Margaret Storm Jameson was President of the English PEN Centre during the war years 1938-1944. A prolific novelist and essayist, she made a significant mark on PEN.
During her relatively short stint as President she became a hugely influential figure within both English and International PEN, going on to serve on committees such as the Writers in Exile Committee and the Writers in Prison Committee and as an International Vice President well into the 1970s.
She was also another figure instrumental in defining PEN’s future politics and the principles which would motivate the organisation for decades to come. Like Wells, Jameson was dedicated to PEN’s mission to safeguard free expression across the world, but by the time Jameson took over the situation in Europe was sufficiently serious to warrant a more practical response.
In 1938, along with International Secretary Hermon Ould, she set up the PEN Refugee Fund, to help to get writers facing persecution out of Europe and to ensure that they had the means for survival in the UK.
She and Ould called on PEN’s bigger names such as Forster, Priestley and Wells to make the case to government for financial support, even asking them to act as guarantors for refugees themselves. When the Fund began they believed that they might help a few hundred refugees to escape Europe but by 1938 they were writing hundreds of letters, securing visas, lobbying Parliament and raising money by any means possible.
The scheme that had begun by helping writers with securing safe passage to the UK became an elaborate organisation, requiring government funding. It provided not only travel costs and help with paperwork, but also funding for food and typewriter ribbon, help with rent, advice on publishing and introductions to the London literary scene.
Vera Brittain, Rebecca West, Noel Streathfeild, Henrietta Leslie, as well as Forster, Wells and Priestley were drafted in to help out, fundraising and writing letters, as well as offering advice.
In 1941, at the height of the Blitz, Jameson and Ould organised the famous London Wartime Congress, which brought refugee writers from Europe together with influential literary figures from all over the world. Food for the Congress was tricky to come by but Ould and Jameson pulled out all the stops and managed to arrange a lavish dinner at the Ritz to reward their long-suffering guests and bring some cheer to Blitz-ravaged London.
Despite wartime conditions and the difficulty of traveling to England, more than 800 guests attended from more than 30 countries including India, China and Mexico. It was so well-attended that half of the guests had to dine downstairs in the Crypt!
Another PEN figure motivated by the organisation’s original tenets of internationalism and friendship, Jameson continued her work following the war. In recognition of her work with refugees, Jameson was invited to serve as a Honorary President of the Writers in Exile Center in 1952.
She also served on the Writers in Prison Committee and worked throughout her life to help and support writers from all over the world.
Even in her eighties there are still letters from Jameson recommending writers for membership of PEN or asking about publishing opportunities for young writers who had asked for her help.