Writing her own mock obituary in her AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Jameson presents herself as “bedevilled” by contrary impulses: “The ambition, a blind hunger to become a figure, and to use her brain and exceptional energy, which drove her to write and brought her a measure of success, was undermined by a certain weakness of character and by a paradoxical lack of respect for money and honours, and her hatred of a settled life.” Yet this somewhat self-deprecating definition omits her achievement as a writer and intellectual who published thirty-seven novels as well as several volumes of autobiography and critical essays.
Her early writing—she began publishing novels in 1919—and the later fictional autobiography The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell (1945) are concerned with the position of women of her generation both during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Jameson’s preoccupation with the war, which killed her younger brother, and her fear of another war, identify her with contemporaries who were writing during the war and in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Enid BAGNOLD, Vera BRITTAIN, and Irene Rathbone, although Jameson’s work does not deal with women’s experience in war service, but with their struggle to survive and carve out independent lives for themselves in spite of hardship and poverty. In particular, she depicts the psychological and economic burden carried by the woman who wants both independent work and to bring up her children. The emotional pain of leaving her young son behind in Yorkshire while she worked in London is revisited almost compulsively in her novels and in her autobiography, Journey from the North (2 vols., 1969–70). In spite of her sensitivity to this dilemma, her writing is not a feminist polemic, but a sharply perceptive detailing of everyday existence that captures both the emotional and physical lives of her characters. Her novels of the twenties and her autobiography continually evoke the mood of an almost unbearable loss in the aftermath of the war; the absent young men who had been her companions as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds are paradoxically ever-present, as are the lost prewar selves of those who survived. Her Mirror in Darkness trilogy—Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935), and None Turn Back (1936)—shows an acute awareness of the psychological tensions between the men who returned from the war and the women who loved them.
Her novels of the 1930s are increasingly preoccupied by the conditions in Europe and the rise of fascism. In the Second Year (1936) foresees another war. Her writing of this period is necessarily informed by her involvement with European politics on an intellectual and practical level that led to her presidency of the British chapter of International PEN from 1938 to 1945. During World War II, she worked indefatigably to rescue Jewish intellectuals and other writers, providing practical aid in the form of food and shelter and writing thousands of letters to governments and other agencies in Britain and Europe. Her efforts saved thousands of lives and yet she felt the terrible frustration of her task: “For one person we got out, ten, fifty, five hundred sank.” Jameson still managed to publish twelve novels during the war. In its immediate aftermath, she traveled to devastated areas of Europe, such as Warsaw and Cracow, endeavoring to make contact with writers and commenting on the conditions in her autobiography, essays, and in novels like The Black Laurel (1947)
A certain perversity toward writing as a profession is revealed in a vitriolic attack on a female novelist in the novella “Delicate monster” in Women against Men (1933). “The novelist hardened by his profession,” Jameson wrote, “will take notes—of his feelings, exclamations and so on—at his child’s deathbed.” Jameson was too concerned with writing novels that carried intellectual weight to embrace experimental forms of MODERNISM. However, her ability to convey the psychology of her characters owes something to stream of consciousness writing, and at her best she succeeds in convincing her reader of the connection between the private inner world of the individual and the larger movements of history.
Bibliography Labon, J., “Tracing S. J.,” Women 8, 1 (1997): 33–47; McDowell, M. B., “S. J.,” in Staley, J. F., ed., British Novelists, 1890–1929: Modernists, DLB 36 (1985): 70–79
British woman of letters, wrote forty-five novels, many of which centre on strong women characters and engage with the important...
Born in Whitby, where her family were shipbuilders, she went to Leeds University. Her many novels include sagas depicting...
adj 1 of or happening in the period between World War I and World War II