The British novelist Phyllis Bentley receives little scholarly or public attention these days, but she was a prolific writer, PEN member and committed activist for a number of political causes from helping refugees during the war to trying to bring Centres together during the difficult Cold War period.
Bentley was part of a group of Yorkshire women (from the North-East of the UK) who had benefitted from grammar schools and the widening of access to university education, dedicated feminists and socialists who used their uncompromising Northern sensibilities to have enormous influence on politics, literature, education.
Alongside trailblazers such as Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Ellen Wilkinson (technically from the North-West but the first female MP for Middlesborough) and Bentley used their novels and what fellow Yorkshire folk would call “gumption” (tenacity and hard work) to draw attention to inequality wherever they found them.
Bentley had joined PEN in the 1930s and played a key role in the organisation from the start. In 1940 she wrote to Hermon Ould, PEN’s International Secretary that ‘I am delighted that the P.E.N. to bring forth a series of books, undeterred by the threatening situation. If literature in the past had been deterred by threatening situations, the world would certainly not have much literature.’
Bentley was a key member of the organising committee of the war time PEN Congress in London in 1941, despite her long and busy days at the Ministry of Information.
In 1944 she wrote a report on the Areopagitica Conference – celebrating the Tercentenary of Milton’s great work on censorship and free expression – writing that ‘during the week when Paris freed herself, at a time when the menace of the flying bomb was still in ample evidence in Southern England, the conference celebrated the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica by discussing the place of spiritual and economic values in the future of mankind.’
She went on that the conference had ‘achieved by integration a consensus of opinion, a general agreement on certain main points. It agreed that there should be the maximum interference with the freedom to exploit but the minimum interference with individual freedom, that censorship was deplorable and should be resisted on behalf of the detestable as well as agreeable opinions, that spiritual or cultural values were essential to the life of the complete man (Klingender) and formed the quality of existence (Anand), and that these values were inextricably entwined with economic values.’
She often represented English PEN at international Congresses but never took on a formal role with the organisation, although she was a frequent and vocal member of the board at English PEN Committee meetings in London.
In the late 1940s and 1950s she took part in a number of the earliest discussion about PEN’s apoliticism, and particularly the relations between Communist and Non-Communist Centres. After the 1951 Lausanne Congress she contacted Ould about the growing tensions between Centres and the unsuitability of the English delegates, often changed each year as ‘rabbits in a den of snakes.’
She wrote that ‘PEN in countries other than the British Isles has become a pawn in the political game, I fear.’ Going on that ‘under these circumstances we must take great care to send delegates who can cope with politics’ and with ‘knowledge of the personalities and politics concerned.’ She writes that ‘Galsworthy would turn in his grave if he knew what his friendship association had become.’
Bentley’s revelation shows PEN becoming much more of a microcosm for world politics during the Cold War period, as centres – particularly in the East – come to identify much more readily with their national or ideological interests which come into conflict with PEN’s free expression commitments.
Whether writing reports in PEN News, hosting refugees during the war or discussing crucial matters of free expression during the Cold War, Bentley played a crucial but unsung role in PEN during her long membership of the organisation.