Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Helena Trilogy

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, of which An Avenue of Stone is the brilliant centerpiece, is a masterly blend of Johnson’s confident voice and integration of psychological insights into well-drawn characters, precisely connected to time-frames and places - 1920s to late ‘40s in Bruges, London, and Paris.

To read the second novel first, An Avenue of Stone (1947), is both an advantage and a liability. Each novel is self-contained, so it is not necessary to read them in order. An Avenue of Stone is a tour de force, much more compelling than the other two, though it rather satirically portrays Helena, and one needs the first novel to understand her background. As Johnson says in the introduction to the 1972 edition of the first book, Too Dear for My Possessing, she was learning her craft when it was published in 1940, as opposed to the maturity of the second and the third novels, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively: “So, between books 1 and 2, I had seven years of learning to write: which is why I’ have decided not to revise Too Dear for My Possessing, but to leave it as it stands.”

Too Dear for My Possessing is a sprawling bildungsroman, following the fortunes of the narrator, Claud, a writer’s son, from age 13 to 30. Growing up in Bruges, he has an almost perfect childhood, tainted by occasional violent quarrels with his moody stepmother, Helena, a former chorus girl who bursts into spontaneous comic song or despairing tirades, depending on her quickly shifting moods. After Claud is sent to London to attend school, he adapts quickly to life with a kind, Dickensian uncle, but after his father’s death, he forms an obsessive Oedipal bond with Helena. At 15, he moves in with her and his half-sister, Charmian, and, at 17 gets a job as an insurance clerk. He is possessive and furious when Helena takes in a boarder.

It was because I felt myself a bread-winner that I so deeply resented Helena’s tenant.

“What the hell do we want with a lodger?” I demanded.

She stared belligerently at the space between my eyes. “He’s not a lodger, and I didn’t see why we should have that top back room doing nothing when we could make fifteen bob out of it.”

“But we’ve managed all right before! And now I’m earning we need money even less. Father would have had a fit. Have you been putting a card up?”

Her face was brick red. I noticed that she had dabbed fresh dye upon the widening parting of her hair. “No, I didn’t.”

“Well, then, how did you get him?”

“I met him.”

Claud becomes an art critic, has girlfriends, and marries a woman as a reaction to the news of a girlfriend's marriage. He is in love with a cabaret actress, Cecil Archer, who is obviously connected in his mind with Helena,r: he is too proud to follow her and settles for second-best. The Cecil sections are, to my mind, the dullest of the novel. But Claud is a fascinating character, and I enjoyed this very much.

I’m still reading A Summer to Decide. More on that later!

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