The Spectator review of The Constant Liberal

The Spectator
Charlotte Moore
26 June 2010

Why haven’t we heard of Phyllis Bottome? In her 60-year career she published 33 novels, several of them bestsellers, short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs. She lectured widely in Britain and America. She was translated into nine languages. Her 1937 novel The Mortal Storm predicted the horrific consequences of Fascism. MGM made a film of it, starring James Stewart — the studio’s first openly anti-Nazi film. It premiered in America in 1940, just as Hitler’s troops entered Paris, and was arguably influential in persuading the US to abandon its isolationist stance.

Phyllis (I really can’t call her ‘Bottome’) was a heroic figure. The BBC news, announcing her death in 1963, called her ‘the champion of the underprivileged and the misunderstood’. During the Great War she worked for the relief of Belgian refugees, as well as assisting John Buchan at the Department of Information. In Vienna in 1920, where her husband Ernan Forbes Dennis was a diplomat, she helped to procure food and medical supplies for the starving city. Later, in Britain, she was a tireless campaigner on behalf of Jewish refugees and an outspoken critic of appeasement. After the second war, living in Jamaica, she chronicled the dismantling of the empire and attacked what she called ‘the silliest and most arrogant of all human delusions — race superiority’.

The product of a dysfunctional Anglo-American family, Phyllis had an unstable childhood and a patchy education. The Bottomes were middle-class, but there was no financial cushion. Ernan, her beloved but restless and vacillating husband, went through periods of earning little or nothing; the couple relied on what Phyllis could make through writing. Her achievement is all the more remarkable given her lifetime of ill-health. Her demanding sister Wilmett died of tuberculosis in 1901, whereupon 19-year-old Phyllis developed the disease. She had disregarded the doctor’s order not to kiss her dying sister.

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