In 2010 Quartet Books published The Constant Liberal: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome by Dr. Pam Hirsch, a lecturer in English Literature and film history at the university of Cambridge and a fellow of Newham College.
Phyllis Bottome was a best-selling writer in her day, but like many other non-modernist writers, she has been allowed to fade, unjustly, into obscurity. Yet her ability to write page-turning plots was combined with ardent social and political commitment, and a ground-breaking psychological approach to creating unforgettable characters. Her work does not date.
Pam Hirsch describes Bottome’s bleak youth in England and America, dominated by her overbearing mother. The young writer’s suffering from tuberculosis ironically helped free her, when she travelled alone to the mountains of St Moritz in the hope of a cure. There, Phyllis met her future husband, Ernan Forbes Dennis, whose job in military intelligence would give her a unique insight into the countries where she lived.
No other twentieth-century British woman writer lived for so many years abroad. She had an intimate understanding of Switzerland, Italy, France, Austria, Germany, America and Jamaica. Her novels illuminate tumultuous events in the twentieth century, including the First World War, the rise of Nazism, the Second World War and the end of the empire. A complex mix of friendships and love interests would include some of the most brilliant people of her age: Ezra Pound, Ivor Novello, Ian Fleming (who Phyllis Bottome taught to write), Max Beerbohm, Dorothy Thompson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Adler.
Her most famous novel, The Mortal Storm, desperately tried to alert Britain to the plight of the Jews in pre-war Germany. In 1940, it was turned into a blockbuster Hollywood film starring James Stewart, and is credited with helping to change the isolationist stance of America. Later she dedicated her activism towards victims of colonial injustice and racism. Her best novels and short stories spring closely from her extraordinary experiences, and this biography reveals a clear picture of her turbulent personal life, as well as offering a detailed analysis of Phyllis Bottome’s most important works.
A BBC Radio 4 documentary aired last Saturday cast a fascinating light on the early days of Ian Fleming and his most famous creation, James Bond. Its presenter, news quiz host Miles Jupp explains more:
‘James Bond has gripped our national imagination since he emerged from the scent and smoke and sweat of a French casino at 3 in the morning in 1953’s Casino Royale. The 30-something British agent with the lock of dark hair, the cruelly winning way with the ladies and the license to kill has become one of Britain’s most iconic fictional creations, and thanks to a multi-million pound film franchise, one of our most successful cultural exports. But was James Bond invented, not by Ian Fleming not a lady novelist with a shock of white hair and the remarkable name Phyllis Bottome? That’s the extraordinary claim I explored in a documentary in a documentary for Radio 4 titled ‘The Woman Who Invented James Bond?’
Phyllis Bottome is not much remembered now, but she was a widely respected and prolific author in the early 21st century. She published her first novel at the age of 20 and kept at it, producing well-reviewed books every year or two for more than half a century.
The Constant Liberal by Pam Hirsch is still in print, why not hurry and order a copy now? At £25 it is a comprehensive biography of the mysterious, prolific novelist Phyllis Bottome.