British novelist and short story writer, activist and lifelong PEN member, Phyllis Bottome was an outspoken voice on some of the biggest issues which faced PEN during the twentieth century.
Taking in refugee rights, punishment and reconciliation in the postwar period and the politics of race, Bottome is perhaps best remembered for her novel The Mortal Storm which became a Hollywood movie starring James Stewart.
She moved to Austria after World War One with her husband Ernan Forbes Dennis, a British diplomat who posed outwardly as a Passport Officer but who was reported the MI6 station head for Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia during this time. It is fitting perhaps that she is also – somewhat bizarrely – often credited with being the true creator of James Bond, as the home for boys she ran in Austria (which served the errant sons of Britain’s upper classes) once housed Bond’s creator Ian Fleming. Fleming, to whom Bottome was something of a surrogate mother-figure, also reportedly took the idea for Bond from a character in Bottome’s novel The Lifeline.
Bottome’s experiences in Austria in the interwar period meant that she was one of the first to contact English PEN about support for Austrian refugees in 1938. She wrote to International Secretary Hermon Ould about organising a book sale for Austrian refugees in Spring 1938 and served on the Committee for the aid of Austrian Writers.
Following the war, Bottome found herself placed in the middle of one of PEN’s greatest challenges to date: how to reconcile the organisation’s free speech commitments with the activities of writers who had either explicitly or implicitly collaborated with the Nazis. Bottome had been a lifelong friend of the American poet and Fascist Ezra Pound, who had made hundreds of broadcasts from Nazi-occupied Italy in support of Mussollini and Fascism. When Pound was arrested by US forces in 1945 for treason, Bottome, ever loyal, was one of the few PEN members who wrote to International Secretary Hermon Ould asking for the organisation’s assistance. On 30thAugust 1945 she rather gingerly asked whether PEN might ‘unite behind some appeal for Ezra’s life?’ She went on to describe Pound as ‘always a fanatic’ but reasoned that ‘Mussollini for his own ends flattered and in the true sense of the word, de-ranged Ezra [underlining in original].’ She pleaded that ‘it seems wrong if we are to have a new friendly world’ that a man ‘should be forcibly deprived of life because of his mistaken ideas.’ Ould’s response was muted, comparing the case to Lord Haw-Haw and asking unenthusiastically for more information. Bottome – who had studied psychology in Vienna with Alfred Adler – was eventually vindicated when Pound was declared to be of ‘unsound mind’ and released to a range of mental health facilities. However, Bottome’s pleas were illustrative of a wider concern in postwar PEN, highlighting a new flashpoint between free expression and hate speech, the need to defend writers but to punish collaborators, and, as Storm Jameson put it, ‘justice versus expediency’.
Bottome’s central role in these debates continued into later decades. In 1958 as the Notting Hill Riots drew increasing attention to racial inequalities in Britain, she attempted to rally PEN to speak out against racism. Bottome was indefatigable in her pursuit of then International Secretary David Carver, insisting that PEN make a clear statement against racial discrimination arguing that: ‘this question has nothing to do with politics – the extremist Conservative and the wildest Leftist being clearly human beings’ she had decided that PEN ‘the writers of England should appeal to it’s [sic] people.’ Bottome saw growing racial prejudice in Britain as a symptom of what she called the ‘Nazi disease’ successfully bringing together a group of PEN members to make a clear case to the Press and the public against the colour bar in Britain.
Bottome’s humanity is the thread which runs through many of her interactions with PEN – from her compassion for refugees, her defence of Pound and her absolute inability to tolerate the growing racism in British society in the 1950s – and these personal campaigns often marked out key areas for PEN’s activism in the twentieth century from postwar reconciliation to race.