#100PENMembers No. 43: Rosamund Lehmann

Rosamund Lehmann, novelist, journalist and English PEN President was a keen supporter of writers in prison and of refugee writers during her years of activism.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

She joined PEN in 1942, in order to become involved with the Refugee Fund set up by English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould. As well as donating generously to the fund she also sponsored individual writers to help find asylum in England and ran events to help refugees to socialise with each other and with the wider literary community.

A regular attendee of PEN Committees, in November 1954 she went on a tour of Switzerland for English PEN and the British Council, doing readings from her books and lecturing on ‘The Theme of Innocence in English Fiction.’

Finally, and under some duress, in 1962, she became President of the English Centre, which she led until 1966. She describes telling her brother, the writer and editor, John Lehmann, also an active PEN member, about her new position and he ‘rocked and swayed with laughter like a poplar in a roaring gale, and tried to make my flesh creep by grisly descriptions of what the job would entail – but I believe I can do it, and feel it will be very good for me, and therefore I HOPE for PEN.’

The issue was not that Lehmann was in some way incapable but that John Lehmann was only too aware of the shark-infested waters which his sister entered as President of English PEN at a moment when the organisation was reshaping itself for the aggressive Cold War climate of the 1960s. At this time, infighting within PEN was rife and times were changing from the more genteel politics of the 1950s to a more hands-on approach to East-West relations, to issues of racial persecution and colonialism, and to state terror. 

During a speech to the English Centre about her experiences at the International Congress at Bled in Yugoslavia in 1965 Lehmann said: ‘It was memorable first for the election of Arthur Miller as the International President; and the rapid realisation on the part of all of us there that here was the only man to swing PEN into a New Age era of activity and influence.’…‘Dr Victor von Vriesland [the previous President] was, to my mind, in his inimitable way, an ideal President. Arthur Miller will not imitate him – or anybody else; and he will be, I believe, another kind of ideal President. We are very lucky.’

What Lehmann alludes to – very diplomatically – is the fact that Miller would and did take a much more definitive stance on many aspects of PEN’s work and, in particular, on its work with the Soviet Union and Communist countries. This was a far cry from the more conciliatory stance of Presidents such as Von Vriesland.

Lehmann’s chief occupation and interest during her tenure as President and as a PEN member of many year’s standing, was the plight of writers in prison. Alongside Storm Jameson, Arthur Miller and Victor von Vriesland, she was a founding member of the Writers in Prison Committee, formed in 1960, following a resolution at the PEN Congress in Rio de Janiero of that year.

While previously the International Secretary would oversee pleas and campaigns involving imprisoned writers across the world, the role had become increasingly unmanageable in the postwar era as the organisation grew to take in more countries and more members.

The Writers in Prison Committee would take responsibility for overseeing campaigns to free writers in prison around the world, writing to governments, liaising with local PEN Centres and even personally visiting countries as Miller and Harold Pinter did in the 1980s.

They would report on their activities to PEN Congress meetings, with lists of their charges arranged by country over pages and pages at the back of each Congress agenda from 1960 onward.

They were, by their own admission ‘rarely out of business’ in a postwar world in which governments, both left and right, sought to silence and persecute writers who sought to question their ideas or their methods. The Committee rarely spoke of its work beyond this forum and rarely claimed victory, aside from raising awareness when writers were suffering, as they operated, and continue to operate, largely in secret. They have worked to help writers from Wole Soyinka to Liu Xiaobo, Elif Shafak to Ken Saro Wiwa.

Lehmann’s work – both on this Committee – and before its founding helped to establish PEN’s commitment to writers in prison.

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