When I was in high school, I used to keep a copy of C. P. Snow’s Variety of Men, a collection of memoirs of his encounters with such men as Einstein, Churchill, and H. G. Wells, beside my bed. I had picked it up from a sale box at the base exchange, as I thought myself a very serious young man and was already in the habit of reading thick volumes about powerful dead white men. I was also in the habit of spending too many sleepless hours, laying in bed and agonizing over whether I had it in me to make my own great mark in the world.
There was something in Snow’s book that I found tremendously calming. I think it was his tone. Although Snow had, by the time he published the book in 1967, certainly made his mark on English literature as well as on then-contemporary thought (with his The Two Cultures), he was hardly in the same category as Einstein or Churchill. And yet there was such assurance in his treatment of these men. Snow was probably just another geek to Churchill, but that fact didn’t stop Snow from feeling that the world would want to share in his thoughts and memories of the great man. That self-confidence–so self-confident as to be effectively unconscious–was so reassuring to a boy with utterly none. And the fact that its short, self-contained chapters were conveniently packaged for reading before falling back to sleep helped, too.
Now, some forty years later, I still find myself awaking with self-doubts, although they tend to be over things such as paying for college, keeping old cars running, and whether reading about cancer (viz.) will give me cancer. And I have found myself a new bedside companion to provide some reassurance and coax sleep back. Interestingly, it’s a similar book of short reminiscences–but this time, by C. P. Snow’s wife, the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. Already a successful novelist at the time they married in 1950 (his first, her second), Johnson had grown up in an impoverished family of actors, gone to work as a typist, and began publishing poetry in her early twenties. She had over a dozen novels under her belt; he had three, plus a few mysteries.
Although the two kept on writing right up to their deaths (Snow in 1980, Johnson in 1981), it was soon Snow rather than Johnson who earned the lion’s share of the spotlight. She seems to have been quite content with the bargain. “He has been all I could wish. More might be said but it isn’t going to be,” she remarks at one point in this book. By the time she wrote
Important to Me, they had settled into a comfortable life with a country house, a London flat, and occasional all-expense-paid trips to America to teach and lecture on college campuses or to defend the realist stream in literature against the onslaughts of modernism at conferences in Europe and the Soviet Union.
In a recent review of Wendy Pollard’s 2014 biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, Hilary Spurling referred to Snow and Johnson as “Literature’s least attractive power couple.” She was Snow’s most fervent promoter; he, in turn, kept her hard at work, pumping out over twenty more books, to help maintain their lifestyle.
The strain took its toll on Johnson, who admits to battling migraines and depression in this book (and in Pollard’s biography is revealed to have other problems with pills and alcohol). Yet, in true Victorian fashion, she refuses to admit there are any cracks in the glass. “With Charles, I am always happy, if he is free from professional worries, or when any of the children are causing serious anxiety,” she writes. And if the black dog comes around, well, “I do not know what I should do without The Times.”
“This book is not a straight autobiography,” Johnson declares in her introduction. Instead, it is a collection of mostly short essays, “reflections upon things that have been important to me in my life.” Although she admits freely to many faults and deficiencies–no musical talent, little interest in food, idiosyncratic tastes in art–she feels “I am, perhaps, old enough now to write these things with some confidence.” And so we learn about her father, an administrator with a British railroad company in Africa, who died young and left his family nearly penniless; about an encounter with a ghost in the streets on London; her love of Shakespeare; her acquaintances and impressions of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and Ivy Compton-Burnett; her love of detective stories; her travels to America and Russia; her run-in with a man claiming to be Jesus Christ on the streets of Los Angeles.
It’s all written with care, selective in including a nice balance of descriptive details and personal assessments, discreet in avoiding too private or painful disclosures. And a comfortable foundation of self-confidence unperturbed by even the most gruesome aspects of modern life. Johnson wrote a short book about the Moors Murders (On Iniquity (1967)), she dismisses the notion of collective guilt for the violence of modern society: “We are ‘all guilty’–somehow–of the Moors Murders. I am not. I have never, by speech or writing, contributed to the ambience that could make such horrors possible.” Those who think otherwise are simply “totally permissive cretins.”
Better to focus on beautiful music, lovely paintings, pleasant scenery, and the love of husband and family. The “exquisite friendship,” the “absorbing unity of interests” of a successful marriage. And, of course, The Times crossword puzzle.
Some, like the anonymous review in Kirkus Reviews, may feel that Important to Me “will primarily attract those to whom Pamela Hansford Johnson is important.” A masterpiece, it certainly is not. A book you can dip into on a grim and restless night and quickly find something interesting, well-written, and filled with a voice well-grounded in its own sense of self and the rightness of its place in the world, however, it most certainly is.