Novelist, journalist and essayist Rebecca West was a founding member of PEN.
West had been invited, alongside John Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, May Sinclair, Violet Hunt and several other writers of note to the first PEN meeting at the Florence Restaurant on the 5thOctober 1921 by C.A. Dawson Scott.
It was at this meeting that the influential few sketched out the ethos underpinning the future organisation, the rules for membership and its desire to promote friendship between writers in the precarious post-war world.
She wrote years later that ‘Fifty years ago PEN set out the bring about closer communications between writers, British and Continental, metropolitan and provincial. If it was necessary to create machinery for doing this in those days, it is even more necessary to maintain it in good working order today, for conditions have grown more and not less conducive to the isolation of the writer.’
She also recounted being deputised by Dawson Scott in the early days of the organisation to travel to an (unnamed but presumably European) country with the task of ‘asking the local literary lights if they would be prepared to start a branch of PEN.’
West describes being ‘disconcerted when the elderly gentleman who seemed to be the leader of the literary set turned out to be a terrible snob, and was only interested in the writers who were also related to the nobility, and in the nobility itself.’
West – whip-smart and extremely mischievous – describes herself as ‘inspired to inform him that Mrs Dawson-Scott herself was one of the nobility and called herself Mrs out of democratic spirit, and was really the equal of a Marchess.’
The gentleman then asked whether Dawson Scott had a country seat to which West – now on a roll – was ‘moved to inform him that [Dawson Scott] and the Prince of Wales between them owned the Duchy of Cornwall, as she remembered that Mrs Dawson Scott had a country cottage in Cornwall.’
The story is both entertaining but, more seriously, points to West’s lifelong involvement in PEN and her impatience with any sort of class prejudice. She enjoyed mocking people who believed that they were superior.
Even as her own career took off West’s commitment to PEN remained strong throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
As the 1930s came to a close and war looked inevitable West worked hard to support PEN’s work with refugees. She contributed both financial and public support to the Refugee Fund established by Hermon Ould and Storm Jameson and she presided at dinners and fundraisers. She was particularly active on issues involving Yugoslavian refugees. They occupied a special place in her heart as a result of her travels of the late 1930s, documented in her book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, a love-letter to Yugoslavia. In a speech to a dinner honouring refugees from across the Balkan regions, she described how all of those gathered ‘came here not as fugitives but to assert and maintain the identity of [the Yugoslav] people, who are proving every day by the unsurpassed acts of courage of their armies and their partisan forces how necessary it is for the future of civilisation that they should survive in full sovereignty.’
She remained an active PEN member after the war, turning her mind to the new challenges of the post-war situation. She attended the 1950 Edinburgh PEN Congress as Vice President of English PEN, where she spoke of her personal interest in Scottish PEN and addressed the world’s need to face up to the great ‘crime’, as she put it of the Atomic bomb, concluding that ‘history is just people’. At this Congress, she also intervened in the anti-Soviet rhetoric of the cultural cold war, protesting against Robert Sherwood’s controversial pro-US speech. West was part of the organisation until her death in 1983, and was constantly approached to give speeches and lend her illustrious name to high profile campaigns, however she actually resigned from the organisation in 1950. A letter from another #100PENMembers Phyllis Bentley describes that West resigned ‘on account of the Candid America pictures of the PEN reception last year in the Picture Post, which have now been reproduced in Harpers.’ West felt that her privacy had been outraged by the incident and that this had been a cynical move on the part of the PEN, although Bentley argued that ‘in my view photographs of people in public life are a fair comment on a matter of human interest.’ She urged West ‘strongly not to leave PEN which is doing such important work for literature, for the sake of a comparatively small matter.’ West must have heeded her words or relented in her attitudes as she continued to lend her name to campaigns and took part in the centenary of Dawson Scott’s birth in 1965.