Monday, January 19, 2009

Pamela Hansford Johnson

Yesterday we drove 40 miles to a university town, passing abandoned smashed cars cordoned off with yellow tape, wondering what had happened, since the ice has melted away (perhaps the tow trucks haven't come yet). We stopped at our favorite coffeehouse, Carpe Diem, rattled the paper, enjoyed the cappuccino-and-cinnamon smell, and then walked to one of the best libraries in the state. One of the perks of living here is that, with the flash of an ID, one is entitled to check out books statewide. I’ve browsed at small-town libraries (population 3,000) where I’ve discovered forgotten treasures by Cozzens and Cronin, and at bigger-city (well, population 100,000) libraries where I’ve perused the complete works of Sigrid Undset.

Tromping through the snow, a little more snow than we have in ____, we clumped and puffed up the staircase of the granite many-windowed building. It was a warmish day, thirtysomething, slushy, birds singing, a harbinger of spring, and people striding with parkas opened. We stopped at the computers to look up our lists: the computer is an IBM thing (I’m used to Macs) and I confess I couldn't turn it on without help. On my list: many of the books I wanted are in storage. I found Pamela Hansford Johnson, but not Pamela Frankau. In the stacks I serendipitously discovered a novel by Vera Brittain  and The Spare Room by Helen Garner (which I've read about online). The stacks are very narrow, so navigation among the bookshelves in a parka is slightly precarious: I pulled out my pile of books and sat cross-legged on the floor to examine them. My last collection included several disappointing books, among them Prozac Highway, which turned out to be a novel about lesbian performance artists with angst. (I had expected one of those fascinating madness books.) This collection looked better.  Then I smugly wandered over to a comfortable chair with a view of black-and-white trees through the church-like windows, as far from the buzzing fluorescent lights as possible.

I started reading Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage in the car and continued to read it till bedtime. Fascinating Virago-like material, the story of a thoughtful, strong-willed young woman who knows enough to dump a young man with whom she is sexually compatible but not otherwise;  but then makes the same mistake when she falls in love at first sight with a beautiful but arrogant man 14 years older than herself. That whole experience of falling in love at first sight: can that ever turn out well? The horror: it usually involves falling for someone believed to be superior to and more beautiful than oneself (and some groveling ). Johnson describes the affair with compassion and insight. She is a very good writer, whom I haven't read in years.


Ellen said...

The trouble with Pamela Hansford-Johnson for me is she has replaced John Letts as the head of the Trollope Society and turned it back to a super-elite place where you have to spend a great deal to go to any of their events or excursions.

Library privileges are precious. I teach to have them.

Today was a hopeful happy day, no?

Mad Housewife said...

It must be a different Pamela Hansford Johnson. Mine died in 1981!

Good libraries are usually attached to universities.

Ellen said...

Back again to say last time I was too tired. Now I noticed she's married to C. P. Snow! And also what you said about her Virago novel. I'm reading _Revolutionary Road_ and hope to see the movie tomorrow. I do recommend it, Kathy.


Jan Antoon Marien said...

Hello Frisbee,

I found your site because you found the photo of Pamela and her husband CP Snow on my site (thanks for the link!)
I think I read almost everything written by CP Snow but only The Honours Board by Pamela Hansford Johnson.
What you write about this novel An Impossible Marriage is interesting because she had an affair with Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood) that came to nothing. Soon after she married an Australian writer, but the marriage didn't last very long. In 1950 she married CP Snow.

You have an interesting site. I added it to my bookmarks.
See you,
Jan Antoon Marien

Mad Housewife said...

Thanks for letting me poach the picture! I'm also a fan of C. P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series.