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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

If ever a woman lived by her own rules for her own purposes, Phyllis Bottome, The Constant Liberal, was one. There is a dichotomy evident in her equal determination to do something about injustice and inequity wherever she saw it. Imagine a family that would today be called dysfunctional mostly because of the self-absorbed and seemingly callous mother who vastly preferred her sister, and a father who was the stereotypical (to American sensibilities), distant pater familias of the English middle class, as the breeding ground for an extraordinarily independent mind.

THE CONSTANT LIBERAL: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome
By Pam Hirsch 
Published by Quartet Books Ltd., hardcover, 458 pp; ©© 2010

 
Reviewed by Joan L. Cannon

It's hard to believe after reading this detailed, sympathetic story that its subject seems to be hardly known today. She was famous and highly esteemed, especially in the United States, as a novelist before her success reached England.

The Constant Liberal is worth reading on several levels. Phyllis Bottome was born in 1882 and died in 1963. The period between two World Wars and after WWII was an era of enormous cultural upheaval, and Phyllis Bottome was in the thick of it all. She was ahead of her time as a woman whose activities were meant to be constrained by her class, and a person of enormous determination and dedication to what and whom she valued.
 
Imagine a family that would today be called dysfunctional mostly because of the self-absorbed and seemingly callous mother who vastly preferred her sister, and a father who was the stereotypical (to American sensibilities), distant pater familias of the English middle class, as the breeding ground for an extraordinarily independent mind. Add to the non-nurturing surroundings a protracted battle with tuberculosis and the nearly medieval accepted treatments of the early 20th Century, and no one could read this narrative without developing admiration for its subject.
 
Phyllis was early aware of the fracture in her family represented by her paternal grandmother in America. Margaret Macdonald Bottome was the wife of a liberal-minded Methodist pastor with a "noble commitment to community." Biographer Hirsch quotes an acquaintance who said she left her mark wherever she went. Her granddaughter clearly followed in her footsteps, partly thanks to several early years living in New York, where she got to know her grandmother.
 
Hirsch has made extensive use of primary sources, which lends unquestionable authenticity to the entire project. It is part of the fascination of biography to reveal believable emotional and psychological insights for the reader. In Phyllis Bottom's case, it’s interesting to witness her ability to cause friction and even embarrassment among her relatives and peers alike. If ever a woman lived by her own rules for her own purposes, Phyllis was one. There is a dichotomy evident in her equal determination to do something about injustice and inequity wherever she saw it.
 
Early on she was a champion of the lower orders of the rigidly class-dependent society into which she had been born, even for a time calling herself a Communist. Her intelligence made it impossible for her to ignore the threats inherent in that line of thought. The liberalism however remained, while her analytical capacities enlarged.
 
If she had not been a prolific and skillful writer, she would have had too little income to live decently. In her youth and later, ladies did not earn money without sacrificing social status. Phyllis wrote and never stopped, especially novels. Over fifty titles and a protest pamphlet called "J'accuse" are named in the useful time line at the end of the book. It is ironic that her novels sold better and were better known in America than in England until well after World War I. Her best-known work The Mortal Storm was made into a memorable film starring James Stewart, followed by two more movies made from her novels. [The Mortal Storm was being shown on American television in mid-August of 2010.] Collections of short stories were published as well.
  
She met the two people who were closest to her in St. Moritz, where accommodations supposed to provide hope for a cure for "the white death" were available for a range of prices. There, in pretty uncomfortable circumstances, she met a friend she called Lislie, with whom she could actually converse about subjects she found compelling and whose sympathetic responses endeared her. At the time, Phyllis was twenty-one. Remember that at the time nearly all victims of tuberculosis died within fifteen years of the diagnosis, and Phyllis had been ill for several years before this. The friendship lasted until Lislie's death.
 
By that time Phyllis had already seen her first (albeit adolescent) love fall before the greater beauty of her sister. Young and already embittered, she distrusted herself as an object of admiration to any man, especially after a fruitless relationship with a young curate a few years later. She was about to experience a dramatic change, however, when in her second year at St. Moritz, she met Ernan Forbes Dennis. Fortunately for them, their doctors had ordered long walks, and that was how they met.

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