Right, after Margery Sharp here’s another New-to-Me novelist to enthuse about – Pamela Hansford Johnson who was, apparently, immensely popular from the late 1930s through to the 1960s, but seems to have been largely forgotten in recent years.
Anyway, I downloaded a Bello edition on to the Kindle (hurrah for Pan Macmillan’s digital re-issues), and it turned out to be a pretty good choice because, quite apart from the fact that I really enjoyed this particular novel, I think it’s an excellent introduction to PHJ.
|The cover of the Bello edition of ‘An Impossible
Marriage’ – though I’m not sure if E-books really
do have covers!
And she most definitely does not want to rake over the past, but that’s just what she does as she remembers the time she and Iris were friends, when she was the clever one, and Iris the pretty one – they each had their labels.
Ouch! Strangely there seems to be a degree of complicity between the more assertive pretty girl and her plain, compliant friend, a little like the childhood relationship between bullying Cordelia and shy, quiet Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’. However sensible or strong-minded Christie may be away from Iris, with her she plays second fiddle, and cannot escape that role, however much she would like to.
So Christie is understandably wary when she starts going out with Ned Skelton. Ned is older, and seemingly sophisticated. On their first date they go for a drive in his little sports car ‘bright as a ladybird’, and stop at a hotel for a ‘Sunday outing tea’. In an effort to appear older and more experienced she’s bought a new black hat and borrowed a friend’s fur coat, but she is ill at ease. “His flattery in seeking me out seemed almost too great for me to accept,” she recalls. “I felt humble, and angry because I was humble.”
|A 1954 edition.|
Two weeks before their wedding, she realises she doesn’t love him, only the idea of him, and breaks off their engagement. But he takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant where Iris is appearing in cabaret… And she is scared that Iris will take everything from her, including Ned. So she marries him, although she knows they are wrong for each other, and she doesn’t love him. She is 18 and he’s 32, and they have absolutely nothing in common.
Bit by bit he isolates Christie, presumably to make her totally dependent on him, but he never provides for her financially, emotionally, or intellectually. First, of course, she has to give up her job in a travel agency – in 1930 it wasn’t acceptable for married women to work. Then, gradually, her friends are cut out of her life. He doesn’t care for the things she likes, and doesn’t want her to write (she has had poems published). And when their son is born, Ned is jealous of the time she spends with the baby and refuses to have anything to do with the child.
Pamela Hansford Johnson’s career as a novelist covered a similar period to that of Margery Sharp, and they both portray some strong and unusual women. But PHJ is not as warm as Sharp. There’s an underlying sadness to some of her work, and she’s spikier, and not so interested in happy endings. She’s a very keen observer of people and relationships, and her characters are always credible, even if they’re not always likeable, but I get the feeling that she doesn’t really like people (rather like Julia’s daughter Susan in Sharp’s novel ‘The Nutmeg Tree’).
|Pamela Hansford Johnson.|
Despite that all her characters are memorable, even the minor ones, and she captures emotions in very few words, like Christie’s embarrassment when she discovers her ‘blind date’ is crippled (PHJ’s word, not mine – this was written long before the days of political correctness), or her anguish waiting for phone calls from Ned, wondering what his family will think of her, and what her aunt will think of him.