Monday, 20 December 2010

Penguin no. 1004: A Summer to Decide
by Pamela Hansford Johnson

This book raised a question I'd never reflected on before. Can a female author successfully and convincingly create a first person male narrator? I mean a narrator who is revealing not only action and events, but also their feelings, reactions, intentions and desires. Can it be done so that you believe the person talking to you is a man and not a woman? Pamela Hansford Johnson attempts it here with her character Claud Pickering. It is several pages into this novel before the gender of the narrator is revealed, and it comes as a shock. I didn't believe it, but why? Was it because I knew the author was female and took it for granted that the "I" narrating the novel was also female, or did they seem like a woman's thoughts? As the author didn't publish under a pseudonym there is no way to perform the blind test necessary to answer the question. But this question is fundamental to the dominant plot in the novel, in which Claud gives us an almost day by day reflection on his feelings towards, and thoughts about, the woman named Ellen with whom he is falling in love.

This leads on to a subsidiary question about the purpose of reading, and what I hope to get out of a book. Clearly the story is important, and it is necessary to be entertained, or at least diverted. But I view the plot or story as a Trojan Horse, distracting my attention while the really important information is smuggled through. At least for me, the purpose of reading is to learn. I need to come away with a richer understanding of at least some small part of life in return for the investment of my time: perhaps something previously felt has been made manifest or articulated, perhaps I can better understand a different point of view. Or perhaps some detail has been added to something previously understood imperfectly. And so if I read a book outlining the thought processes of a man falling in love, and I want to get a better understanding of those thought processes, it seems to me that that story has to be written by a man. There is no getting away from this. The classic example, although not about love, would be Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth in which a man's thoughts are presented in graphic and unvarnished detail, an uncompromising lesson in how at least some men see the world. It's difficult to see how this can happen with a book written by a woman; her imperfect understanding of how a man thinks is likely to be as ill informed as my own. But perhaps I am wrong; it will be interesting to try to find a counterexample.

The author is on stronger ground with the subsidiary plot, for which Claud performs the task of observer. This is the story of Charmian, his 24 year old sister, who chooses to stay with and financially support her unfaithful drunkard of a husband, despite the fact that she does not love him.I guess this makes it a novel reflecting its time, because it's hard to conceive of someone thinking like that now. So in the end I simply didn't believe anything that I read; none of it made any sense.

The one aspect of the novel I did enjoy was its description of London life in the years after the Second World War. It's not so much set in London as embedded in it. It names street after street, buildings, suburbs and landmarks. Post-War London is often described as bleak and grey, but here the individual deprivations are enumerated and described: foreign travel bans, having accommodation requisitioned if it is considered too large for the occupants, the rationing of goods, the drinking of bad sherry because whisky wasn't available, and the bomb damage: missing and shut up houses, and billboards to cover craters. In the end, the joy of this book rested on one tiny personal point. The author describes in great detail the burden of walking on snow- and ice-covered London streets. But such an experience is a rare treat for an Australian, a memory I'll always treasure, and her descriptions of it were wonderfully evocative.

Also by Pamela Hansford Johnson:
Penguin no. 921: An Avenue of Stone
Penguin no. 1529: The Unspeakable Skipton
Penguin no. 2267: An Error of Judgement


  1. You may be aware of this, Karyn, but as these older Penguins give out so little information, I thought I'd mention that 'A Summer to Decide' is the third (and weakest, I think) part of a trilogy, of which the first books are 'Too Dear for My Possessing' and 'An Avenue of Stone'.

    By the way, you may well be right about the author's failure to enter convincingly a male narrator's persona, but interestingly, many of her best (in my opinion) books have male protagonists. I had read perhaps ten of her novels before I stumbled on one with a female narrator - and I found it, for some reason, the least interesting of the lot. It might be curious to look closer into this (for instance, does a woman's idea of a man's point of view, however misguided, give me a deeper understanding of my own?)

  2. Hi Polecat,

    Thanks for the information. I know very little of Pamela Hansford Johnson, other than that she was married to C.P. Snow. This is the only book of hers that I have read, and I own very few of her others. But I do own An Avenue of Stone, so I'll keep it in mind as a book to read soon.



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