There was a small part of me that didn’t want to like Pamela Hansford Johnson; An Impossible Marriage, the first of her novels I have tried. As many of you will know I love the writer Elizabeth Taylor – and Elizabeth Taylor and Pamela Hansford Johnson were contemporaries, only they didn’t exactly get along. Apparently (according to the one biography of Elizabeth Taylor which exists – The Other Elizabeth Taylor which I have read twice) Pamela Hansford Johnson and Olivia Manning were really quite vile about Elizabeth Taylor and her work – spitefully so, although I get the impression that Elizabeth Taylor gave as good as she got – in private at least, which is fair enough. As an ardent fan of Elizabeth Taylor I felt that reading PHJ was a bit of a betrayal – I know that’s bonkers. Worse still I really liked the book and no doubt will read more of her work, sorry Elizabeth. For those of you with no such qualms it is good to see Bello books re-printing Pamela Hansford novels as paperbacks and ebooks. An Impossible Marriage was being offered for about 59p so it seemed a good opportunity to at least try her work – I am now actually very glad that I did.
“The Dutch boy put his finger to the breach in the dam and he stemmed the sea, but the sea held him prisoner. I was caught, I was done for, I was frightened—what other word? Not terrified. Not panicked. Simply, as a child, frightened. It is frightful to be caught by your future in a corridor of youth, to feel its hands of iron across your eyes. Caught you! Did you think you could go further? There are corridors and corridors, rooms and rooms, gateways that open on to gardens orientally bright with peonies and singing-birds, but they aren’t for you. You’ve been caught right at the beginning of the game. This is your end, this is the end for you.”
A coming of age style story An Impossible Marriage tells the story of a young woman Christine, or Christie, between the wars forced to grow up a little too soon. As a young woman still in her teens, Christie lives in the shadow of her more beautiful manipulative friend Iris Allbright. Christie is sympathetically drawn, as a young girl with a lot to learn, haven’t we all been there? Iris is brilliantly awful, with her baby talk, flirting and man stealing.
As the novel opens we meet Christie more than twenty years on – arriving at Iris Allbright’s flat to see her old friend for the first time in many years, a meeting that Christie is rather dreading, and which takes her thoughts back to the time when they were young women together.
Young Christie already involved in an unsatisfactory romance with Leslie – his slightly over inflated ideas of himself hide his true naivety – longs for something more glorious. Working as an office junior, Christie as the youngest, newest member is given some of the dullest jobs to do, and has to work hard to keep herself on the right side of her boss. Her youth and inexperience is the biggest problem in her relationships, for Christie has a lot to learn in her ways of dealing with people, as we all do when young. During an awkward blind date arranged by Iris, Christie first spots Ned Skelton, a much older man, who she is instantly attracted to
Gradually, having dispensed with the hapless Leslie, Christie finds herself in a heady relationship with Ned; he has a past which includes a mistress called Wanda, sexual experience and a strangely beguiling presence. Christie has also to learn to listen to that small voice inside of us – the voice that can act as an early warning system.
“I told him that I would do whatever he said, that I would learn from him, that I would trust my life to him. When he thought I was sufficiently conscious of my errors he took me and kissed me until I was breathless with joy and on the edge of hysterical tears; but inside of me a small, cold critic sat aloof”
For the reader, there is something rather unpleasant about Ned, he’s not obviously cruel, certainly not violent, but he is quietly manipulative and when Christie meets his family she has more reason to hear faint alarm bells. Instead of being suspicious of this gauche young girl, and protective of their adored Ned, as Christie had fully expected them to be, they seem instead rather too glad to pass the responsibility of managing Ned onto Christie, asking her abruptly to ensure he sticks to his work. Christie and Ned’s engagement is not trouble free, disagreements which result in Christie running home in tears, concerns over Ned’s latest business and later the start of real doubts for Christie. Ned is quick to soothe Christie’s doubts – and the marriage eventually takes place, celebrated along the lines dictated by Ned.
“Now if many of us know the pressures of the inner critic, many of us also recognise – though not until his task has been carried out – the activities of the secret planner. We are unhappy in the prison of our lives – we want to break out. And so, without realising what we do since it is the secret planner who thinks for us, we slowly lay our schemes for escape.”
Having given up her job, Christie finds married life to be not quite all she had expected. A little older now although only twenty one Christie is soon to wonder at the choices she made, and begins to plan her own liberation.
An Impossible Marriage offers a fascinating exploration of the social expectations placed upon women at this time, well written and perceptive; this will not be the only Pamela Hansford Johnson novel that I read.