I picked up my first Pamela Hansford Johnson novel, An Impossible Marriage, during a pre-Christmas trip to the Oxfam bookshop in St Albans. The author has been on my radar for ages but, probably because this once incredibly popular author has unfairly been forgotten, I had never been able to find any of her books. Thankfully, Hodder has begun to reprint her work in physical editions, and quite a few more are available for a small fee from the Kindle store.
Antiquated magazine Britannia and Eve: A Monthly Journal for Men & Women wrote that this novel, first published in 1954, contains ‘a story so vivid it might be the memoir of a real person.’ Set between the wars, An Impossible Marriage focuses upon young protagonist Christine, known as Christie. She is ‘tired of London, her job in a travel agency, her friends, and the young men she’s being set up with.’ By chance, Christie meets an older man named Ned Skelton, who ‘seems sophisticated and experienced’, and she ‘quickly becomes besotted’. ‘But,’ the question at the heart of this novel asks, ‘will marriage to a man she doesn’t know well truly offer this young woman an escape? Or is she walking into another prison of her own making?’
We first meet the elusive Ned, fourteen years her senior, at a dance which Christie attends with her friends. In retrospect, Christie writes: ‘But this love of my eighteenth year was heedless, irrational and storming. I would not believe in it; it seemed not part of myself, like bone, flesh and fibre, but a hard and alien thing which had lodged itself within me.’ Their later engagement comes as an enormous shock to Christie, whose ‘inner critic’ warns her against this decision: ‘The critic within me had something to say; but I would not listen. Not at that time.’ When Ned gives her an engagement ring, Christie is horrified: ‘But though the ring might be little, it seemed to weigh heavily upon my finger. I was almost painfully aware of it. And it seemed to me strange and alarming, the thought that I must wear it until I died.’
An Impossible Marriage is profound and considered from the outset. In the first paragraph, for instance, Christie narrates: ‘I do not like looking back down the chasm of the past and seeing, in a moment of vertigo, some terror that looks like a joy, some joy crouched like a terror. It is better to keep one’s eyes on the rock-face of the present, for that is real; what is under your nose is actual, but the past is full of lies, and the only accurate memories are those we refuse to admit to our consciousness.’ She is a wise character. Later in the novel, she comments: ‘The most dangerous of all our plans are the ones we formulate right at the backs of our minds and leave to grow there, like water-cultures. They are the plans we never examine until we put them into practice. The moment they are exposed we realise our hideous recklessness. We realise the damage we have done.’
I immediately connected with Hansford Johnson’s prose style. Throughout, I found myself admiring Christie’s wry narrative and amusing asides, as well as the way in which the novel has been so skilfully crafted. Christie’s interactions with others have been well considered, particularly in those instances where she is feeling anguished, or anxious.
I was completely entranced by this coming-of-age story. I loved the tone of the book and its tight, taut writing. Hansford Johnson is sharp and perceptive, with regard to both characters and scenes. At one point in the book, she writes of winter in London: ‘Sunday was a day of snow. It lay in a crusting of black and silver beads along the privets in the front garden, clung in lichen patches to the rooftops, and was stacked, hard as steel, in the gutters. The sky looked white and hard; there was sun behind it, but it would remain invisible, would not break through.’ Christine feels entirely realistic throughout, and even the secondary characters hum with life. Tension builds wonderfully under Hansford Johnson’s pen. Had this novel been twice the length, I still would have delighted in it.
Upon her death in 1981, Hansford Johnson was described by the New York Times as ‘one of Britain’s best-known novelists’. I can only hope that hundreds of other readers discover her, and soon. Her writing is such a treat to read. I for one am so excited that she has a vast oeuvre of twenty-seven novels, plus countless other publications; I imagine that there are a lot of gems in store for me to discover.