Pamela Hansford Johnson, true to form in her final novel (she died within days of its publication), gives us a compassionate confabulation of a young-married, much-married, delightful heroine: Emma Sheldrake. No Jane Austen heroine she: This Emma marries three times, before the age of 26.
Emma, a passionate creature, discovers her own sexuality in her first marriage to Stephen Hood, a 20th-century Mr. Knightley who proposes in the requisite garden scene. Unfortunately, especially for Stephen, he is killed in an automobile accident and Emma is left to bring up their son, Paul, in the company of her mother, Agnes, and her Aunt Issie. Agnes and Isabel, former members of the chorus of the D'Oyly Carte company, are lively minor characters who fairly jump off the page with their vitality. Johnson gets as much mileage out of them as she can.
But it is Emma Sheldrake, front and center, who fascinates the reader, though the men who love her are interesting too. Young Hood falls in love with her at a dance; as is common in Johnson's novels, dancing scenes are metaphors for social communication and interaction. Emma's second husband, Alan Priest, a bachelor nearing 40, is a wealthy tea merchant. Emma, not passionately in love with him, marries Alan in part because he is polite to her, in part because he provides financially for her and Paul. Acute as children usually are in novels, Paul immediately begins by calling Alan "Mr. Beasht," and his reiteration of Alan's bestiality is borne out, not unpredictably, throughout the brief and ultimately tragic marriage. When Alan dies by his own hand, Paul quickly turns to his blocks and spells out "beast is ded." The reader agrees with Paul's judgment.
The bonfire of sexual passion that has been burning in Emma since the untimely death of Stephen has died down by the time Alan dies. The book's ironic title initially refers to a Guy Fawkes Day fire set on the fifth of November in Emma's 15th year. There is a splendid scene showing how the fire is put together by the undaunted Agnes and how the fire becomes an occasion for Emma to have psychological insights and real communion with her friends. As they light up sparklers and watch the bonfire spitting sparks, the reader can believe in a gentler time, in the poignancy of adolescent not-knowing, in the visual beauty of small lights in the darker great world.
Emma asks her mother after the fire what "adultery" means and in a typically understated Johnson scene, Agnes squirmingly reveals a certain amount about human sexual activity. Emma is filled with disgust. But Johnson makes believable Emma's revulsion while also making clear how young people go through a process of intellectualizing and internalizing notions of sexuality. The last scene between Emma and her loving father, Reggie, occurs on this very evening. Later that night, Emma hears him go downstairs; when he does not return, she looks for him and finds him dead. This scene foreshadows several other important death scenes in the novel.
Part one ends with the spectacular death of Stephen, part two with Alan's suicide. Part three, deliberately the shortest and most economically written, is about the third man, Mark Stewart, who pursues Emma assiduously. She finally marries Mark and learns more major, crucial lessons about love, tolerance and rejection.
"A Bonfire" immediately calls to mind Johnson's "An Impossible Marriage" (1954). The setting in and around Clapham Common and a set of auction rooms is the same; the time period is the same. Some of the same characters reappear.
What is less clear is what Johnson is up to with her main character. Johnson rewrites the plot line of "An Impossible Marriage" to give the heroine, Christie, three husbands instead of one divorce. (Christie marries a fellow 14 years older than herself and after a few years realizes that the marriage has failed.) There, Johnson examines a young woman looking at questions about the death of love and affection. In "A Bonfire," Johnson considers extensions of those questions, and the book is more thought-provoking than the earlier work. Indeed, the main male character in "A Bonfire," Stephen Hood, is the most engaging, likable, agreeable young man to walk down the pike of British fiction in quite some time.
As is customary, Johnson tosses a lot of Shakespearean references around for backdrop. In "A Bonfire" and "An Impossible Marriage," the central comparisons are to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Macbeth," with sexual passion and the blood red of death and fire. Johnson weaves a pattern of another culture, which bases its psychological perceptions on its understanding of literary references as the model for Emma and Christie. This model is destructive, and the heroines must break away from it. Each does so successfully, learning to trust her own insights, learning not to use literary references as the framework for human actions and decisions.
This novel is very moving. It is beautifully written, with the sparseness of sentence construction that one expects of Johnson. Pleasurable reading, yes. Johnson's examination of the social aspects of Emma's life is acute, penetrating and unforgiving. Emma judges herself harshly and she is, perhaps, not wrong. What is amazing about this story is that Johnson writes with depth, compassion and perspicuity about Emma's feelings, sexual desires and thoughts while avoiding graphic descriptions. Johnson has created another small masterpiece here. Readers will feel the loss of her.