves,  I was not aware of the kind of book it was till I finished.   I had aimed for literary fiction, but it turned out to be women’s fiction.  One day I may go back and revise, tighten the plot, lengthen the book, and make the characters more likable.   But the project doesn’t interest me that much.  I would rather read…

 I have recently mused about the writer characters in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s superb novels.   In her books, writers are divided between the sane and sensible camp and the narcissists.   In The Last Resort (which I wrote about here), the lovely narrator, Christine, is a successful novelist, a happy wife and mother.  At weekends spent writing at a hotel, she sees a friend made very unhappy by an affair with a married man.  And after the man’s wife dies, he marries someone else.  It is a shattering scene.

And in Johnson’s brilliant Helena trilogy, her masterpiece, which I last wrote about here, the narrator, Claud Pickering, is a writer and an art historian with a deep understanding of his dysfunctional family, especially of his narcissistic stepmother, Helena.  He is one of the sanest and most responsible of characters, a cross between Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  Claud is the kind of guy you want to spend time with.

But in Johnson’s hilarious Dorothy Merlin trilogy, which I chortled over last weekend, the writers are all ridiculously narcissistic. In the first book in the trilogy, The Unspeakable Skipton, we learn that the hero Daniel Skipton believes he is the best writer of his generation. He hustles a bare living in Bruges by  exploiting tourists with various scams, but his life is writing his new novel, his masterpiece, in an attic in a mouldering house.  Unfortunately, he libels so many people that the book is unpublishable.  And he has so little sense that he even satirizes his publisher, who kindly sends advances money on books they both know Daniel will never write.

But, narcissistic and malicious as Daniel is, he genuinely loves writing.  Johnson describes his touching enjoyment of the routine.

Having had his lunch and rinsed out a pair of socks (he had only two pairs and always kept one in the wash), he took his manuscript from the table drawer, ranged before him his three pens, one with black ink, one with green and one with red, and sat down to the hypnotic delight of polishing. The first draft of this book had been completed a year ago. Since then he had worked upon it every day, using the black pen for the correction of simple verbal or grammatical slips, the green pen for the burnishing style, the red for the marginal comment and suggestions for additional matter….  It was not only a great book, it was the greatest book in the English language, it would make his reputation all over the world and keep him in comfort, more than comfort, for the rest of his life.

Daniel Skipton is not the only narcissist in the trade. His rival, Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright who visits Bruges with her husband, Cosmo Hines, and two friends, has an inflated opinion of her own drama in verse about wombs and motherhood, which was staged as a multi-media production in London.  When she informs Daniel that her plays have to be read “on two levels,”  he is very annoyed, because he believes his own work is deeper and  should be read on seven levels!  She says,”You see, the womb in my verse is not just my womb.  It is the womb of everyone.”  And she compares herself to the Flemish painters who add scenes of domestic life behind the Madonna.

This is the kind of narcissism we love to laugh about.  Are  writers like this in real life?  Well, perhaps I’ve  met one or two, but the majority are very kind and generous.  Writers are no more alike than, say, lion tamers or Wal-Mart cashiers. Yes, they tame the lions or punch the cash register keys, but it is their bookishness that unites them at any party in a room full of geeks scanning bookshelves.

Writers Living Cheaply: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “The Unspeakable Skipton”

I spent the weekend in bed with a bad cold. You know the kind of thing:  there is much coughing and dizziness, you feel you might faint in line at the store,  and the cold/flu/whatever hangs on forever. (After two weeks, go to the doctor.)  It is the kind of cold which, I assure you, will be exacerbated by a cheerless masterpiece by Dostoevsky.  No, you must turn to light reading.

The eclectic English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson did not specialize in light novels, but her Dorothy Merlin trilogy is hilarious.  The first of these satires of the writing life, The Unspeakable Skipton, focuses on a narcissistic novelist/con man; the second, Night and Silence Who Is Here, is an academic satire; and the third and best, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s, features Dorothy Merlin, a pretentious poet/playwright, holding court in her husband Cosmo’s bookshop, along with other artistic Londoners.  By the way, these can  be read as stand-alones.

The Unspeakable Skipton is potentially a cult classic–if anyone knew about it. I chortled over this short, witty, very weird novel about the vanity of a novelist/huxter hero, Daniel Skipton, who does nefarious odd jobs to afford a cheap garret in Bruges, “in one of “the last of the patrician houses,” as he says.   He has fallen in love with the beauty of Bruges.

Yes, he thought, this was the place for him and none other: he would die here.  He had come to live in Bruges for cheapness at the end of the 1920s:  had muddled through and out of the war by means of ill-health and broadcasting in Flemish for the BBC, and had come back not for cheapness, since the country was bloated with money and everything was dear, but because he could not bear to live anywhere else.  And, so long as Flabby Anne kept up her payments, he could just about get along.

Skipton believes he is the greatest writer of his time, but his tiny output of 250 words a day, many of them libellous, belies his opinion.  He is a paradoxical mix of personal priggishness and con artist: he wears socks with individually knitted toes because he thinks it’s obscene for toes to touch, but is not at all fastidious about finance.  He  hustles advances from his publisher for imaginary projects and cadges money from a cousin he’s never met, whom he calls Flabby Anne. He also procures fake antiques for a dealer and organizes voyeuristic parties to view obscene skits in mime.

At the center of the book is Skipton’s chance meeting with a group of literary tourists and his attempts to dub them out of money: Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright, her husband, Cosmo, a bookseller, Duncan, a photographer, and Matthew, a mysterious aristocrat. He’s equally matched here, however, and underrates his opponents, particularly Dorothy’s husband.

Skipton despises Dorothy, who writes poetry about her fecund womb–she has had seven children–but she cares nothing for his opinion,  and the contretemps between the conceited pair is hilarious.

“I am alien to you,” said Daniel, “utterly so.  I do not sing in chorus.  I do not rattle out, in a half-baked fashion, the Freudian claptrap which has been so successful because any dirty-minded dunce can understand it. Not that I am accusing you, Miss Merlin, of being dirty-minded. Where no mind exists, it is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleanliness.”

She said with dreadful charity, “I don’t think you can be well.  Do let us help you.  I’m not in the least offended with you, I–“

Very, very funny, and I look forward to rereading the other two shortly.  This is very short, only 192 pages.  Just enough of Skipton!  A little of him goes a long way.  I prefer Dorothy:  she’s a snob but not a scam artist!

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.

The 1947 Club: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Avenue of Stone

1947-club-pinkKaren of Kaggsysbookishramblings is a voracious reader, a sociable blogger, and an indefatigable co-organizer of “The 1947 Club.” What is the 1947 Club? Bloggers and other readers agree whimsically to read and post on books published in 1947–any and all books published in 1947!

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.)

avenue-of-stone-johnson-my-picture-img_0067-copyingAnd now I am going to cheat a bit by posting old notes on An Avenue of Stone from 2009.

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.

an-avenue-of-stone-johnson-ebook-9781447215578an-avenue-of-stone-400x0x0To read the second novel first, An Avenue of Stone (1947), is both an advantage and a liability.  Each novel is self-contained, so the order doesn’t matter.  And I loved An Avenue of Stone so much that I went on to read the other two. Johnson says in the introductions to the American reprints that she was learning her craft when she wrote the first book, Too Dear for My Possessing (1940).  The second and the third novels, An Avenue of Stone and A Summer to Decide, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively: “So, between books 1 and 2, I had seven years of learning to write…

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…”

avenue-of-stone-johnson-american-4616293Helena, a former chorus girl who married into the upper class and has established herself as a glittering hostess, loves to talk about the rebellion of the proles. As the novel begins, the sixty-something Helena is entertaining guests with outrageous complaints about the collapse of society, illustrated by exaggerated anecdotes about rude bus conductors and insolent shop girls. After her second husband, Lord Archer, dies, leaving the majority of his money to Helena’s daughter, Charmian, and, shockingly, to his former lovers, Helena can no longer live on the grand scale to which she is accustomed. She is persuaded to let her hunky chauffeur go and move into an apartment with Claud and Charmian. Helena, unused to living without admiration, becomes vulnerable to a kind of asexual love affair with Johnny Field, an irritatingly self-denigrating young man, whom Claud introduces into the household, assuring her that Johnny needs rest and “does nothing but read.”

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.

Women Writing Well About Sex: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s This Bed Thy Centre

This Bed thy Centre Pamela Hansford Johnson imagePamela 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.

Johnson writes,

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.

this bed thy center johnson 077 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.

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

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.

The Crush in Literature: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

woman yawning at typewriter 1551_2

What would we have done without our crushes when we were young women? (And may those days never come again.)

In our thirties when we were freelance writers, we worked in our pajamas at home and did phone interviews between loads of laundry.  Charming editors persuaded us to write  stories that involved long bus rides, multiple interviews, and long days of writing. The fee probably worked out to $3 an hour:  less with typewriter ribbons.  Crush away: it motivated us, though it would not be profitable.

The crush is also significant in literature.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLIn Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines, a crush lifts the heroine, Gwen, an unhappy housewife, above the tedium of life in Branley (a kind of anti-Cranford) with her boyish banker husband, Clifford, his gloomy invalid mother, and irritable unmarried sister, Evelyn. Clifford  is a beefy, jovial conformist, proud of his “intellectual” wife.   During World War II when Clifford is away,  Gwen works at a hospital and flirts with Paul, a doctor. Her crush is so intense that she sends her son to boarding school so she will have time to have an affair.  The affair, of course, never happens.

But Gwen needs her crush.

One of their first conversations is about reading. The smug, domineering Paul

…interrogated her swiftly, searching, probing, and unsmiling.  “Villette?  Better than Jane Eyre?  But why?”

“She knew more, then.”

Gwen is right:   Charlotte Bronte did know more then. In Jane Eyre, she gives Jane the husband she wants, albeit he is crippled first.   In Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, the heroine, Lucy Snowe, does not get the man she wants:  she falls in love with Doctor Graham, who doesn’t really notice her and loves someone else. Paul, an unattractive,  misogynistic Belgian teacher falls in love with Lucy.

In The Philistines, Paul is a blend of Graham and Paul: like Bronte’s Graham,  he likes Gwen but doesn’t love her; and, like Bronte’s Paul, he interrogates her.

Branley is a cruel, gossipy town. Branley disapproves of Gwen’s best friend fortysomething Pamela’s engagement to a younger man, Gerry.  At the club, Clifford plays a prank that ruins Pamela’s life.   In a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, he leads a nubile 22-year-oldwoman, Phoebe, to the blindfolded Gerry Fenner, Pamela’s fiance, whose hands are all over Phoebe.  When the blindfold is removed, Gerry is stunned by her beauty. Shortly thereafter he breaks off his engagement to Pamela and marries Phoebe.  Pamela commits suicide.

Here is what you do not want to hear when you tell someone you’re in love with him.  Paul’s response to Gwen is:

My dear,” he said at last, in a tentative, kindly voice, “you and I are different people.  You;re a romantic:  I’m not. I can’t help feeling that all this, to you, hasn’t been much more than a peg on which to hang the idea of love.”

Gwen creates a new life for herself and her son with courage, intelligence, and grace.  Love has not been kind, but it might come again.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & The Book-Buying Habits of Bloggers

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading "Emma" in "The Jane Austen Book Club"

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading “Emma” in “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Book bloggers are an intense bunch.  Think of all that writing with no reward except to share our avidity for reading.

I was thinking about the act of book-blogging because it is  National Readathon Day, a pro-literacy event sponsored by The National Book Foundation, Penguin Random House, Goodreads, and Mashable

I was busy during official readathon hours, but  I made up for it later.  I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s remarkable novel, The Philistines, an exploration of the psychology of an unhappy woman who marries a suburban banker after she realizes she has no talent for writing.  Her mother, an artistic widow, is appalled.

What else should I do?  I have no future.”

“There’ll be something…something.”

“Oh, something!” Gwen cried, with a bitterness that made her instantly ashamed.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLFrom the beginning, we understand that unconventional Gwen is headed for disaster.  She and Clifford live with his  mother and sister, and never move into their own place.. Motherhood does not fulfill her, and the social life at the club is monotonous.  She develops a crush on a doctor, and it is not returned. She fantasizes about him for years.. I was struck by the intensity of the crush, an emoition so common among women in their thirties, yet largely unwritten about in novels. Perhaps romance is more exciting, but how many women actually sustain themselves by fantasies ? More on this next week.

Johnson always breaks taboos by delving into forbidden psychological territory.


There is a new trend among book bloggers:  we say at the beginning of every year we are going to read only from our shelves.

We are going to be like Susan Hill in Howards End Is on the Landing, a wonderful book about her reading  from her home bookshelves for a year.

That’s what I say I’ll do, and I do read from my shelves, but book-buying is where my materialism comes in.  And I recently made a very interesting discovery :   I can get very cheap used books if I settle for “good” instead of “very good” or “like new” condition.

At our house it is very like a ’60s sitcom when books arrive in the mail on weekends.  I wish I were like Samantha in “Bewitched” and could twitch my nose and make the books disappear.   Today my husband intercepted four packages.  “Is it your birthday?”

I have very good reasons for buying these books, as he  shortly learned.  I had to replace my copy of A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement, because it fell apart while I was addictively rereading  Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

I swore I couldn’t get it at the library.

And so now I am done buying books.  For the year.

We’ll see!

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Last Resort

pamela hansford johnson the-last-resort-978144721627801Pamela Hansford Johnson’s brilliant, mercilessly observant, psychological novels explore the vicissitudes of relationships in the mid-twentieth century.

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.

Pamela Hansford Johnson

Pamela Hansford Johnson

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.