Posts Tagged ‘Pamela Hansford Johnson’

Pamela Hansford Johnson I think is probably still a much neglected writer. That is a real shame however, as she was a very good writer indeed, and a very prolific one. Hodder and Stoughton have re-issued some of her titles (including this one) though I have had a lovely first edition of it waiting on my tbr for some time. Very pleased that I finally pulled it from the shelf.

The Unspeakable Skipton is the first book in a trilogy which is completed by the books Night and Silence Who is Here? And Cork Street, Next to the Hatters – Pamela Hansford Johnson was good at titles. Since finishing this book, I have tracked down old copies of those, and snapped them up on ebay – just waiting for them to arrive now.

This is a wryly satirical novel which I thought was very enjoyable, though not an enormous amount happens. Daniel Skipton, the unspeakable one of the title is an English ex pat living in Bruges in some poverty. He is a writer, utterly convinced of his own genius and fairly disparaging of pretty much everyone else around him. His room is sparsely and poorly furnished, he is frequently hungry and there are many days when he takes steps to avoid meeting his landlady in the hallway. He spends a lot of time writing rude letters to Willy; his publisher regarding his manuscripts which are clearly unpublishable, or to his elderly aunt “Flabby Anne”, who he is convinced keeps peacocks, is rolling in money and conspiring to keep it from him. He is forever looking for ways to raise some money, totting up what he has spent and how much is left and despairing at the figures before him. Skipton is a well-drawn character, not especially likeable, though no one in this novel is. The one thing he does seem to appreciate is Bruges – a place where he has lived for some time, and knows well.

“A miraculous evening. The sky broke like an egg into full sunset and the water caught fire. He held his breath: an angel could appear in full dress with insignia, he would not be surprised. It was a wretched thing, on an evening like this, he had to turn away from such majestic sweetness to write to such a swine as Willy”

In the evening Daniel ventures forth watching out for likely looking tourists who he can con out of some much needed money. Offering various services to mainly English tourists, the sourcing and procuring of works of art (some of which may or may not be what they are hoped to be) he can strike a mean little deal with the Flemish seller who has clearly had dealings with Daniel Skipton before.

Towards the beginning of this novel, Skipton comes across a peculiar little party of English tourists in a café terrace opposite the Cloth Hall. Dorothy Merlin, a verse-dramatist, her bookseller husband Cosmo Hines, and their friends Duncan Moss and Matthew Pryar.

“Daniel was not one to peer round and about him. He sat proudly aloof, his profile raised, his mouth sternly set. He could see who was behind him in the pocket mirror concealed in his cupped hands.

Just behind him was a party of four people, English, one woman and three men. The woman was short and meagre, perhaps at the beginning of her forties. She was dark-skinned, and the hair wrenched back from her box-like forehead into a bun had a surface fuzz which the violence used upon it had been unable to repress. Her eyes were prominent, her nose was small and hooked. She looked like some distraught bird chained by one claw to a perch.”

He woos them very cleverly by promising access to a strange little spectacle that he pretends to be rather a little shocked by, and so piques their interest beautifully. In this way, he brings himself into their orbit and earns himself a fee. Skipton is quick to judge Dorothy and her companions, however, they turn out to be people to be reckoned with. Though, no matter the difficulties, no matter how much running around and conspiring he has to do, Skipton is never less than completley unshakable in his belief in himself.

Through this funny little band of friends, Skipton meets Querini, an Italian singer and apparently a count, and the mysterious, grand socialite Mrs Jones. Even these two in the end prove too much for Skipton, and the reader is unsurprised that not everything works out as he had planned.

There is a lot of dark humour in Hansford Johnson’s portrayal of Skipton, though in the end there is something rather tragic about him. The huge disconnect between how the world sees Skipton and how he sees himself is the beginning of it, his scathing opinion of everyone else, his desperation at trying to appear to be something he isn’t, and his own self-delusion is pathetically sad. However, Skipton is not the kind of character anyone will shed tears over.

1950s Bruges, with its old buildings, canals and ringing bells is beautifully recreated – this strong sense of place clearly written by someone who knew and loved the city. Bruges is a city I have encountered in PHJ’s fiction before. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable novel – and I am looking forward to reading the next two books, and will try not to leave it to long before I do.

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

I have been lucky enough to receive quite a number of these British Library Crime Classics from the publisher – probably more than I can actually cope with if I am honest judging from the number still unread on my shelves. However, when Murder’s A Swine dropped through my letterbox recently a quick glance at it told me that I wanted to read it almost immediately. My interest in it was sparked mainly by the author – Nap Lombard – not a name I heard before, but the author details on the back of the book reveal this to have been a pseudonym. Nap Lombard was in fact the joint pseudonym used by writer Pamela Hansford Johnson and her first husband writer and journalist Gordon Neil Stewart. Under the name Nap Lombard, the pair wrote two mystery novels during their marriage this was the second of them. Writing partnerships always fascinate me, how is the work divided up? – does one person write chapter one, the other chapter two and so on – or does one write and one come up with all the ideas? With a mystery novel this seems even more complicated.

First published in 1943, this Second World War mystery is very entertaining, there are some very odd goings on indeed – which are just spine tingling enough.

“I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”

On a wintry night in the London blackout a young air raid warden in company with amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof find a body partly hidden in the walls of the air raid shelter which serves the block of flats where Agnes lives. As the police begin their investigations into who has died and how, the block of flats where Agnes and her husband live are further disturbed that very same evening when Agnes’ upstairs neighbour Mrs Sibley is terrorised by the deeply unpleasant sight of a pig’s head at her fourth floor window. Mrs Sibley who lives with her great friend, a writer of girls boarding school stories is deeply distressed and Agnes and her husband Andrew – having just arrived home on leave – busy themselves with helping to soothe the poor woman’s shattered nerves.

With the discovery of more unsavoury threats and notes signed ‘pig-sticker’ Agnes and Andrew – throw themselves wholeheartedly into investigating the mystery themselves. They rather put the backs up of the police lead by the absurdly named Inspector Eggshell, and really get on the nerves of Andrew’s cousin; Lord Whitestone a Scotland Yard big-wig with the unfortunate family nickname of Lord Pig. It is quickly deduced that it is more than likely that the culprit is living among them and is one of the other tenants in the block of flats. Someone is not who they say they are. What at first seem little more than unpleasant and inappropriate pranks start to look more sinister when a connection is made between one of the residents and the dead man.

When poor frazzled Mrs Sibley and her friend leave London for a riverside retreat – they are followed – and it isn’t long before the ‘pig-sticker’ seems to have claimed another victim. 

“Coincidence plays a large part in life; but in the drama of Mr Coppenstall and the pigs it played a very small one.

The only coincidence, indeed, lay in the fact that at this moment the Wrong Person was reading the telegram.

‘Name of Kinghof?’ the boy said, meeting the Wrong Person on the stairs.

‘That’s right,’ said the Wrong Person, putting out a hand, and returning with the envelope to seclusion and a steaming kettle. Handed in at Hooham at 4.45. Good enough. The Wrong Person resealed the envelope and stole out to slip into the Kinghof’s letter box.”

Despite stern warnings from Andrew’s titled cousin to not get involved it seems Agnes and her husband just can’t help themselves. Having worked out why the ‘pig-sticker’ has been targeting his victims – the only thing left to do is discover who he is. There are a few red herrings along the way, as Agnes unwittingly uncovers a sinister right wing political group and puts herself in danger during first aid training. I really don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of spoilers.

One thing that irritated me a bit was the too frequent descriptions of Agnes – who we are cheerfully told doesn’t have a very attractive face, but whose legs and figure are marvellous and so it didn’t matter. To have been told this once I might just about forgive but having the fact rammed down my throat subsequently was unnecessary and irritating. Perhaps readers in 1943 would have felt differently – I wonder? This is a small thing and perhaps dates the book a little – but certainly wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment.

Murder’s A Swine is a thoroughly well written novel (which is what I would expect from PHJ) with some delicious little slices of humour, especially in some of the dialogue, and in Agnes and Andrew’s interactions with Lord Pig. There is some really well realised characters throughout the novel with even very minor players emerging well fleshed out. Agnes herself is an especially likeable character, witty and imaginatively intelligent with a wonderful tendency to quote the sayings of her aunt General Sidebotham. Through her eyes we see something of the times in which the story is set – little glimpses of War time England which really give this novel a great sense of period.

All in all, though I found this a very entertaining mystery, with just the right amount of nerve jangling suspense. One of the most interesting aspects is that there is not a huge list of suspects – yet even within the narrow field of possibles the authors really keep you guessing.

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I had several really tempting looking books that I could have read for the #1956club but I settled for The Last Resort by Pamela Hansford Johnson, she is a very undervalued writer, an excellent writer in fact, though so many of us now know her for her apparent enmity with the writer Elizabeth Taylor. Ironically of course their writing isn’t that dissimilar – certainly readers of one would most likely enjoy the other.

This appears to be a novel about a character we first met in the novel An Impossible Marriage – Christie from that novel is now older and become Christine – there is a passing reference to Ned her first husband, the subject of that earlier novel. However, the two novels do stand alone, and this can be happily read without having read the other.

The Last Resort is a very finely crafted novel, intelligent and often wryly humorous – Pamela Hansford Johnson explores a series of complex and sometimes suffocating relationships over the course of a few years. She has an extraordinarily incisive way of getting to the heart of how people are with one another – they way they feel, they way they talk to one another showing all those hidden little deceits and vanities they harbour.

Christine Hall, a writer and mother in her late thirties is on holiday on the South coast of England, staying at the Moray hotel, while her husband Gerard is in America on business. Here she bumps into her friend Celia Baird who is staying at the Moray with her parents.

“I recognised Celia Baird sitting farouche and neat between her parents. As usual, she was expensively dressed; as usual, only her hat became her. Her other clothes looked too restrained, too elderly, always a little too large. I noticed she was wearing a good deal of jewellery, a pearl necklace and earrings, a pearl and diamond brooch, a large, old fashioned ruby ring. She was looking through a smart magazine with the restless, rather angry air she had when she thought about buying things. I thought how much she had aged.”

Celia’s parents a retired doctor and his wife live permanently at the hotel – one of those hotels we just don’t have any more – a place of sleepy tradition and some suffocation. The Baird parents are wonderful creations – Mrs Baird keeps a cat – strictly against the rules in her cluttered stuffy room, while Mr Baird’s room is more organised and tidy – they are a couple who have really ceased to like one another – but continue to rub along together all the same. Old Dr Baird as he was, is difficult, opinionated, and rude, often savage or dismissive in his dealings with others.  

The Moray is portrayed in fascinating, atmospheric detail, elderly residents doze in the lounge, the bar is almost deserted later in the evening, there’s a feeling everything has been this way for years.

“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.”

Celia, impulsive and a little eccentric, spends most of her time in London, coming back and forth to the Moray hotel to see her parents. She has a business in London though pretty much everything is taken care of by her business partner, Celia is one of a larger group of friends who all have Christine at their core – and meeting Celia again after some time, Christine is drawn back into their world. There is architect Eric Aveling, with whom Celia is having an affair and with whom she is desperately in love, Eric’s business partner Junius Evans, and Eric’s dying wife Lois. Lois is now permanently in a nursing home, where both Christine and Celia visit her – both secure in the guilty knowledge, that she knows nothing of Celia and Eric’s relationship. Everyone else knows of the relationship – though not everyone thinks that Eric and Celia should marry, after Lois dies. Junius, discreetly gay, is certainly interfering, and later he mischievously introduces Nancy Sherriff to them all, helping the inevitable change in dynamics that is to come.

Over the course of the novel, Christine returns several times to the Moray, sometimes on her own, sometimes with her husband Gerard and teenage son Mark. The family become favourites with the older Bairds particularly, with Christine often alarmed by Mrs Baird’s manipulation of her middle aged daughter and bemused at the unlikely friendship between her son and old Mr Baird. Christine is the one real, friend to Celia, she is her confidante, and while Christine remains a little colourless – we see everyone through her eyes with clarity.

When the inevitable happens, and Lois dies, the dynamics of the group begins to change. One constant refrain seems to be whether Lois did in fact know about Eric and Celia. Celia and Eric are haunted by the memory of Lois – and their relationship is rocked. Christine can only watch her friend’s obvious turmoil – Pamela Hansford Johnson explores the ravages of love, guilt, and secrecy in her story of these people.

As the years progress, nobody could reasonably predict the outcome of these troubled and fractious relationships.

I doubt this is Pamela Hansford Johnson’s best novel – but I rather loved it – reading it slowly suited the narrative I thought. I still think her Helena trilogy of novels is absolutely masterly.

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A Summer to Decide is the third novel in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy – which follows the fortunes of Claud Pickering and his ever changing relationship with his extraordinary step-mother Helena. The first novel Too Dear for my Possessing begins when Claud is about fourteen, living in Bruges with his father and Step-mother. This novel takes place about twenty five years later – in London, a lot has happened since those days in Bruges.

Claud is the narrator of all three novels, but it is the character of Helena who drives them, she is a brilliant creation – all PHJ’s characters are explored deftly and yet Claud still emerges a much paler creation than either Helena or her daughter Charmian. This, I am certain is deliberate, Claud is not a poorly written character – not two dimensional in any way – his colourlessness is a foil to Helena’s brilliance.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that very early in this novel Helena dies – we know that from the blurb of this edition.

“Personal tragedy is surprising in bright weather. That winter, however, I came easily enough to accept it. In a snow-locked London, reduced in fire and light, where thousand upon thousand of conscientious basement-dwellers lived by candlelight, the stage seemed set for the tragic event.”

What will a world without Helena in it look like? What next for Claud with his books of art criticism under his belt – and not much else going on in his life?

As this novel begins, the war has been over for a couple of years, Claud is in his late thirties – and living again with Helena after the events of the previous novel. His one great love is in the past, and he has a failed marriage behind him too. His half-sister Charmian is twenty-four and married to Evan Sholto who Helena and Claud both knew immediately was a man who would make her miserable. As Helena lies dying, Charmian is giving birth to her daughter Laura. Sholto is as usual nowhere to be seen when he is most needed, and the scales finally, fall from Charmian’s eyes.

“I cried for Helena that night; it was the first time I had done so. And in the morning I was able to think of her without anguish, remember her in joy, as I shall remember her always till the end of my life.”

Helena remains a subtle presence throughout the novel – though never ghost or spirit like – in the memories of Claud and Charmian. John Field formally a frequent visitor to Helena’s home, and once a great friend of the family, reappears on the scene too. Claud is alarmed at John’s friendship with his brother-in-law Sholto – he suspects – rightly as it turns out that the two are up to no good.

“Thus it was that John Field freed me of Helena. Whatever was the truth of his story, it had destroyed, for me, the power of her legend. I was free to delight in her memory, and to love her, without being tied to a conception so much larger than life-size.”

Charmian is committed to her baby daughter – but despite having completely fallen out of love with her feckless, philandering husband who has lately turned to drink – she vows to stick to him – and even moves his toxic mother into their home. Claud is hugely frustrated – continually urging his sister to leave her husband. Charmian is resistant to being saved.

Claud meets Ellen – a woman widowed during the war, who he is immediately drawn to – she is reserved, works for the board of trade and at home nurses a chronically hypochondriac father.

Meanwhile Claud takes up a position in a friend’s gallery – later investing some of his own money in it. There’s a sense of him being quite directionless without Helena in is life – he is frequently beside himself over the fate Charmian has decided to inflict upon herself – and this only increases when Sholto and John Field are embroiled in a criminal scandal. Claud is offered a life changing job which would require him to move ‘up North’ but would settle him for life – with everything else going on it’s a difficult decision to make.

PHJ’s affection and concern for Charmian and the terrible life she leads with Evan Sholto and his awful mother is what is at the heart of this novel. Helena’s influence can still be felt but is fading as both Charmian and Claud move forward with their lives and make decisions she may or may not have liked.

“I acknowledged now in the full clarity of my thought that she would never return, that I should never again hear the bursting out of her news even as the door opened to admit her, that I should never again know the stirring of the air about her wild and insatiable busyness. To think of her with joy was something; but it did not lessen the cold of knowing she had gone.”

Each of these Helena novels – and many other PHJ novels are available on kindle thanks to Bello books – and I believe can be ordered as quite expensive print on demand paperbacks too. I like my kindle very much, but as I so much prefer reading real books, the books I have on it do get forgotten. Which is why my reading of these three excellent books have been spaced out quite widely over the past three years. I enjoyed this novel very much. It would be fair to say that while it completes the story of these characters satisfactorily – it is not quite as wonderful as the two novels which precede it. Perhaps it suffers from a lack of Helena.  

The other thing about kindles of course is that unless you check first – you don’t really know how long the book is going to be. I don’t always remember to find that out first – and I so was surprised to find that A Summer to Decide is over 400 pages. I remember now that both Too Dear for my Possessing and An Avenue of Stone were a bit longer than I had expected too. None of that mattered except it meant I have been a bit late getting to my book group read.

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You may have noticed that I rather love books by twentieth century women writers, and so it was never going to be too long before I paid a visit to The Second Shelf in London. A delightful little shop in the heart of the capital selling my kinds of books.


My friend Meg and I got the train to Euston, and from there it was a short tube ride to Leicester Square on the Northern Line, swapping to the Piccadilly Line for one stop, we got off at Piccadilly Circus and walked to the shop via Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. Tucked away in Smiths Court is the Second Shelf – and it is a delight. The proprietor Allison Devers who has worked so hard to get this project off the ground was so warm and welcoming, and we had a lovely chat and were permitted to take photos – I did ask first of course.

There were so many books by the kinds of writers I love, I saw Daphne Du Maurier, Anita Brooker, Nina Bawden, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf and many others. It is an Aladdin’s cave of women’s literature.


Well I was always going to buy some books – and of course I did. Actually, one was purchased a few weeks ago, paid for and just picked up today. The other three – were just too hard to resist. I could have bought several others. I am so happy with these four books.


A Game of Hide and Seek – by Elizabeth Taylor – one of my favourite writers, definitely one of my top five – and A Game of Hide and Seek is probably my favourite of her novels. I have a green virago edition too, which I am keeping – I have read it twice already, and as I am planning on re-reading some of the others this is just going on my special books, bookshelf for now. It isn’t a first edition, it’s the book club edition (book club editions are cheaper obviously) but I adore the cover. I can just imagine Harriet and Vesey going into that little house.

My mothers House and Sido by Colette – I have been reminded a couple of times lately how I really need to read more Colette – and this gorgeous little book shouted out to me. A 1953, American first edition.

The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson, I have come to really enjoy PHJ’s writing. She was pretty prolific, and I have only read about four of her novels so far. This one just sounds so interesting, and I loved the cover. It is also a first edition.

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning – many of you will have seen my love of Olivia Manning through my reading of The Balkan and Levant trilogies (the last one of those left to read) and others of her work. This, one of her later novels is a first edition.

I am completely delighted with my beautiful purchases.


After this we went to a tiny deli next door and had a cup of tea – the food smelled amazing – but we had a table booked elsewhere where we were meeting three other friends. A lovely long lazy chatty lunch at Bill’s on Brewer Street was next on the agenda – which was rather busy and a bit chaotic at times, but the food was good, and it is great catching up with people I don’t see very often.

Before heading back to Euston Meg and I had some time to kill and so we went to the National Portrait Gallery, we spent about 45 minutes in there – and still managed to see quite a lot. The literary theme continued there with portraits of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and photographs of Edna O’Brien, Beryl Bainbridge and Nadine Gordimer among others.

A truly lovely day, with laughs and treats a plenty, I realise now, I really needed it!


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Pamela Hansford Johnson was such a gifted, prolific writer, The Honours Board comes something like two thirds of the way through her writing life. Not quite as compelling as the novels of The Helena trilogy – the third of which I have still to read, but she recreates this small, vanished world with absolute authenticity. A boarding school is such a great setting for a novel, and here in this ordered, closed little world, Pamela Hansford Johnson, shows us the lives of the men and women who work and live there. The boys themselves are rather secondary to the narrative, and we only get to know one boy well.

Downs Park is an English, boys preparatory school not too far away from Eastbourne. A school for boys expected to move on to several years at a traditional public school. Ably and sensitively run by owner/headmaster Mr Annick, loyally assisted by his wife Grace, Downs Park retains the ethos that Annick has created during his years at the school. However, the school has been losing money, and the honours board doesn’t show any scholarships to the very great English public schools. Deep down Annick knows that the school is ripe for takeover – but he is resisting. He doesn’t want to see his beloved Downs Park change at all.

“English turf, barbered, emerald, springy, diamond-chipped with dew, is difficult to maintain: but Annick had put in a good many years on his. At the end of September the weather was still dry, and all the sprinklers were playing over the grass. These were just another of the multiple reasons why the school did not pay its way but he couldn’t see how they could be dispensed with.
He looked across the three conjoined houses rosy in the evening light. How much longer could these schools exist economically, or be regarded still as social and academic necessities?”

Annick’s second master – Rupert Massinger is a different kind of man; younger, wealthy, sexually manipulative and a little predatory, he is also ambitious and longs to takeover Downs Park. Massinger lives in a cottage in the grounds with his active, bouncy wife Blossom, who assists with teaching games. There is a great and polite pretence kept up between these two couples, that they are friends, and enjoy spending time together. The Annick’s however, rather dislike the Massingers, the harried Headmaster fearing what would happen to his beloved Downs Park under Massinger’s control.

There are a host of well-drawn peripheral characters; including the rather tragic, lonely Mrs Murray, shocked when she begins to have unrequited feelings for the school’s lesbian teacher Betty Cope. Secretary, Helen Queen is unwillingly drawn into an affair with Massinger, who doesn’t pretend he is using her for anything other than sex. Annick’s adult widowed daughter Penelope, comes to stay for a while, and becomes involved with science master Leo Canning.

Suddenly, the Massingers leave Downs Park, taking up residence in a flat in the nearby seaside town of Eastbourne. They keep in regular touch with various members of the school community, Rupert just waiting for the right time to make his move, he wants to know exactly how things stand, with the finances.

In their place come Norman and Delia Pool, Norman is enchanted by Downs Park, and wants nothing more than to be allowed to stay for years. Norman, however is a sad, troubled man, forever watchful of his pretty younger wife, around whom there seems to be a secret, he is terrified she will spoil it all for him, yet his love for his wife means he only wants to protect her – largely from herself.

Headmaster Cyril Annick puts his faith in a couple of clever boys, who should he feels, get scholarships. One boy in particular; Peter Quillan becomes important to the Annicks. When Peter first starts at Downs Park, he is about eight years old, as the novel closes he is thirteen, and it’s time to sit the scholarship exams. Annick is not the kind of headmaster to put his academic ambitions ahead of the welfare of his boys, he runs his school with both intelligence and love, and the boys and the staff hold him high esteem.

Peter is quickly identified as a very clever boy, and Mr Annick so longs to see the name of a great public school listed on the honours board, and Peter might just be the boy to do it. So, Mr Annick is concerned when Peter’s parents say they shall take him away with them to America. Mr Annick persuades them to let Peter stay, promising that he and Grace will care for Peter during the holidays, and take him away with them on their summer travels. The arrangement works admirably, and Peter is happy with the Annicks and although the formality between them is never done away with, Peter does enjoy something of a privileged position, while remaining popular with his school fellows. As Peter grows up he develops a great fondness for the headmaster and his wife and wants badly to repay their faith in him. Peter and Annick travel to perhaps the greatest of all those public schools for Peter to sit the scholarship exams, Annick is touchingly nervous for his favourite pupil.

“When they had unpacked, Peter and Annick went for a stroll through Eton. It was a little after six o’clock and a fair evening. Penguin boys in black tail and white ties were hurrying back from class through the pastel High Street, young ankle bones protruding from trousers too short, faces burnished by the rose of the sun, The Chestnut trees were in flower, pink and white on red brick. ‘It’s the uniforms that make it really.’ Said Peter, ‘it would be a pity to change.’ My mother says a picture’s made effective by its use of blacks and whites. She says Boudin shows how. My aunt’s got a Boudin, a real one.’
Annick sick with nervousness, longed to get back to the hotel for a drink, but Peter was pleasantly lingering. They went into School Yard, and stood before the green statue of Henry VI.”

Pamela Hansford Johnson ably weaves together the stories of her various characters, their preoccupations, relationships and ambitions, against a backdrop of a traditional, though minor preparatory school. During these years, there is sexual intrigue, petty theft, suicide, and drunkenness at Downs Park. All of which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read, which has reminded me I must get back to that Helena trilogy, the first two books of which were utterly superb.



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An avenue of stone

An Avenue of Stone is the second instalment in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy. It is certainly Helena who drives this novel, she is a fantastic character – who it is hard to do justice to in a review. At the heart of this novel is the fear of ageing, the loneliness and uncertainty that comes with ageing, that desperation to keep it at bay is poignantly explored in a novel which is so compelling and superbly written. An easy five star read for me.

“But those who have lived richly, exhaustively, staring into every face, attentive to every voice, are only too often pursued by the spinster Furies, and are driven at the end down avenues of stone where the walls reach to the sky, and the doors are sealed, and the pavements are rubbered against all sound but the beat of the hurrying heart. Well—Helena would say—And even if I understood all that … and believed it … wasn’t it worth it?”

In a sense the books would probably stand alone reasonably well, but I was glad I read them in the correct order. In the first book; Too Dear for my Possessing we witnessed the gradually changing relationship between Claud Pickering and his stepmother Helena. As a young boy living in Bruges, before his father married his mistress, before Helena gave Claud a half-sister – he had hated her. Helena had been a tempestuous force of nature, and she and Claud had really butted heads in those days. In the years since his father’s death Claud and Helena’s relationship changed. With his half-sister Charmian, fourteen years his junior they are very much a family – albeit one that drive Claud a little bit mad.

“The night was very clear and starry, the streets empty, I felt elated, at first knowing no reason for my pleasure; then I realized that I had seen Helena again, the Helena of the world before the war, had seen my own youth in her. Because there was something left of the past I could not be entirely unhopeful of the future.”

Now in her late sixties Helena is Lady Archer – married to wealthy Daniel Archer – whose daughter Claud once loved, not bad for a former actress – and it’s a role Helena does very well at. Helena is living very comfortably with her husband in London, Claud and Charmian are close by. It is war time, and Claud is a Major in the war office – Charmian in the ATS, although only twenty-two is already married, but while her husband is abroad she is staying with her mother. Neither Claud nor Helena think much of him, Helena calls him the boiled owl.

When Daniel dies suddenly Helena’s financial situation is made rather more precarious, as Lord Archer leaves much of his wealth distributed between former mistresses and his step daughter Charmian. Although she is certainly not poor – Helena can no longer quite afford the large flat she and Daniel lived in together. Now Helena can throw off the role she adopted as Lady Archer, and return more to herself. Claud helps Helena re-locate – despite her resistance. A friend of Claud’s John Field needs somewhere to stay, and Claud persuades Helena to have him to stay for a short time. Helena makes her usual protests and makes a big show of it being a huge imposition, but she soon has Field whipped into shape. He helps with the washing up, fetches and carries and Helena rather loves bossing him about. From here on in, Field becomes a pretty much permanent fixture – and Helena loves having him around.

“I have always recognized a tormenting emotion that lies between friendship and love; something stronger than the first and less demanding than the second, though it may well exceed it in endurance. It may exist between man and man, or between woman and woman, but, as it has some undefined sexual element, it exists more frequently between man and woman. It is a torment of understanding that can have no physical expression.”

In time Claud has reason to be concerned about the hold John Field has on Helena – she adores him, talks about him endlessly when he isn’t there, makes plans for him, and in her eyes John can do no wrong. Helena is as difficult as ever in many ways, and she is very good at covering up things that she thinks Claud won’t approve of, and with Claud busy at the WO most of the time, he can’t know everything that happens. He turns up from time to time to find she has agreed to some financial obligation or other that worries him but is unable to do much about.

What Pamela Hansford Johnson does so well, is to show us the frustration of Claud and Charmian as they try to steer an ageing Helena in the right direction. Yet, Helena has her own frustrations, and despite her being a difficult character, we can’t help but feel for her, as tries to keep hold of her independence and decision making.

Helena’s platonic love for Johnny verges on obsession, he brightens her life – gives her a purpose, adds the kind of excitement to her life she hasn’t had since she was a younger woman. She and Johnny collude secretly over matters of money and business. Helena can’t see what a fool she is being, she has become a figure of fun to some of her contemporaries, especially the vile Mrs Sholto – Charmian’s mother-in-law. Behind her back, Helena is being laughed at, and much to Claud’s horror, gossiped about in the most unpleasant way. Helena can’t see herself for who she really is now, getting older and rather vulnerable.

“Helena would love Field till she died, but in a different fashion. Whether she knew it or not, she was really regarding him now in a ‘correct’ light; as a child to be cherished and pleasured, his faults discounted, his small virtues magnified into qualities of man’s worth. And this is not the love that flatters.”

Forgive me for including so many quotes, but I just loved this book so much and found Pamela Hansford Johnson’s writing to be wise and insightful, and so, so readable. I flew through this kindle edition in no time, and was sad when there was no more. I can’t wait to read the third book in the trilogy A Summer to Decide, which I bought ages ago in a huge Bello buying glut. I have a habit of then forgetting all about the books I have on my kindle – I should get it out more often.

Incidentally – does anyone know exactly what happened (if anything) to Bello books? They disappeared ages ago it seems, though their kindle books are certainly still available on Amazon.


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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)


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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.”

brugesIn 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.


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pamelahansfordjohnsonA busy week with not very much time for blogging but I wanted to quickly to highlight an author who I am currently reading – a book I will have finished by the time this post is scheduled to appear. Although I know many of you will already be familiar with Pamela Hansford Johnson, some of you might not. With Bello books having made so many of her novels available again, I am surprised I have seen so few of her books being reviewed. The book I’m reading is Too Dear for My Possessing, (1940) the first book in PHJ’s famous Helena Trilogy – I am enjoying it so much I have acquired the next two books in the trilogy along with a couple of others. This is not the first PHJ I have read, but I seem to keep forgetting about her.

Pamela Hansford Johnson was a novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic. Upon her second marriage to author C P Snow she became one half a very famous literary duo – with whom she collaborated on several plays. In their later years, making themselves appear rather ridiculous to the British public, Baron and Lady Snow became fodder for the satirists at Private Eye. Pamela Hansford Johnson was a hugely prolific writer, producing twenty-seven novels as well as works of criticism, plays and poetry. As a young woman she knew Dylan Thomas, they were even briefly engaged.During her lifetime she was awarded several honorary degrees, held visiting academic positions at North American universities and in 1975 was awarded the CBE.

Weirdly, it was the divine Elizabeth Taylor who introduced me to PHJ. When I was first reading the biography of Elizabeth Taylor by Persephone books founder Nicola Beauman (I’ve read it twice) I discovered that PHJ was one of a little group of well-known literary figures who took against Elizabeth Taylor and said bad things about her books. There’s a famous photograph of the two women meeting at some literary event. It oozes polite, British dislike. I love Elizabeth Taylor so much I have been saving some of her short stories for years as I like having them to look forward to (yes I am that illogical). So I immediately decided I wouldn’t read PHJ – I probably wouldn’t like her that much anyway (I’m nothing if not loyal). At that time, PHJ novels (unlike Taylor’s) were out of print, so not reading them was easy. When Bello re-issued her books via their print on demand and ebook service I couldn’t help but be a bit intrigued. I decided to read one (The Impossible Marriage 1954) – I liked it – a lot. Elizabeth Taylor (novelist) and Pamela Hansford Johnson

Several months after reading that novel I was offered a review copy of a biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson by Wendy Pollard. A hugely fascinating book – it is a must for PHJ fans. In that book I learned a lot of PHJ that convinced me that although I wouldn’t have liked the woman very much, there were things I had to admire about her. I donated my lovely hardback copy of that book to my local library – as I thought it would probably be a book they might not have – and at the time Birmingham libraries were appealing for newly published books to be donated as they couldn’t afford to buy them (don’t get me started on that one).

For the record – I’m still on team Elizabeth Taylor – but I have to admit PHJ is definitely worth reading.

PHJ1 an avenue of stone a summer to decide

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