Life after Lucy: Wendy Pollard

by Wendy Pollard on 22 May 2015


This photograph was taken just after I had unwrapped my first two copies of the biography which had occupied me for almost ten years, hence the huge smile of relief. Why was publication so delayed? It’s an instructive tale, but one, I fear, which may be familiar with other Lucy Cavendish alumnae.  I had returned to academia considerably later than even the average Lucy student, but had loved my time in college. My PhD dissertation was on the literary reception of the novels of Rosamond Lehmann, and it was later published by a reputable publisher.

So I now thought of myself as an author, and decided that I wanted to write the biography of a relatively neglected woman novelist of the 20th century, and that I wanted the book to be aimed both at scholars and, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, ‘the common reader’. I found the ideal subject almost immediately on my bookshelves: I had loved the novels of Pamela Hansford Johnson from my youth onward, and found that no biography had been written about her. I didn’t at that time know that her life was as interesting as her work, but I was then fortunate enough to find an Aladdin’s cave of unexamined source material, thanks to the co-operation of her family. PHJ had been forced to leave school at 16, but became the author of 27 successful novels, as well as literary monographs, and was a frequent broadcaster and lecturer. Soon I had the necessary first three chapters written in order to submit book proposals. ‘You have to get an agent,’ I was told, and duly approached the literary agents who had, for many years, represented PHJ; they were enthusiastic, but six months went by before they decided that literary biographies were currently unmarketable ‘in the current economic climate’. I heard the same story from other agents and the mainstream publishers I then approached directly. I continued writing the biography, but without a contract deadline, my progress was slow.

But at last, a small independent publisher was prepared to take it on, and moreover to give me freedom of choice in matters that were important to me, e.g., book length, inclusion of endnotes and a full index. The images on the cover show PHJ with (clockwise from top left) her second husband, C.P. Snow, the young poet she nearly married, Dylan Thomas, and two writers she greatly admired, Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust. My main objective was brilliantly summarized in a lengthy recent review, entitled ‘Out of the Shadows’, by Nicolas Tredell in the literary periodical PN Review. He began: ‘In this first biography of Johnson, Wendy Pollard, while acknowledging the importance of the men in her subject’s life, aims to rescue her from this secondary status and see her steadily and whole, as a key figure in the English literary world whose fiction made a significant contribution to the mid-twentieth-century novel’, and his most welcome conclusion was that my aim had been achieved. And I am equally delighted to say that my book has also reached previously unknown ‘common readers’, being featured in literary blogs from Iowa to Birmingham.

So my advice to any alums trying to find a publisher in these difficult times is that one should never give up.