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A Woman Out of Time

In 1938, at the height of U.S. isolationism, Americans devoured Phyllis Bottome’s chronicle of a German-Jewish family’s struggle to survive under the Nazi regime

Andrea Crawford
July 31, 2007

Near the end of her life, the novelist Phyllis Bottome wrote of her good friend Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 had been the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature: “He has gone a little out of fashion now, as writers who make a road for the future often do, but in the history of American letters he will always have one of the highest places.”

More than forty years later, Lewis may remain rather out of fashion, but of the two friends whose novels were often side-by-side on best seller lists in the 1930s, his has remained a household name while Bottome has dropped into complete obscurity. Since her death in 1963, every title in her prodigious catalogue—34 novels, six volumes of short stories, nearly a dozen works of nonfiction—has fallen out of print. In her lifetime, however, the British author was a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. At the height of her fame the literary world so eagerly awaited her latest work that the arrival of the ship carrying the corrected proofs for the new novel merited mention in The New York Times.

That highly anticipated 1938 novel would prove her most famous and most controversial. The story of a half-Jewish family living in Munich during the Nazi party’s rise to power, The Mortal Storm was an instant success, going through 13 reprints in 10 months, and ranking as one of the year’s top sellers. In 1940, the film adaptation, starring Jimmy Stewart, Robert Young, and Margaret Sullavan, hit theaters to equal success.

A few years ago, Northwestern University Press reissued The Mortal Storm (along with Bottome’s 1923 novel Old Wine). While the novel can seem overly romantic and a bit dated—it has the specificity of a Hollywood film from the era rather than, say, the literary timelessness of works by her contemporaries Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf—it offers a fascinating historical document. What is most surprising in reading it today is not the accurate depiction of Nazi Germany in its earliest guise—including the murder of a main character while imprisoned in a concentration camp—but the fact that as early as 1938, at the height of U.S. isolationism and long before claims of ignorance about Nazi actions against the Jews, thousands of American readers were devouring this powerful story of a Jewish family’s struggle to survive.

While she was writing The Mortal Storm in the winter of 1935-36, Bottome found herself “a premature anti-Nazi, and as such highly unacceptable.” Having returned to England after several years in Austria and Germany, she was preparing naturalization papers for the United States, fearing that her country had “gone Fascist in its sleep.”

World War I and its aftermath had profoundly shaped Bottome’s life and offered her a keen perspective on what was in store for Europe. That war separated her from her youth, she believed. Born in England in 1882, her mother English, her father an American Anglican minister, she published her first novel at the age of 17—the same year she contracted tuberculosis while nursing her eldest sister, Wilmett, who was dying of the disease. For much of the next decade, Bottome stayed in sanitariums in Switzerland and Italy, where she made lifelong friends and gathered rich material for her fiction. On such a retreat she met A. Ernan Forbes Dennis, a young Scotsman to whom she became engaged until the strain of his recovery and her recurring illness caused them to break it off. Some years later, however, they reunited and, in 1917, with Forbes Dennis on leave from the war front, the then-35-year-old writer made the trip from London—where she had shopped for her wedding gown during one of the first air raids—to marry him in Paris.

After the war, Forbes Dennis took a job with Britain’s diplomatic service and the couple moved to Vienna, where they saw firsthand the postwar breakdown. As an official at the British consulate, her husband was “flooded under an ocean of Palestine immigrants, each one a separate tragedy and a crying need,” Bottome wrote. “There were only certain categories of Jews for whom he was allowed to issue visa passports; and what was to become of those to whom he could not give passports, in starving Austria?” The situation affected them both deeply.

In Vienna, Bottome also met the renowned psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who would have an enormous effect on her and serve as a model for the professor in The Mortal Storm. (His influence, The New York Times wrote in her obituary, “was responsible for much of the merit and some of the defects of her writing.”) Interested in Adler’s theory of individual psychology, Bottome and her husband became Adler’s students and friends. After his death in England in 1938, she returned to Vienna to secure his personal papers, managing to leave just three days before the Nazis entered the city.

In 1930 Bottome moved to Munich to study under one of Adler’s practitioners. She found the city not unlike the Vienna of ten years before. Three out of four houses were unoccupied, the shops empty. “I hope I shall never live to see such misery again as I saw that winter, when every half-hour some wraithlike shadow came to our door for the soup,” she wrote. Amid the poverty lay growing danger. “No one could live in Munich between 1930 and 1933 and be unaware of Hitler.”

That awareness would provide the real strength of The Mortal Storm. She was present as Hitler came to power and, she notes in her autobiography, “could write of the Nazis as [she] saw them, at first hand; and from an English point of view.” In 1932, she often sat just a few yards away from Hitler at Café Heck, where she and her group of psychology students regularly met for coffee and cake. “A small and insignificant figure in his brown uniform,” she recalled, “Hitler sat alone in the corner opposite to us, with his back to the wall. I never saw him at a table in the middle of the room…. We noticed that he never had a friend to share a meal or asked a comrade to sit down at his table with him.”

The protagonist of The Mortal Storm is Freya Roth, a medical student in Munich, who adores her father, an esteemed scientist who has just won a Nobel Prize. Freya and her younger brother, Rudi, are the children of their mother’s second marriage, to the Jewish professor; her older half-brothers, Emil and Olaf, are the products of Frau Roth’s first marriage, to a German aristocrat who died young. When the story begins in fall of 1932, Emil and Olaf have joined the Storm Troopers. Eager young members of the Nazi party, they are enthusiastic about rebuilding their nation after the ravages of the war, while full of love and admiration for their stepfather, who raised them as his own.

Skiing in the Alps with her brothers one weekend, Freya meets and falls in love with a young peasant named Hans—who happens to be a member of the communist party. Emil and Olaf set out on a quest to “save” her, wanting to protect their Jewish family members from the additional attention brought by a communist friend. First, they attack the young man in front of their home when he visits Freya. Then, on the night following the burning of the Reichstadt—which the Nazi party blamed on communists—Olaf orders him killed as he attempts to cross the border into Austria. While Freya mourns Hans’ death—unaware of her brother’s role in the murder and soon realizing she is pregnant—her father is taken to a concentration camp where he, too, is shot. In the end, Freya makes her own dangerous attempt to flee across the mountainous German border.

Bottome credited her publisher, Faber and Faber, for taking the chance and publishing The Mortal Storm, when, she notes, “it was dangerous to do so.” Under attack by some columnists, who called her “an insidious propagandist who, by inheritance half-American, could get under the skin of [her] audience and lead them to their doom,” she feared her novel’s reception. But the events of 1938—German annexation of first Austria, then Czechoslavakia; followed by Kristallnacht—increased interest in the book. When the film appeared in June 1940, however, it too brought charges of propaganda. Bosley Crowther, reviewing it in The New York Times, wrote: “There is no use mincing words about it: The Mortal Storm falls definitely into the category of blistering anti-Nazi propaganda…. As propaganda, [it] is a trumpet call to resistance, but as theatrical entertainment it is grim and depressing today.” A year after its release, in September 1941, Gerald Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, called for a Senate subcommittee investigation into “Moving Picture Screen and Radio Propaganda,” citing a “fifth column” of “those who are naturally far more interested in the fate of their homelands than they are in the fortunes of the United States.” The committee was recessed when, in December, Japan attacked the United States. It never reconvened.

Bottome believed that the film “brilliantly retained” the “core and spirit” of her novel. Nevertheless, its storyline was a considerable departure from her novel: the communist subplot is erased; the word “Jew” never uttered. But Bottome’s only disappointment with the film was this: “What it is to be a Nazi has been shown with unequivocal sincerity and life-likeness, but in the scene between the Jewish professor and his son, Rudi, there was a watering down of courage. Those familiar with the father’s definition of a good Jew will miss its full significance in the film because the central idea has been overlaid by insignificant words,” she wrote in an article when the film came out.

The scene she refers to comes on Christmas Eve of 1932, as Rudi decorates the family tree. He asks what it means to be a Jew, and his father responds: “My boy, to be a Jew is to belong to an old harmless race that has lived in every country in the world; and that has enriched every country it has lived in. It is to be strong with a strength that has outlived persecutions. It is to be wise against ignorance, honest against piracy, harmless against evil, industrious against idleness, kind against cruelty! It is to belong to a race that has given Europe its religion; its moral law; and much of its science—perhaps even of its genius—in art, literature, and music. This is to be a Jew; and you know now what is required of you! You have no country but the world; and you inherit nothing but wisdom and brotherhood.”

If Bottome’s prose—like her popularity—did not stand the test of time, her forward-looking narrative themes—antifacism, human rights, overt feminism—revealed through the lives of finely drawn, complicated, and compelling characters give her art its real power. Those gifts, compounded by her front-row seat in the last century’s most harrowing dramas, merit Bottome’s rediscovery.

But why was she forgotten in the first place? Because she didn’t fit neatly into convenient literary movements of the time? Or was she guilty of making a “road for the future,” as she said of Sinclair Lewis? Was she—as her friend Ezra Pound warned her early in her career—too burdened by family concerns to become a great artist? Or did her desire for social justice obfuscate her art?

Bottome’s friend Ethel Mayne, biographer of Lord Byron and fellow novelist, once said to her: “You and I are like St. Paul. We are born out of due time; we can’t belong to the Edwardians—we’re too truthful—and yet we aren’t callous enough to be modern! So we must just stay where we are!” There is perhaps some truth in Mayne’s assessment, though Bottome heartily disagreed. She was, if nothing else, born to comment on the woes and foibles of her time.