Too Dear for my Possessing is the first book in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy. Published in 1940 – the setting is Bruges, London and Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Helena – the character for whom this trilogy has been named, is naturally at the heart of this novel – but she isn’t the main character. Claud Pickering is the narrator of this novel (and I believe the two which follow it). As the novel opens he is thirteen, living happily in Bruges with his father and his mistress Helena who is around forty. Separated from his wife, who is still in England and unable to get a divorce, Claud’s father maintains the fiction that Helena is his housekeeper.
“In her middle forties, though, she was a stock for staring. I remember her striding among the stalls on market days, clattering off her meagre store of Flemish, her face dark and swollen under the burning bush of hair dyed yellow as broom. She was queer and handsome in her black way, her eyes black, bold and choleric, her lips blood-black, her chin rounded as a Roman emperor’s. A true dark Celt, Father called her, and he could never stop being surprised that in dyeing her black hair yellow she had made herself, not hideous, but barbaric and magnificent.”
In these early years Claude and Helena have a turbulent relationship – the two coming to blows on several occasions, Claud daring to defy her when his father is away from home. Claud’s life is a charmed one, although struggling with his French a little he enjoys going to school at the Lycée. He has a wonderful amount of freedom – running around with a couple of local boys, but Claud’s great and unparalleled joy is in his boat. Sailing his small boat along the narrow strip of river that runs through Bruges Claud knows extraordinary happiness.
Claud’s mother arrives in Knocke and Claud, sporting brand new long trousers is sent to meet her and spend a few days in the hotel with her. While in Knocke his mother introduces Claud to Daniel Archer – a much older man who she claims in just her friend, Daniel is accompanied by his daughter Cecil – a year younger than Claud. At twelve Cecil is already captivating, a delicate red head, with all the attributes of the actress she is destined to become. Claud and Cecil spend one day together while their parents go off together, they dance, they squabble and make it up again, planning to meet again before Claud goes home to Bruges, but Cecil succumbs to a cold and is confined to her hotel room. Although only having spent that one day together, Claud takes a vivid memory of Cecil back with him to Bruges, an image he conjures up when sailing alone in his boat. Cecil becomes a dream that Claud carries with him, the two come together just a few more times over the next ten years or so – Claud catches sight of her name on theatrical posters or in newspapers but it is some years before he sees Cecil again properly.
“For my generation, the 1920’s were years of glory, careless, comfortable, dancing years; to have been in one’s middle-class teens during the 1920’s is almost worth being mature in to-day’s crises. Almost. They were the years of recovery; of ukeleles, kissing parties, the Charleston, portable gramophones. Booth’s Dry Gin. They were the mother-years of slump; of the Yale Blues, ukeleles, portable gramophones and Booth’s Dry Gin. Helena likes the reminiscent programmes of the B.B.C., likes to hear The Wolf, The Moon Has Raised Her Lamp Above, Absent, Queen of My Heart. I like the B.B.C. reminiscences, too; I like Blue Skies, My Future Just Passed, Lady be Good, Ain’t Misbehavin’. These are my songs of sentiment, and Helena laughs at them. In return, I laugh at her Wolf, her Lamp, the Queen of her Heart.”
Circumstances take Claud to London, to the home of his mother’s brother from where he goes to public school at his uncle’s expense. Claud’s father has finally been able to marry Helena who much to the embarrassment of her stepson announces her unexpected pregnancy at the age of forty-four. In London, Claud misses Bruges and although very happy in his uncle’s home where they play frequent host to Uncle James’s cousin Maud with her illnesses, he comes to realise that he misses Helena too.
“I had forgotten the things I detested in her, her spite, her sudden savagery. Defiantly my mind resisted Uncle James’ tacit disapproval of her, Maud’s censure freely expressed on every visit. Helena had sung Annie Laurie, had sung it right there in the kitchen to make me laugh, and whenever I laughed with her, ephemeral sympathy sprang up between us. I had quite forgotten that immediately following this entertainment she had sent me upstairs to hear Father’s suggestion that I be sent to England. Sometimes I hungered for her as I hungered for rich foods certain to make me sick.”
Following her husband’s sudden death, Helena and her young daughter return to England, and Claud decides he will make his home with his step-mother and half-sister. There isn’t much money and Helena is forced to take a house much smaller than the one Claud has been used to. Now as Claud is getting older his relationship with Helena is far less combative, he adores his baby sister, and the family rub along together quite well. Cecil, a rising theatrical star remains elusive, but always unforgotten.
In time Claud, becomes a bank clerk and an art critic. Part of a vibrant artistic crowd Claud meets and marries Meg, but always in the background is the dream of Cecil – and Helena who has always known how Claud feels about Cecil – slyly dropping snippets of information about her whereabouts. Claud and Meg go to Paris – yet even here Claud cannot entirely free himself of the dream of Cecil or the domination of his fascinating step-mother.
“It is no use my pretending any longer that I was in love with Meg. What love I had vanished suddenly, like a trail of smoke on the horizon, vanished in a moment, but in a moment not significant. Yesterday I loved her, to-day I did not. I was fond of her because she was pretty and capable and kindly, but of desire I had not so much as would fill a second. She loved me without fire and was content that there should be none, wishing that love should be temperate in season and out, and that it should look upon no tempests.”
Too Dear for My Possessing is the story of a failed marriage and the destructiveness of a dream, moving from Bruges of the 1920’s to the Paris of the 1930’s it is also wonderfully evocative of a period. PHJ’s characters are wonderfully drawn, we can’t help but be fascianted by Helena and Cecil, concerned for Meg, and sometimes rather annoyed by Claud, I am very much looking forward to the next installment, although I am informed that each volume could also stand alone. Bless Bello for bringing these works back to us.