Recently the marvellous Kat at Mirabile dictu talked about a biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson that she was reading. Following the comment I posted on her blog, the author of that biography contacted me offering a review copy. So a big thank you is due to Wendy Pollard and her publisher Shepherd-Walwyn for this book which arrived with impressive speed. Using extracts from PHJ’s memoir, letters and the journal she kept for many years – Wendy Pollard explores a fascinating life, and examines the enormous body of work, novels, poetry, criticism and drama that Pamela Hansford Johnson left behind her.
Now some of you may be aware that I am generally pretty terrible at reading non-fiction, but I was pleased at how well I did with this book, I got very involved with it and finished it much faster than I had expected. Literary biographies do tend to be tomes, and this one is just under 500 pages (excluding indexes etc). It’s very readable and superbly well researched. Immersing myself in the life of Pamela Hansford Johnson as I did over just three or four days, I was constantly surprised that a woman who had had such an illustrious career had not managed to attract a biographer until now. That fact alone seemed vaguely insulting – the body of work she left behind her alone, outside of her years of work as a reviewer and her regular appearances on TV should have kept her in the national consciousness. However, she and her second husband C.P Snow became rather controversial and unpopular figures during the cold war due to their perceived allegiance to the old USSR, where they had travelled widely.
PHJ was born in 1912 into what had once been a theatrical family on her mother’s side. Her first published piece was a poem, The Curtain, when she was just fourteen. At school PHJ had excelled at English and drama, but she left school at sixteen and embarked on a secretarial course. In the early 1930’s PHJ began corresponding regularly with the young Dylan Thomas, the two eventually met, and their friendship led to romance, despite Thomas being a couple of years younger than Pamela. Her first novel was published in 1935, sporting a title that had been suggested by Dylan Thomas.
Pamela eventually married an Australian journalist with whom she had two children. Their marriage was interrupted by the Second World War, during which years; PHJ had to raise two children, and continued her writing, constantly managing to produce an awe-inspiring amount of work each day. It was during these years that she first got to know C P Snow. It was in 1940 that one of PHJ’s best known novels – Too Dear for My Possessing was published – despite paper shortages, the first of her famous Helena trilogy of novels. After the war there were obvious fractures in the marriage of PHJ and Gordon Neil Stewart, and the couple eventually divorced in 1949. Later, of course PHJ married the novelist C P Snow, and had another child.
I certainly found Wendy pollard’s portrayal of PHJ’s life to be fascinating – I have only touched very briefly on it here – but it is testament to her biographer’s skill, that I feel I really got to know PHJ. Wendy Pollard skilfully discusses each of PHJ’s novels, without I am personally very happy to say, giving away any spoilers. Having only previously read one PHJ novel – thanks to Bello books re-issuing of them through their ebook/print on demand service – I am now thoroughly looking forward to reading more.
In reading about PHJ’s life and work it is inevitable that we get to know her second husband C P Snow a little too – during their marriage they collaborated on some theatrical pieces, and amusingly PHJ had very favourably reviewed several of his books before they were married. Although I developed some sympathy and a lot of respect for PHJ a woman who continued to work hard in her later years despite ill-health – I wasn’t always sure I would have always liked her much as a person, but C P Snow, I have to say I thoroughly disliked. I don’t want to talk too much about him here – but I found their relationship to be more than a little uncomfortable, she so obviously adored him, even while recognising his faults, I just wonder if he was worthy of her really, it certainly appears that the two were sexually incompatible. CPS was self-promoting, egotistical, vain and frequently absent, and she was almost certainly a better writer than he was, while he was not quite the genius he obviously believed himself to be. Wendy Pollard shines a most fascinating light on this rather oddly disjointed literary union, which is totally absorbing.
In her later years, PHJ and her husband became fodder for the rising satirists of the 1960’s – finding themselves featured regularly in Private Eye. Lady Snow as she was now had become a regular contributor to radio and TV, she and her husband, members of the literary elite, their friends including Francis Brett Young and his wife, and Edith Sitwell. PHJ had sadly become reliant on the prescribed drug Benzedrine, and her health was bad for many years, there were also financial worries, which appear to have been brought about by CPS’s mismanagement and extravagance. Certainly there are still many questions about the nature of PHJ and C P Snow’s relationship which remain unexplored, but for readers of Pamela Hansford Johnson this book is required reading.