I continue my exploration of Phyllis Bottome’s work with the book that she’s known for best – The Mortal Storm – which was turned into a film starring James Stewart in 1940, and supposedly was the first MGM production to openly criticise the Nazis (according to Pam Hirsch’s biography of Bottome).
Let me say this right away, stylistically the book was pretty bad: characters were endlessly delivering monologues about political philosophy and this was supposed to be understood as “dialogue”. It was grating. It was repetitive. It was so obviously driving an agenda that it was just painful to read.
The book was published in 1937, just one year after Murder in the Bud, which suffered from similar issues with the dialogue and which was just hilariously bad.
And yet, I would gladly recommend The Mortal Storm. On some level, I would even say that it is an important book that records first-hand an era in history that is now so often used as a backdrop for historical fiction.
Bottome was a daring author. She and her husband travelled a lot, but they lived in Munich in the early 1930s. They frequented the same cafes as rising Nazi figure heads, including Hitler. They witnessed first-hand how the regime infiltrated society.
By May 1933, Bottome and her husband felt they could no longer safely stay in Munich.
The rise of Nazism and the expulsion from society of anyone who opposed the new regime is at the heart of The Mortal Storm. It may have taken Bottome another four years to write the book, but she had involved herself in efforts to warn people in Europe and America about the dangers of the Nazis. Given how its narration drums on about the wickedness and lack of reason of the new regime, it is easy to imagine that The Mortal Storm may have been written as a moral piece, a teaching aid, something that may reach an unassuming reader in simple terms.
The Mortal Storm is a book with a definite agenda – to warn about the rise of politicians that pander to popular fears. I applaud Bottome for her efforts in this.
And still, there is much more to love in this book.
The book’s main character is a young woman, Freya, who is a year away from becoming a medical doctor. Her father is Jewish, her mother and step-brothers are not. In fact, her step-brothers are fully signed up party members. This causes a lot of friction between the characters but also leads to some interesting developments throughout the book.
The book actually starts with a jarring scene, where Freya seeks to spend her birthday skiing and takes a trip to a nearby mountain slope. On the way, she witnesses a group of desperate peasants try to kill a rabbit for food and she intervenes to save the creature. The men turn on her and threaten to assault her.
It’s a startling start to the story, and not one that I remember seeing described to graphically in other books of the same time.
Freya is rescued by a young man, also a peasant, who is of a very modern outlook, believes in equality of social classes, does not believe that women are the inferior/weaker sex, and calls himself a communist.
Again, the writing is not great here and we learn a lot about the characters through mostly info-dumps, but my point is that it is utterly brilliant to reads of mindsets that are so incredibly liberal in a book written in 1937. 1937!
It is not just the whole treatment of violence against women here that is astounding either. Bottome weaves in several sub-plots about militarism, about feminism, about people committing crimes and having the capacity to change their outlook, about people finding a kind of strength to stand up for something.
Bottome also calls out the Nazis as cowards. There are two important scenes in the book that clearly describe what is going on right in public view: the first event is that opponents of the regime, Jews, communists, others…disappear and die. Freya’s father disappears as a prisoner and later dies, which causes the rest of the family to consider emigration.
The second scene describes how the young man, Hans, who rescued Freya at the start is being hunted by one of her brothers and her former fiancee, both of whom are enlisted to guard the border to Austria. Hans manages to cross the border but is shot, even though neither of the guard had any right/jurisdiction to do this.
Again, let us not forget that this was written in 1937, at a time when Appeasement was still something that people considered an option.
That’s pretty daring. Books have been burned for less, people died for less.
Incidentally, the book ends on a quietly hopeful note, but reading this with the benefit of knowing what happened post-1937, the tragedy of the story stands out as more than just the fate of a handful of fictional characters.