Invisible Ink: No 128 - Pamela Hansford Johnson

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The Independent Culture

By the start of the 21st century it seemed that readability had become a liability; surely award-winners lacked complexity if their books were too accessible? Happily this attitude is now passing, and lucid writing is once more being recognised as a desirable literary trait, which may partly explain why Pamela Hansford Johnson's work is coming back into print (the other reason is that ebooks provide an affordable route to republication).

Johnson was a Londoner, born in 1912, newly impoverished after the sudden death of her father. She became a secretary at a bank, and penned some short stories and poems to supplement her income, which went to support her theatrical, bohemian mother. Published in the Sunday Referee at the age of 21 she wrote to Dylan Thomas, who was appearing in the same paper, and they were briefly engaged. Two years later, her first novel, This Bed Thy Centre, appeared to mixed reviews.

It was a novel about sex. Set in a suburban neighbourhood where the outside world rarely intrudes, it concerns Elsie, a girl who wants to understand sex, but confronts a London life in which nothing serious can be discussed. Caught between the coercion of boyfriend Roly and the terrifying advice of doctors, Elsie finds only gossip and misinformation. Alone and unenlightened, she heads toward an ending that is ambiguous, moving, and rather melancholy. The Daily Express thought it was smut, of course, and The Times Literary Supplement referred to its subject matter as "the unpleasant side of life". Battersea Library banned it, and she received hate mail, even though she was writing about the genuine concerns of sexually uneducated girls her age.

Luckily, there were champions, including Cyril Connolly, and good sales followed. Dylan Thomas had persuaded her to change the book's title from the more appropriate Nursery Rhyme, then became jealous of her success and broke up with her. She married twice, both times to writers, Gordon Neil Stewart and CP Snow. Although she was interested in the moral responsibility of the individual she could be very funny, most notably in The Unspeakable Skipton, about the ghastly behaviour of a deluded Nathan Barley-esque artist. She also wrote romantic comedies, a powerful tragedy, The Holiday Friend, and a study of psychological cruelty, The Error of Judgement. She became a leading Proustian scholar, and wrote a work of personal reflections arising from the Moors Murders. As her work reappears, another missing jigsaw piece is replaced.