Lost and Found

In the library where I used to work I came across the novels and stories of Phyllis Bottome while taking part in a weeding project. The sad truth is that libraries regularly cull their collections, discarding outdated volumes to make room for new material that is in demand. Personally, I have a problem with throwing a book away—any book—even if nobody’s signed it out since 1950, and my contribution to the weeding process was not as substantial as it might have been if I’d allowed myself to be ruthless. Mostly, I was sidetracked by what I discovered on the shelves: row after row of novels and story collections by writers I had never heard of. (I had always thought my education was comprehensive. How could I not know who these people were?) Some of the volumes had about them an acid pungency reminiscent of books found in a trunk in an overheated attic, a quality that discourages close inspection. But most were near-pristine examples of the 20th-century hardbound book in America and the UK. I wanted to read them all.

Phyllis Bottome at age 18

Phyllis Bottome caught my eye for no other reason than the immensity of her output (her books fill almost three shelves). I later learned that during her lifetime (1882-1963) she published nearly fifty books, predominantly novels, but also story collections, travelogues, collections of essays, and volumes of biography and autobiography. Her 1916 novel The Dark Tower was a best-seller in the US, and The Mortal Storm, her novel of the impending European crisis published in 1937, was made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

 

Bottome was born in Rochester, County Kent, England, to an American clergyman father and an English mother of aristocratic lineage. She had two older sisters and a younger brother. The family moved a number of times while she was still young, settling in New York with her father’s relatives in 1890. However, by 1896 they were back in England.

At an early age Bottome developed an acute social awareness. She published her first book, a novel (“a modern story of social conditions”— NYTimes advertisement dated Oct. 18, 1902), when she was barely twenty. Working with the poor of her father’s Bournemouth parish, she sympathized with the plight of children forced to labor in factories. Later, she and her husband, a World War I veteran, traveled widely in Europe, where Bottome worked to assist those left homeless after the collapse of the Austrian Empire. During the 1930s she witnessed the flood of refugees escaping the Nazi reign of terror (she and her husband fled Vienna just days before the Nazi invasion). It is not surprising that a preoccupation with social, political and domestic injustice dominates her fiction.

If there is a common thread running through Phyllis Bottome’s novels, it is that her female protagonists are intelligent, independent and strong-willed. If they are impulsive, the impulsiveness results from courage and a high sense of mission. A typical example is Ida Eichhorn in the 1946 novel The Life Line. Set in 1938, this novel follows the adventures of Mark Chambers, an Eton master, fluent in German, who is recruited by a friend in the Foreign Office to deliver a message to a man in Innsbruck. Mark regularly vacations in the mountainous Tyrol region of Austria, where he indulges his passion for climbing. He resents the Nazi occupation, but only to the extent that it interferes with his enjoyment of the people and the countryside. Initially, Mark strikes us as selfish and privileged—a typical spoiled upper-crust Brit. He wants to deliver the message and get on with his vacation. However, despite a great many misgivings, he finds himself drawn into the Austrian anti-Nazi underground. (It is a point of pride. He abhors the insinuation of the man to whom he delivers his friend’s message that he is shirking a larger moral duty by ignoring the plight of the Austrians.) Mark meets a group of people engaged in the resistance, Ida among them. And though he acknowledges the sharpness of her mind, he instantly dislikes her: “The question her cold speculative eyes demanded was simply whether Mark could be useful or not.”

The mission he has taken on eventually requires that, in order to hide from the Nazis, he pose as a mental patient in the institution where Ida is a doctor. The pervasive evil clouding their everyday existence drives them together, and Mark comes to admire Ida for her nerve, her ingenuity and the valor with which she carries out a final harrowing treatment on her patients. Before he returns to England bearing vital information, they marry. For Mark it has been a learning experience and a chance to grow. Thanks to Ida he emerges from the novel a more complete human being.

In an age of narrative experimentation, Bottome’s prose style remained steadfastly traditional. This no doubt contributed to her success during her lifetime (on April 7, 1946 The Life Line shared space on the New York Times best-seller list with Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber). Yet it probably also explains why she is unknown today: The Mortal Storm is the only one of her titles currently in print (Northwestern University Press).

Phyllis Bottome was not an innovator, but she is a prime example of a born storyteller who carries the reader along on the strength of her convictions and the primal energy of her narratives. She is romantic, sometimes excessively so, but her work is neither sentimental nor comforting. Occasionally didactic, she writes with an urgency we rarely see today. She gives us beauty in abundance but does not shy away from what is brutal, degrading and ugly in human experience. A contemporary reviewer writing in the Saturday Review of Literature described The Life Line as a “tense and somber narration … tightly and articulately written.” It is just one of her many works in which a modern audience would find much to admire.