These people are bent out of shape by their hidden selves

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

I’ll have to track down whatever her best book was and read it:

These people are bent out of shape by their hidden selves. There is something of another contemporary, Henry Green, in Johnson’s invigorating harshness. As Elsie passes on her way to school, Parsons ‘gave her a sidelong glance, sniffing up the hairs in his nose. Sidey little runt, he thought.’ Elsie, abruptly adolescent, is in love with her art teacher, Miss Chavasse, who is having complicated thoughts about her pupil: ‘I’d like to kiss Elsie … I’d like to paint her, too.’ Her lover, a poet in need of a place to stay, has turned up: ‘Sick at the sight of his small, padded mouth, dark and dried at the corners … she bent her head to his.’

Sex is Johnson’s true subject. She respects its power and repeatedly enacts a woman’s right to sexual realisation. Physical contact is something so fraught and regulated as to be inherently violent. Violence can come out of detachment too: ‘He dragged at the vee of her dress and put his fingers to her breasts.’ Elsie is intent on discovering the facts of life and perturbed by ‘the knitting of her flesh’ when she passes a couple kissing under a tree. When she acquires a boyfriend, Roly, he says he’ll take her clothes off and thrash her if she looks at someone else. Elsie counters that she’d rather like that before realising she has ‘said something very wrong’. She lies down with him but resists. On the way home Roly stops off to see Mrs Maginnis. He orders Nietzsche and Freud in the local library, and arranges a date with the librarian. He blames Elsie’s resistance on the ‘whole social system … When a man loves a woman, he ought to be able to sleep with her right away, and then there would be no repressions or inhibitions.’ When they finally get married and go to bed, ‘there was no fear in her, nor love, only a great loneliness.’

Clapham in the 1930s is a land of ‘Real Homes at Easy Terms’. The pub’s parlour and bar have been knocked through and filled with glass tables, potted palms and tub chairs. Blocks of houses are being demolished, replaced by ‘a large picture palace, with one thousand seats for seven pence, and a noble façade, moulded with stags and Greek notabilities’. It is characteristic of Johnson to note the architectural detail as well as the ticket price.

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