No Time Like the Present: Margaret Storm Jameson

As PEN celebrates its 90th Anniversary, we gathered at the Free Word Centre to hear about one of the organization’s former Presidents; a writer who helped make PEN what it is today. Margaret Storm Jameson was the first female President of English PEN, and acted as President from 1938 to 1944, some of the most tumultuous and important years in PEN’s history. A novelist, campaigner, suffragette and pacifist, Storm Jameson argued for literature as a tool in post-war reconstruction, and devoted an immense amount of energy and time to campaigning, raising funds and awareness and helping threatened writers escape Nazi Germany. An extraordinary woman who is sadly widely unknown nowadays, this talk gave a valuable insight into Storm Jameson’s commitment, compassion and humour – qualities which enabled her to play an important and lasting role in shaping PEN’s development and legacy. She showed us what writers can do to combat injustice and tyranny, and engage with the great social and political issues of their day. As well as tirelessly campaigning and fundraising, Storm Jameson also found time to write 40 novels.

Dr Jennifer Birkett, Chair of French Studies at Birmingham University and author of the highly regarded biography Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life, displayed some fascinating images allowing a real glimpse into Storm Jameson’s life and the time she lived in. We see her first becoming a member of PEN in 1924, starring in a series of cigarettes cards featuring up-and-coming female writers, sitting with her son in the early 1930s, in a business suit during the war years and in Virago publicity photos released when her novels were reissued in the 1980s. Birkett highlighted three of Storm Jameson’s key attributes: her great sense of humour, incredible energy and enthusiasm, and her straight-forward Yorkshire woman’s practical mindedness. These qualities helped her to succeed as PEN’s first female President and rally people to her cause, at a time when several PEN members outspokenly voiced the opinion that a female president could only be a bad idea.

Dr Lara Feigel, lecturer in English at King’s College, then explored in what sense English PEN as it exists now was most influenced by Storm Jameson. While previous presidents such as Galsworthy and Wells had been committed to an apolitical outlook for PEN, Storm Jameson moved PEN more towards a readiness to intervene politically. Initially an ardent pacifist, Storm Jameson came to abandon her own pacifism, and felt PEN should become explicitly political. Very important to Storm Jameson and to PEN’s work in our own times was the idea that literature should have no borders and that a ‘language of men who respect each other’ should unite people and transcend national boundaries. A large part of Storm Jameson’s work was dedicated to helping refugees and letting them know that support networks existed outside their national lives and could help them. In 1940, Germany’s invasion of France was the deciding factor in persuading Storm Jameson to abandon her pacifism. She convinced PEN to publish an ‘Appeal to the Conscience of the World’, sent out to all Allied countries and PEN centres across the world. The appeal critiqued those in Britain who had failed to prevent violence and killings, and asked those with the liberty to do so to speak and think about this state of affairs.  It urged respect for the enemy alongside defense of freedom of speech and the free movement of ideas, and told writers “to repeat, if necessary to die repeating, that any word, any act, any treaty which debases the dignity and freedom of the common man is evil and to be rejected.” Storm Jameson strongly advocated fighting for freedom of conscience and intellect, and specifically fighting against the Nazis and all they stood for.

Storm Jameson’s political stance intensified – at PEN’s 1941 Conference she insisted that the writer had a duty to be political, and must make a stand against injustice and violence. He/she can’t ignore a crisis which could lead to millions of deaths, and for a writer to think of themselves as separate from the world would be purely indulgent. Yet she also felt writing should be free of preaching and didacticism – a delicate balance which she successfully strikes in some of her novels.

Juliet Gardiner, acclaimed biographer and author of The Thirties: An Intimate History of Britain, then explored how Storm Jameson’s life in the 1930s exemplified the moral and intellectual tensions of the period. The conflicts Storm Jameson came to experience epitomized the pacifist movement itself; a movement she once described as ‘throwing sand into the wind’. While British society was ‘anti-war’ as a whole, this sentiment covered a huge spectrum of opinion, and certainly did not equate to pacifism. A similar situation existed regarding the League of Nations – while people generally agreed with the principle of collective security, there was a massive discrepancy in opinion on the extent to which intervention should occur. There were also great differences in the motivations behind pacifism and in what people believed pacifism meant, for example between Christian pacifists and non-Christian pacifists. There was certainly a large amount of pacifist public opinion – in 1936 Reverend Dick Shepherd’s ‘Peace Pledge’ received 130,000 pledges when the socialist minded clergyman asked men to send him a postcard saying they would not consider fighting. Yet, the problem of how to convert public opinion into government policy was a major one, and caused great agony and anguish to campaigners such as Storm Jameson.

Storm Jameson was an incredibly compassionate campaigner – she really felt her causes deeply, and had a great concern for people and what happens to them in the face of war, displacement and terror. Her values shaped PEN as it exists today – its work to develop links between writers beyond national boundaries, focusing on literature as central to global culture, and commitment to fighting for freedom of expression. The questions Storm Jameson grappled with continue to stir debate and remain relevant to PEN’s cause in the twenty-first century:  how political can or should organizations such as PEN be, what is the most effective way to effect change, and what are the writer’s responsibilities in times of war and injustice?

Report by Katie Reeves

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