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.