Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Pamela Hansford Johnson author of 27 novels was born in Battersea Rise

Posted in Pamela Hansford Johnson Battersea born novelist by sheelanagigcomedienne on July 15, 2015

Pamela Hansford Johnson was born in 1912 and lived at 53 Battersea Rise SWII now occupied by Farrago Restaurant on the ground floor which  is just around the corner from Lavender Sweep where I live.

I recommend her as a worthy recipient of  The BATTERSEA SOCIETY blue plaque scheme. There are still very few women commemorated in this way so local amenity/ history societies should be trying to redress this.

PHJ was the daughter of Amy Clotilda née Howson, an actor and singer with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and Reginald Johnson, a colonial administrator who worked as chief storekeeper on the Baro Kano Railway in what is now Ghana. Pamela Hansford JohnsonHe was frequently absent, and she grew up with her mother’s family of actors and theatrical administrators. Her mother’s father, C E Howson, worked for the London Lyceum Company, as Sir Henry Irving’s Treasurer. Their home, she described in the first of the autobiographical essays contained in her book Important to Me, as “a large brick terrace house”on Battersea Rise. The house had been bought by her grandfather in the 1880s, a time when “it looked out on fields where sheep might safely graze. But by the time I was born, the railway had come, and the houses had been built up right over the hills between it and us. Not pretty, I suppose.” I think her description of the house looking out on ‘fields where sheep may safely graze’ was somewhat fanciful for 1880. 53 Battersea Rise home of PH Johnson Most commentators claim she was born in Clapham, including her biographers. We are used to such confusions and some of us get more irritated than others about this! Of course, Battersea Rise is close to Clapham Common and, with its leafy, rustic connotations, is why our station got misnamed. There is a  contemporary book written by John Walsh -‘The Falling Angels’ 1999 – who lived at 8 Battersea Rise, SW11. The house is at the corner of Lavender Sweep which, to him, looks like the prow of a ship. He describes a very different place in the 60s – Battersea was a dump, a service area for Clapham Junction: the busiest railway junction in the country. It was a stridently working-class and immigrant neighbourhood then, a tough, coarse-grained part of inner suburbia.  

This delightful painting from 1934 by Leonora Green which resides in the Wandsworth Museum is looking up Battersea Rise  towards Clapham Common but from the other side. Nando’s chicken restaurant is on the corner opposite the Northcote pub and 53 Battersea Rise is just out of view.

Wandsworth Museum; (c) Wandsworth Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Battersea Rise Crossroads from my window by Leonora Green

Pamela attended Clapham County Girls Grammar School, where she excelled at English, art history, and drama. walsingham In 1953 Coronation year it was noted in QUONDAM, the old girls/teachers association that “One of its most memorable occasions was the visit by the former 1920’s pupil, writer & novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson, wife of Lord C.P. Snow.” In 1959 she wrote a poem for the school’s golden jubilee.

After leaving school at the age of 16, she took a secretarial course and later worked for several years at the Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company. She began her literary career by writing poems, which were published by Victor B. Neuburg in the Sunday Referee. In 1933, Pamela wrote to Dylan Thomas, who had also been published in the same paper, and a friendship developed. Marriage was considered, but the idea was ultimately abandoned. His drinking habits were already evident.

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Her first novel, This Bed Thy Centre, was published in 1935 when she was 22. The preface to the latest edition is by Zoe Fairbairns. It was set in a south London area. Her ‘neighbourhood’ has a Woolworth’s, a draper’s, a hairdresser’s offering “Perms from One Guinea”, and a set of traffic lights which, recently installed, are an innovation and a talking-point: passers-by discuss which of the colours they like best. There’s a Library, with a capital L and a no-better-than-she-ought-to-be librarian, and cafes where you can enjoy “a hearty meal of kidneys on toast” and where the workers push barrows, pull pints or work shifts in the candle factory”. Out on the Common, hot gospellers with bands and hymn-books compete for public attention with the communist orator and the man selling corn plasters.

Apparently, it was Thomas who suggested the title from Dante. However, PHJ had originally called it Nursery Rhyme and admitted to second thoughts about allowing him to influence her into making the change as the book is about the transition from school to the world of work and marriage and she weaves references to them in the novel. it is claimed that the book was banned from Battersea Rise Library. There is no record of such a library – probably a small private lending library as our main one built in is on Lavender Hill and I checked with the history librarian  and they had no record of a ban. (the librarian told me she had already been asked that when the Clapham Library was closing down, ( now Omnibus Art centre) and had held an exhibition in 2012 dedicated to PHJ and opened by her daughter Lady Avebury. (She also told me that publications were not banned but declined eg. The Blackshirts magazine!)

Wendy Pollard has written the first biography of PHJ which was published in 2014 and with the approval and cooperation of her children Lindsay Avebury, Andrew Stewart and Philip Snow using unpublished diaries and letters. I ordered mine from Battersea Library as I thought it proper that they should have a copy of one of their acclaimed Battersea born and bred novelists. The first chapter is entitled A Clapham Childhood which rankled somewhat. However, I was delighted when I read the first paragraph: Some years ago, idling  while on holiday  in a second-hand bookshop in Galway, I came across a penguin edition of a novel called Too Dear for My Possessing. The name of the author, Pamela Hansford Johnson …. This was serendipitous as I have just returned from a trip home to Galway.

Pamela HJ biog by Wendy pollard

In 1936 she married an Australian journalist, Gordon Neil Stewart. Their son Andrew was born in 1941, and a daughter Lindsay, Baroness Avebury, born 1944 who lives in London. Pamela and her first husband Neil were divorced in 1949. In 1950, Pamela married her second husband, the novelist C. P. Snow, later Baron Snow. Their son Philip was born in 1952.

Pamela HJ and Snow wedding

The Panmacmillan website states: She wrote 27 novels. Her themes centred on the moral responsibility of the individual in their personal and social relations. The fictional genres she used ranged from romantic comedy (Night and Silence, Who Is Here) and high comedy (The Unspeakable Skipton) to tragedy (The Holiday Friend) and the psychological study of cruelty (An Error of Judgement). Her last novel, A Bonfire, was published in the year of her death, 1981. She was a critic as well as a novelist and wrote books on Thomas Wolfe and Ivy Compton-Burnett; Six Proust Reconstructions (1958) confirmed her reputation as a leading Proustian scholar. She also wrote a play, Corinth House (1954), a work of social criticism arising out of the Moors Trial, On Iniquity (1967), and a book of essays, Important to Me (1974). She received honorary degrees from six universities and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

They became a celebrated literary couple, 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. I like the photo with Olivia Manning and appreciated quotes from her diary mentioning her new literary acquaintances – Stevie Smith, ‘a toothy pleasant girl’ ,Graham Greene, ‘looking clever and inhibited’.

Pamela wearing mantilla with Olivia Manning

Pamela wearing mantilla with Olivia Manning

I enjoyed PHJ’s  description of her Labour Party activism when she was married to Neil Stewart- ‘ Tomorrow there is a Party meeting. Unconstitutional. Point of Order. Refer it back to the G.M.C. That knocks the glory out of you for the time being’. This reminded me of John O’Farrell’s book Things can only get Better when we used to do our little roadshow at conference when I sang with the Battersea Labour Singers.

PHJ received the CBE for services to literature in 1975. C. P. Snow died in July 1980. Less than a year later, Pamela died in London.

A review of the biography by Hilary Spurling in the Spectator Literature’s least attractive power couple » The Spectator  claims that it ‘takes this spiky novelist – and her dreadful husband, C.P. Snow – at their own inflated valuation. She continues ‘The senior partner was initially Pam Johnson, a rising literary star, 28 years old and happily married with five novels under her belt and a fiction column on the Liverpool Post, when she singled out a novel by an obscure Civil Service scientist called C.P. Snow. He responded with a fan letter assuring her she could if she wanted ‘become quite easily the best woman writer in the world’.

Lindsay Avebury, responded to this review with a letter to The Spectator:

Sir, Hilary Spurling’s vituperative article (Books, 20 September), claiming to be a review of Wendy Pollard’s biography of my mother, Pamela Hansford Johnson, was mainly an expression of the writer’s loathing of my stepfather, C.P. Snow….

My mother should be remembered as Pamela Hansford Johnson, novelist, critic and Proustian scholar, rather than as Lady Snow.

Lindsay Avebury
London SE5

Lindsay Avebury is married to Lord Avebury who is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. In 2009, Lord Avebury was awarded (with Dr Evan Harris MP) the Secularist of the Year  Award in recognition of his role in the abolition of the common law offence of  blasphemous libel. More serendipity for me!

I liked this appraisal of the biography from website Heavenali  Pamela Hansford Johnson – her Life, Work and Times 

‘Although I developed some sympathy and a lot of respect for PHJ a woman who continued to work hard in her later years despite ill-health – I wasn’t always sure I would have always liked her much as a person, but C P Snow, I have to say I thoroughly disliked….. I found their relationship to be more than a little uncomfortable, she so obviously adored him, even while recognising his faults, I just wonder if he was worthy of her really, it certainly appears that the two were sexually incompatible. CPS was self-promoting, egotistical, vain and frequently absent, and she was almost certainly a better writer than he was, while he was not quite the genius he obviously believed himself to be. Wendy Pollard shines a most fascinating light on this rather oddly disjointed literary union, which is totally absorbing.’

I, too, believe that Pamela Hansford Johnson should be celebrated more and I think that with her books being available again that she will be re-appraised and enjoyed by a new, younger generation who appreciate novels by women who were writing in the last century about the changing times they lived through.

I would hope that Pamela Hansford Johnson will be commemorated by The Battersea Society Blue Plaque Scheme on her previous home 53 Battersea Rise London SW11 on the south circular. I shall certainly be pleading her case. Welcome to the Battersea Society websiteBattersea Matters


One Response

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  1. amdally said, on May 29, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Very interesting. Thank you.

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