Iris on Books review of The Constant Liberal

Iris on Books
August 5, 2010
The Constant Liberal: Phyllis Bottome – Pam Hirsch
Quartet Books, 2010
The Constant Liberal is a biography of Phyllis Bottome. Bottome lived from 1882 to 1972 and was an author of novels and longshorts. She is not as well-known as some authors from her times, , mostly because she wasn’t a modernist. This book is in part an attempt to make readers more aware of Bottome’s work:

“At last, there is an emerging canon of twentieth-century women writers whose work, like that of Phyllis Bottome, had been assigned to a space outside literary modernism. In the rescue operation, an umbrella term of ‘middlebrow writers’ has been utilized, a knowing ironic strategy, for this was the term of abuse employed by Virginia Woolf to describe non-Bloomsbury writers. I regard this biography as part of this important salvage work.”

Pam Hirsch continues by placing this biography in line with Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 and Beauman’s initiative Persephone Books: the rediscovery of forgotten woman writers.
There is, however, more to Bottome’s story that makes her life interesting. She wasn’t only an author of novels, she was an activist. And she tried to raise awareness for several issues. First, class inequality and women’s rights are covered all through her oeuvre. She wasn’t part of the feminist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, but she did write about women and their possibilities throughout her life. When Hitler rose to power in Germany, Bottome tried to raise awareness of the danger of Hitler’s policies and especially his treatment of Jews. After WWII, Bottome started to question the idea of the British Empire and wrote a novel about Jamaica questioning race inequalities.
It is often hard to read a biography of an author of which you haven’t read any works yourself, but it worked out well in this case. I was willing to learn about an author who was unknown to me, but who seemed to have written about such important issues. I’m always interested in authors who work with themes of class, race and gender. And I was surprised by Bottome’s attention to all three of these themes, instead of focusing on just gender or class. And it was interesting to see her change her opinions, about homosexuality, but also about the British Empire. Because Phyllis Bottome was raised in Victorian times and died in the sixties, reading about her life means reading about the concerns of these different periods and consequently, you see Bottome changing some of her opinions throughout her life. Yet, she always continued to care about the major themes I mentioned before.
Not only did she live in different time periods, she also lived in different countries. Bottome was the daughter of an English mother and an American father and she lived in both these countries during her life. However, she also lived in Europe for long periods at a time. For example, she lived in Munich while Hitler rose to power, making her all the more aware of the danger that accompanied his ideas. And for long periods, she stayed in the Alps. Bottome suffered from tuberculosis and doctors advised her to spend her winters in the mountains. There she met her future husband, Ernan, as well as a few of her best friends.
At 360 pages, The Constant Liberal is a well-researched biography that pays attention to detail but is also a joy to read. Reading about her health-issues, her troubles in romance and her passionate contribution to the issues of class, race and gender made me care for Phyllis Bottome and her story. In my opinion, there is nothing more important in a biography than a combination of a well-researched story and the possibility to start to feel for the main character. It took 50 pages, but after that I had trouble putting the book down. I wanted to know what would happen to Phyllis Bottome. It almost felt like I was reading a novel instead of a biography. I also loved that there’s a timeline of Bottome’s life, many notes to the chapters and a thorough bibliography included. Pam Hirsch certainly accomplished her goal; Bottome is now definitely part of my reading list.
For those interested in reading anything by Phyllis Bottome, Old Wine and The Mortal Storm are said to be her best novels.
Note: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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