The two novelists met at a dinner-party in October 1961.
It was the only time they met, and apparently Murdoch, the younger of the two, left no record of it. Johnson by contrast was full of venom:
Iris is heavy, low-slung, grotesque in appearance: he is little and stuttering, with a fluting voice. I rather liked him. But she is nervy, socially ill at ease, and not my thing at all. She is profoundly and deeply feminine, despite appearances: all those frilly heroines are compensation figures. I hate to seem a bitch towards her – I think her life hasn’t been easy. This doesn’t mean I can stand the incoherence of her novels.
This extraordinary passage comes from Johnson’s diaries, of which her recent biographer Wendy Pollard has made first and excellent use. Pamela Hansford Johnson Her Life, Works and Times was published in 2014 and I’ll be reviewing it in a future issue of The Times Literary Supplement.
PHJ, as her biographer calls her, was just coming up to fifty at the time. Murdoch was seven years her junior.
They were guests of that then omnipresent mid-century man of letters, playwright and novelist J.B. Priestley, and his wife, and came with their own respective spouses.
Bayley, he of the fluting voice, was a distinguished literary critic and Oxford Professor of English who became almost a name known to the general public through his marriage to Iris. Johnson’s husband was C.P. Snow, the scientist-turned-novelist who compared himself to Flaubert and Turgenev and achieved high respect in his lifetime for his series Strangers and Brothers. His fiction that would be best remembered was The Masters, a tale of jockeying for power in an Oxbridge college. If Bayley was small, Snow was an ungainly physical giant. Also a conflicted, boastful man who left his wife feeling lonely.
The table talk at the Priestley’s home near Stratford on Avon may well have touched on the building of the Berlin Wall in August, and the Russian decision to resume nuclear testing. Murdoch was passionately political, from the Left, her worldview otherwise inflected by a fondness for upper middle-class society and a conservative quasi-mystical temperament. The Snows were Russia sympathizers and Pamela was left perplexed by Moscow decisions that went against the grain. Priestley was also Left-wing and in 1958 had co-founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
But one might imagine literature was paramount, for the simple reason that all of them were producing book after successful book. Their 67-year-old host had twenty novels and nineteen plays behind him,not least The Good Companions and The Inspector Calls. Mrs Priestley, the pioneering woman archeologist Jaquetta Hawkes, was also a wide-ranging writer.
Johnson had published eighteen novels since her first at the age of 22, and the nineteenth was ready in manuscript. Her husband was basking in initial good notices for the West End stage adaption by Ronald Millar of his novel The Affair. He was also a prominent public man, since in his now infamous ‘Two Cultures’ speech of 1959 he had lamented the divide in British culture and society between the arts and sciences. It was Iris in fact who was the relative newcomer to celebrity. Also a philosopher, and still teaching at Oxford, she had just published her fifth novel, A Severed Head, in April.
What had Pamela heard that made her think Iris’s life to date had been difficult? She had been refused entry to the United States in 1946 as a one-time member of the Communist Party. She was drawn to the ruthless French exstentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and had published the first book-length study on him in English. But evidently it was Iris’s tormenting affair with Elias Canetti that was widely known on the grapevine. Bayley, whom Iris married in 1956, remarked of his predecessor that he was “the primal power figure. Iris’s one-time lover, tyrant, dominator and master. Teacher too, and inspiration. The great all-knowing Dichter.” (Meaning a great German artist and poet, the idea of the ‘Dichter’ being a legend in itself.)
The remark about her being intensely feminine, despite appearances, is one to puzzle over, not least because Iris took women as well as men as her lovers. But perhaps what confused Pamela was Iris’s androgynous air and her rather masculine, or unisex, clothes.
Self-comparisons always figure in instant assessments of others. Pamela Hansford Johnson was almost a society beauty. Her social origins weren’t sufficiently well-heeled for her to have been a debutante, but she came from a theatrical background on her mother’s side, and the looks were definitely there. She was petite, vivacious and funny, and as a young woman attracted a string of would-be lovers, headed by the still teenaged poet Dylan Thomas.
But my view is that to even conjure with Pamela’s remarks one has to go to the fiction of both women, and from there to understand something more private, reflected in the very different style of their novels. That might tell us something too about how much Britain was poised to change, in 1961, although I’m probably at odds with Pollard as to whether her depiction of her ‘times’ is why we might reread Johnson now.
The most remarkable female character in PHJ’s entire oeuvre is the blonde-haired, dark-skinned Helena of Too Dear for My Possessing (1940) and two successor volumes. I doubt we are meant to think of her as beautiful. The descriptions make her sound like a grotesque jolie-laide. But she is a presence, and she has a sexual appetite she doesn’t hide, and a will to survive, despite social pressures and ill-fortune. She loves, over the years, a gentle, feckless artist married to someone else, her lodger and an aged playboy millionaire. She is spunky, forceful and unsentimental. Even her pastry-making has a touch of attack about it. She loves colours and looks eccentrically stunning.
Perhaps this Helena was an alter ego for Johnson, whose diaries confirm a theme running through her fiction, of the at times unbearably strong sexual needs of her women characters, thwarted by fate, or the inattention of their husbands and lovers. It was a theme which from the first, with This Bed Thy Centre, she treated realistically, although without the savage naturalism of the later 1960s and after, which she would dislike and caricature.
For the Murdoch of A Severed Head, by comparison, sex is at once a power game and a philosophical joke. Canetti made the point in his memoirs that Iris exchanged sex for fodder for her imagination. He felt too offended by her reshaping of him in her ongoing dreams to feel any real desire. There are tears and even an attempted suicide in A Severed Head, but everyone is acting. Of the three leading women characters it is difficult to see who Pamela had in mind as frilly, whether it was the young academic Georgie, with her heavy long hair, peacock blue stockings and messy room, or the smart, lavish and vulnerable older woman in Antonia. Georgie, with her ambiguous name, speaks for the androgyny of intellect, and although she has a certain innocence surely she is the very opposite of frilly, while the mysterious and incestuous Cambridge academic Honor Klein is more demonic than sexual.
Here, in short, were two women novelists, born within seven years of each other, and both writing in English, of whom the one who left a note about it just couldn’t fathom the sexuality of the other. Add to that what we know subsequently of Iris’s own intense sexual drive. They were both women, both gifted novelists, who felt their sexuality intensely, but differently. Likewise their fiction differed, with Murdoch interested in the experimental novel (if not actually capable of writing it) and Johnson campaigning for conventional realism.
One force driving a wedge between them was Iris’s intellect. Johnson was able and clever, but she hadn’t had a university education, and still less any instruction in philosophy. The lacuna pleased her in a way. She felt it would get in the way of her fiction but that she might have benefited from it as a critic.
Intellect led Murdoch to internalize the Freudian revolution in ways of looking at people’s behaviour, and sexuality. Sexuality after Freud was amusing, demonic, anti-social, and dramatic. It helped to create the chiaroscuro settings that Murdoch loved, and which she then – later, after A Severed Head– overlaid with a Platonic/Christian morality of good and evil. You can find allusions to Dostoevsky in there too, though more in the form of homages paid than literary lessons learnt.
Morally, and even through a vague deference to inherited religious norms, Johnson had the lighter touch in her writing, though she was probably more serious. Not intellectually serious but morally within her fiction, because she wasn’t playing games within games.
A Severed Head was hot off the press, and widely reviewed in the newspapers that spring, when a few months later Pamela dismissed Iris’s novels as ‘incoherent’. Presumably they were incoherent because they were heavily symbolic. As a critic once said, Pamela Hansford Johnson never used symbols in her writing.
I’d like to have been at that October 1961 dinner-party, or perhaps what I mean is I can imagine trying to stage it, with the egos and the sexuality of these two women writers wordlessly colliding, Johnson caught in a private nightmare of uncertainty over the quality of a recently finished new work, and always feeling sexually and emotionally neglected by Snow, who had interests outside his marriage. The surrounding marriages, Hawkes and Priestley, Bayley and Murdoch, were stronger, the first rooted in physical passion and shared high achievement, the second in mutual tolerance and love of all that was exceptional in the other. Pam and Charles were big drinkers and she was a heavy smoker, and both of them were inwardly anxious. Nineteen sixty one turned out for her to be a ‘black year’. ‘Nothing has happened to me and all my literary hopes are broken…we feel the horror of the year in terms of politics and war.’
Pamela Hansford Johnson was made a CBE in 1975 for her services to literature, and Iris Murdoch received the same award in 1976.
These days Johnson seems the fresher read, especially Too Dear for My Possessing, though A Severed Head is huge fun: the cleverest of page-turners saluting neurotic upper class mores in mid-twentieth century England. As it happened that evening, or soon after, Priestley undertook to dramatize Iris’s fifth novel, and two years later it was a stage success ten times that of Millar’s adaptation of Snow.