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An Error of Judgement

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Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965
(first published by Macmillan 1962)
(price: 4/6; 224 pages)

The blurb on the back:

Pamela Hansford Johnson has established her place among modern English novelists. An Error of Judgement is her most ambitious novel so far. It is a strange and disturbing story of modern marriage and a doctor's dilemma. Setter, an eminent Harley Street consultant, is trusted and admired by his large circle. Deep within himself Setter recognizes a latent streak of sadistic cruelty and this enables him to perceive the truth about a delinquent youth whom he suspects of having taken part in a particularly bestial and senseless crime.
An Error of Judgement is a subtle study of human weakness and conflict. Beneath the brilliance of the novelist's technique is deep and passionate concern for bewildered, suffering humanity.
Cover drawing by Terence Greer.

opening lines:
Suspecting myself of a cardiac disease, I went one morning to Harley Street to see Setter, who had been recommended to me by my doctor.

There was a time when Pamela Hansford Johnson was a well-known figure in the literary world and a highly rated novelist. Nowadays, as far as I can tell, she's remembered more for the men in her life - Dylan Thomas was an early boyfriend, and she married CP Snow - than for her own work. Doing a search for her online turns up the fact that Ann Widdecombe is a big fan, but there's not much else going on. Which is a shame, because this is a terrific book. When Anthony Burgess compiled his list of the 99 best novels written in English between 1939 and 1984, this was in there, and its inclusion is in no way a controversial choice.

So what's a nice book like this doing on a site like mine? Well, partly it comes under the agenda of trying to reclaim neglected works, but thematically as well it's suitable for our attention, because there's a very definite horror undertone going on that you should like.

The early 1960s saw a rising interest in psychopaths, and this novel slips uncomfortably in amongst movies like Peeping Tom, Psycho and Repulsion. It's actually more disturbing than any of that lot, since it's interested in psychology rather than shock, and it's more subtle in its accumulation of detail than the comparable The Collector, John Fowles' first novel from the same period. (Which may be why it was never filmed.) There's also more than a hint of The Werewolf of Paris in its placing of a single aberrant personality in the midst of a deranged and dangerous world - there, the suppression of Paris Commune, here the nuclear paranoia of the early-60s.

Probably, however, it'd be most appropriate to see it as an English bourgeois version of Crime and Punishment, a book to which explicit reference is made:

'The remorse of the murderer is a literary invention, with Dostoyevsky as the worst misleader. It is an error Dickens never made - see Fagin, see Jonas Chuzzlewit.' (p.197)

It is, in short, a portrayal of a deeply unpleasant type of man, filtered through the perceptions of the English middle classes. And in case that sounds too depressing, don't worry: the quality of the writing will blow you away and anyway there are some nice little jokes as well:

'Could it really be that I am the only person in the world bored stiff, bored pallid, by politics?'
'No,' he said, 'we all are, those of us who aren't politicians. That's why we're the prey of the silly men, the posturing men. They don't get bored, not ever. They will never get bored. We are the victims of their professional excitement.' (pp.131-132)

And this depiction of a social group is the most convincing account of a radio phone-in show I've ever read (even if it pre-dates such institutions by a couple of decades):

The talk, as before, drifted on till past ten o'clock. It had drifted from teenagers to apartheid, from there to the coming Presidential elections in America. They all seemed to me equally dreary, equally ill-informed. (p.109)

I'm still on the lookout for her 1968 book On Iniquity, about the Moors Murderers, but in the meantime, let me recommend this one to you all.

Ms Pamela
Pamela Hansford Johnson


When Anthony Burgess drew up a list of the 99 best novels written between 1939 and 1984, Error of Judgement was amongst them, as was:

William Sansom, The Body