#100PENMembers No. 44: Phyllis Bottome

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.

#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.

#100PENMembers No. 37: Phyllis Bentley

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.