The Times Literary Supplement review of The Constant Liberal

The Times Literary Supplement
Caroline Moorhead
June 23, 2010

When Phyllis Bottome died in 1963, the BBC, announcing her death over the radio, described her as “the champion of the underprivileged and the misunderstood”.

Bottome had published her first novel at the age of twenty. In between, she had written thirty-two other novels, many of them bestsellers, twelve collections of short stories, several biographies and many essays and articles. Four of the novels had been turned into Hollywood movies, starring such actors as James Stewart and Claudette Colbert. But then Bottome disappeared; very few modern readers even know her name.

Pam Hirsch, a lecturer in English literature at Cambridge, chanced on Bottome’s books in the shelves of her parents’ house, after their death, and remembered how for them she had stood as a liberal beacon in the early 1950s. By another twist of luck, she discovered that Bottome’s papers had recently been acquired by the British Library.

Born in Rochester in Kent in 1882, Bottome had an American-Anglican clergyman father and an English mother. The two sides of the family, the Americans easy-going and free-spirited, the English buttoned-up and snobbish, warred constantly with one another. Despite two older sisters and a younger brother, she was lonely. She became a writer, she would later say, at the age of five, when an imaginative godmother introduced her to the world of books by giving her a tantalizing collection of fairy stories, and forbidding anyone to read it to her. Within weeks, she was a fluent reader. As the family wandered backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, Bottome seized what education she could. For a while, it seemed that she might go on the stage, since she possessed an excellent memory, a good voice and a small gift for comedy.

But then TB was diagnosed. One of her sisters had already died of consumption. It was the turn of the nineteenth century, and only high altitudes and fresh air were regarded as cures. Bottome was sent to St Moritz and here, over the next few years, wrapped up in furs and sitting on a balcony overlooking the Alps, she turned herself into a published writer. In 1902 she produced her first novel, Life, the Interpreter, touching on the education of women, class divisions and social conventions. It earned her £3. As an impoverished woman, with few connections, being a writer required stamina and fortitude; she had both, in abundance. But it was also clear that Bottome was a cool observer of life, whether that of upper-class London or of TB patients in a sanatorium, and that she possessed a considerable talent as a page-turner. She became what Henry James once called the master of the “long-short”, the 60,000-word novella.

In between her forced stays in the mountains and her visits to London to care for her fractious mother, Bottome met and eventually married another wanderer, Ernan Forbes Dennis, who had survived the battles of the First World War and was friends with Ivor Novello. Recruited into the British Secret Service, Dennis was posted to Vienna and it was here, in the troubled late 1920s, against the background of Hitler’s ascent to power and spreading anti-Semitism, that Bottome made friends with journalists and writers and began to involve herself in the causes that would later shape her life and her books: refugees, Jews, anti-fascism. Writing about the refugees, she described the way that “the web of their lives was torn before their eyes into useless fragments”. It was also here that Alfred Adler came into her life, and his teachings on Individual Psychology and its themes of work, love, happiness and social engagement would inform the rest of her life. Both she and Dennis went into analysis.

Bottome had met and become friends with Sinclair Lewis, who told her that in her writing she should return to her roots. What was not clear, however, was just where these roots lay. But it was her move back to London in 1935 that enabled her to write the novel that finally brought her considerable fame in Britain. The Mortal Storm, the tale of a German family torn apart by being half Jewish, half Nazi, was at the same time a warning about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and a very readable love story.

It had a slow start, but once Allen Lane made it one of his Penguin Specials, it sold 100,000 copies in just over a year; on the jacket, he quoted a review saying that it was “the first significant novel torn out of the bleeding heart of modern Europe”. In America, The Mortal Storm was reprinted thirteen times in ten months. MGM bought the rights and though they insisted that the heroine be married – in the novel she is an unmarried mother – and that the hero should not be communist (especially in the light of the recent German–Soviet pact), the film opened to rave reviews just as France was falling. It was a measure of the times that, despite her protests, the Jews are throughout referred to not as Jews but as “non-Aryans”.

In her wanderings, Bottome had been befriended by Ezra Pound, and it was he who advised her to avoid all padding in her writing, and to allow events to stand for themselves, without unnecessary authorial explanation. She took his words to heart: her pared-down style was economical and passionate, even if in the novels she never quite escapes a certain taste for flowery descriptions of the natural world. The Mortal Storm brought her a reputation as an authority on Nazi repression and she spent much of the Second World War writing, in one form or another, about morality, responsibility and pluckiness. She turned out to be a formidable and attractive speaker, racing around the country on petrol coupons given to her by the Ministry of Information, who regarded her as an important contributor to British propaganda, wearing a green velvet dress from Harvey Nichols and a neat hat to keep her unruly hair in place. Watching her lecture, Frank Halliday, a retired headmaster of Cheltenham College, described her as “all sails set and driven on the great gale of vitality”. The intensity of her views was sometimes too strong for the British establishment: a pamphlet she wrote about the failure of the Allies to save the Jews, entitled “I accuse” after Zola’s pamphlet, found no publisher.

Bottome was sixty-three when the war ended. Despite cancer, she went on writing, regarding it as her moral duty to speak out on behalf of the powerless. She wrote rapidly and urgently, saying that she did not regard herself as a “stereotyped British intellectual”. Fine writing, she insisted, was merely a by-product: the important thing was to convey the complexities and predicaments of life. She remained convinced that the history through which she was living made it imperative to “study the processes of man’s spirit”, the better to prevent a repetition of the mess the world had gone through. When Adler, who had become a close friend, died during a speaking tour of Britain arranged by Dennis, Bottome wrote his biography. Ever afterwards, she used his theories to explain the madness she felt had overtaken the world. Fascism, and later racism, were both, she believed, forms of insanity; visiting South Africa, she spoke of the “Nazi tendency of the whites”.

People, she wrote again and again, needed to move away from egotism and towards socially minded goals.

Though marked by poor health, Bottome’s last years were not unhappy. She and Dennis travelled to places where pupils and friends had settled. They spent holidays with Ian Fleming in Goldeneye, his house in Jamaica (once memorably dubbed Golden Eye, Nose and Throat by Noel Coward, who said it was as uncomfortable as a hospital). She never lost her conviction that education, in the broadest sense, was the key to transforming society and she was constantly pleased and surprised to find that younger writers continued to admire her. Her three volumes of autobiography brought good reviews and warm letters. She was at work on a new novel when she had the heart attack that killed her.

The Constant Liberal is impeccably researched and straddles that awkward line between general biography and a work of academia. There are nearly a hundred pages of notes and biographical references, and the plots of many of her books are exhaustively spelt out. The result is to cast Bottome more as a social commentator than to celebrate her as a gifted and entertaining novelist, with a keen eye for the turmoils in relationships, and a real talent for conjuring up political backgrounds. At her best, she was indeed a page-turner. If The Constant Liberal suggests a certain worthiness, it should nonetheless serve to bring Bottome back to public attention. Like Barbara Pym, she is a writer who should not be forgotten.

Pam Hirsch
The life and work of Phyllis Bottome
296pp. Quartet. £25.
978 0 7043 7160 6

Caroline Moorehead’s most recent books are Human Cargo: A journey among refugees, 2005, and Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution, 2009.

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