Finalist in 2014-15 PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE for Non-Fiction
Pamela Hansford Johnson’s first novel, This Bed Thy Centre, published in 1935 when she was 22 and had no literary contacts to ease her path, was a succès de scandale. On the publication of her second, John Brophy wrote in Time and Tide: ‘I have no doubt at all that Miss Hansford Johnson is already one of the most gifted and interesting of the younger novelists. Her career is of importance to literature.’ She went on to write a further twenty-five novels, nearly all highly praised by the most important critics of the day. In addition to their aesthetic worth, many are remarkable for the portraits they paint of almost forgotten worlds. Her 1930s novels are not set in the privileged surroundings featured in the novels of contemporaries, but in the down-to-earth milieu of lower middle-class Londoners. Her novels of the 1940s and 1950s portray the period of social adjustment during and after the Second World War. Later, several of her novels focused on moral dilemmas, and she varied her range with a group of well-received satirical novels. She also wrote plays, literary monographs and a meditation on the Moors Murder Trial, broadcast frequently on the Third Programme, and was a regular panel member on the acclaimed radio programme, ‘The Critics’, and BBC TV’s ‘Brains Trust’.
This is the first biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson, and has been written with the co-operation of her three children, who allowed the author access to previously unexamined diaries and letters. These illuminate their mother’s eventful and often entertaining literary progress, against the odds, as well as her private life, which was full of incident, an early episode being her youthful romance with Dylan Thomas. Her first marriage was to an Australian journalist. Subsequently she married the novelist and scientist, C.P. (later Lord) Snow. The Snows formed a celebrated literary partnership, travelling widely, and being fêted in academic circles in the USA and the USSR, but also attracting adverse attention from the satire movement emerging in Britain in the 1960s. She received the CBE for services to literature in 1975.
After a number of administrative jobs, Wendy Pollard worked for five years as editorial assistant on the Newsdesk of Independent Television News. While her family was growing up, she studied with the Open University, gaining a first-class honours degree. She was awarded a PhD in 2000 by the English Faculty of the University of Cambridge, for a dissertation on the literary reception of the works of Rosamond Lehmann, which was later published as Rosamond Lehmann and Her Critics: The Vagaries of Literary Reception.
“Pamela Hansford Johnson has found the perfect biographer and critic in Wendy Pollard, in a book bound to appeal to readers with an interest in the literary world of twentieth-century Britain, and in women’s literary lives in particular. Fully and extensively researched, this intelligent study judiciously sets Hansford Johnson’s life and considerable achievements in the context of her times. [It] is a readable and enjoyable book: Pollard writes with real knowledge, insight and balance, and a nice dry wit.”
Professor Jenny Hartley, University of Roehampton
“How Johnson’s reputation fell into disrepair after her death in 1981 is the untold story behind Wendy Pollard’s biography… Pollard has made first use of PHJ’s diaries and letters, and has interviewed her children, and the result is a biography of such sensual and sexual vividness that any barriers created by the period vocabulary of Johnson herself fall away.”
Lesley Chamberlain, The TLS
“In all its rich, accumulated detail it’s a feast for anyone hungry for the otherness of the past. The story of noisy, clever, bossy, ambitious Pamela Hansford Johnson… gives us privileged entry into the textures and flavours of a vanished time, the nuances of its class structure and language.”
Tessa Hadley, London Review of Books
“Wendy Pollard’s absorbing, well-researched and sensitive biography shows the importance of London in the complex life and work of a writer who was quite popular and critically respected in her lifetime but has since fallen into relative and undeserved obscurity.”
The Literary London Journal – Read full review here.
“Pamela Hansford Johnson is a writer whose memory fully deserves to be kept alive, and she is well served by Wendy Pollard’s admirable, sympathetic biography, which does justice both to her life and to her work.”
Jonathan Coe, award-winning novelist and biographer
“It’s very readable and superbly well researched … I certainly found Wendy pollard’s portrayal of PHJ’s life to be fascinating – I have only touched very briefly on it here – but it is testament to her biographer’s skill, that I feel I really got to know PHJ. Wendy Pollard skilfully discusses each of PHJ’s novels, without I am personally very happy to say, giving away any spoilers.”
From the blog Heavenali – Read full review here.
“A revaluation [of Johnson’ profile] is clearly required; Pollard’s sympathetic, judicious and informed biography makes a major contribution to this, bringing Johnson out of [Dylan] Thomas’s and [C.P.] Snow’s long shadows.”
Nicolas Tredell, PN Review – Read full review here.
“Wendy Pollard’s Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times is an illuminating, detailed and well-written account of an interesting and prolific writer and one that has made me want to read at least a few of her large number of novels.”
Amazon.co.uk customer – Read full review here.
“Wendy Pollard has written a penetrating study of a very likeable and erudite woman. The book may be large but one races through it.”
“Just a superbly researched volume based on diaries never before scrutinised by other biographers. Sheds new light on many important people and celebrities from the nineteen-thirties through to the nineteen-seventies.”
Comments from Voters in the People’s Book Prize