Wednesday 18 February 2015

An Impossible Marriage

Right, after Margery Sharp here’s another New-to-Me novelist to enthuse about – Pamela Hansford Johnson who was, apparently, immensely popular from the late 1930s through to the 1960s, but seems to have been largely forgotten in recent years.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts about her, and read reviews of Wendy Pollard’s ‘Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times’, but I knew so little about her novels it was difficult to pick one. So I printed off a list of available titles, took a pin, shut my eyes, stuck it in the paper, and came up with An Impossible Marriage. And yes, I know this is an odd way to choose a book, but it’s no worse than selecting one for its cover, or because you love the title.
Anyway, I downloaded a Bello edition on to the Kindle (hurrah for Pan Macmillan’s digital re-issues), and it turned out to be a pretty good choice because, quite apart from the fact that I really enjoyed this particular novel, I think it’s an excellent introduction to PHJ.

The cover of the Bello edition of 'An Impossible
Marriage' - though I'm not sure if E-books really
do have covers!
It’s the 1950s, and Christie (our narrator) has reluctantly returned to Clapham, where she was brought up, to visit Iris Allbright who, she tells us, had ‘one brief moment of real importance in my life, which was now shrivelled by memory almost to silliness’. Christie (known to most of her friends and family as Chris or Christine) doubts Iris will remember the incident, and adds: “She and I had grown out of each other twenty years ago and could have nothing more to say.”
And she most definitely does not want to rake over the past, but that’s just what she does as she remembers the time she and Iris were friends, when she was the clever one, and Iris the pretty one – they each had their labels.

Iris Allbright was one of those ‘best friends’ sought by plain girls in some inexplicable spurt of masochism, feared by them, hated by them and as inexplicably cherished.
Ouch! Strangely there seems to be a degree of complicity between the more assertive pretty girl and her plain, compliant friend, a little like the childhood relationship between bullying Cordelia and shy, quiet Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’. However sensible or strong-minded Christie may be away from Iris, with her she plays second fiddle, and cannot escape that role, however much she would like to.

Iris, whose devoted mother is putting her on the stage, is exceedingly pretty, exceedingly self-centred, and a collector of men - even those already attached to her friends…
So Christie is understandably wary when she starts going out with Ned Skelton. Ned is older, and seemingly sophisticated. On their first date they go for a drive in his little sports car ‘bright as a ladybird’, and stop at a hotel for a ‘Sunday outing tea’. In an effort to appear older and more experienced she’s bought a new black hat and borrowed a friend’s fur coat, but she is ill at ease. “His flattery in seeking me out seemed almost too great for me to accept,” she recalls. “I felt humble, and angry because I was humble.”

A 1954 edition. 

Describing the early days of their relationship Christie says: “I felt he was already invading me: that he had plans for me.”  That doesn’t strike me as being a good basis for any relationship, but she is besotted with Ned, even though she knows he is not gentle and will not be kind to her.
Two weeks before their wedding, she realises she doesn’t love him, only the idea of him, and breaks off their engagement. But he takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant where Iris is appearing in cabaret… And she is scared that Iris will take everything from her, including Ned. So she marries him, although she knows they are wrong for each other, and she doesn’t love him. She is 18 and he’s 32, and they have absolutely nothing in common.

Initially Christie believes she can make the marriage work. She has hope. But once again she finds herself playing second fiddle, this time to a husband who pays no attention to her needs, takes no notice of her likes and dislikes, and is not interested in any of the things that matter to her. He’s not violent, or abusive: in fact he’s quite charming most of the time. But he’s selfish, manipulative and domineering, inept rather than feckless, incapable of applying himself to anything or holding down a job, and unwilling to take advice.  
Bit by bit he isolates Christie, presumably to make her totally dependent on him, but he never provides for her financially, emotionally, or intellectually. First, of course, she has to give up her job in a travel agency – in 1930 it wasn’t acceptable for married women to work. Then, gradually, her friends are cut out of her life. He doesn’t care for the things she likes, and doesn’t want her to write (she has had poems published). And when their son is born, Ned is jealous of the time she spends with the baby and refuses to have anything to do with the child.

Eventually Christie acknowledges that if she is to survive with her soul intact she must escape. She's been married less than three years, and she's not yet 21, but she is determined to break free, and to take her son with her. She wants to live life on her own terms, to get a job, and to be independent, which must have been a bold and unusual stance when the novel was published in 1954. Set against that is the view of Ned’s mother, equally disappointed in her marriage, who stayed (with the aid of alcohol) because it was the thing to do. But I’m not sure you could say she made the best of things because she’s been so anaesthetised by life she no longer lets herself feel for anyone or anything.
Pamela Hansford Johnson’s career as a novelist covered a similar period to that of Margery Sharp, and they both portray some strong and unusual women. But PHJ is not as warm as Sharp. There’s an underlying sadness to some of her work, and she’s spikier, and not so interested in happy endings. She’s a very keen observer of people and relationships, and her characters are always credible, even if they’re not always likeable, but I get the feeling that she doesn’t really like people (rather like Julia’s daughter Susan in Sharp’s novel ‘The Nutmeg Tree’).
Pamela Hansford Johnson.
Despite that all her characters are memorable, even the minor ones, and she captures emotions in very few words, like Christie’s embarrassment when she discovers her ‘blind date’ is crippled (PHJ’s word, not mine – this was written long before the days of political correctness), or her anguish waiting for phone calls from Ned, wondering what his family will think of her, and what her aunt will think of him.


  1. I've heard of her but never read her. This sounds like a very good book to me. I shall keep my eyes open for her in future. Thanks.

    1. Same as me. An Impossible Marriage seems to be good to start with because it finishes on an upbeat note.

  2. I love P H J. Inspired by a memory of my mother borrowing her books from the library, I'm reading my way through all the P H J books in our county library's reserve, which would be great for non-increase of the TBR pile if only I didn't buy any copies I see in charity shops. Do read 'The Philistines', but perhaps not next as the husband is a little bit Ned-like. Didn't you love the representation of pre-war suburban life in 'An Impossible Marriage'? I was especially interested in the dance competitions.

    1. I've read Too Dear for My Possessions, and almost finished The Humbler Creation. I recognise her name, but don't ever remember coming across her books anywhere, not even in the library when I was young.

  3. I remember seeing Pamela Hansford Johnson's books on the shelves when I'd just been promoted from the junior to the senior library. They looked rather serious, and I probably wouldn't have liked them then but I did enjoy the one I read a while back, and I really must read more of her work.

    1. It's interesting that you remember seeing her books. I wonder at what stage her popularity waned.

  4. Christine, I'm so glad you're reading PHJ, one of my favorite writers. I love Too Dear for My Possessing is one of my favorites! It's the first of a trilogy...

    Her biographer Pollard uses An Impossible Marriage to illustrate many aspects of Pamelas' life, so it was a good one to choose.

    1. Kat, I read somewhere that An Impossible Marriage was based on PHJ's own life, and I'd like to read Pollard's biography, to see how the novel reflected life.