Sunday, 11 December 2016

Did Phyllis Bottome invent James Bond? The case against

The Lifeline, first edition
Ian Fleming's first adventure story was 'A Poor Man Escapes', which was written in 1927 while studying under Ernan Forbes Dennis and the novelist Phyllis Bottome at their 'finishing school' at the Tannerhof in Austria. There is no doubt that Phyllis Bottome encouraged the young Fleming to write the story, and it is quite possible that her influence extended to Fleming's later writing too. Just how influential she had been was the subject of a Radio 4 documentary. Critical, according to some, who argued that Bottome's 1946 novel, The Lifeline, was a James Bond novel in all but name.

The case that Ian Fleming had substantially based James Bond on the main character and events of Bottome's novel was championed by espionage writer Nigel West. He has form in the matter, having made the case in his 2009 book, Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming's World of Espionage. West was supported by critic and publisher Simon Winder, who's own book on James Bond, The Man who Saved Britain (2006), far from being a celebration of Fleming's creation, was an exercise in subtle denigration and damning with faint praise.

Casting a more cautious eye on the matter were Pam Hirsch, who wrote a biography of Phyllis Bottome called The Constant Liberal, and John Pearson, the biographer of both Ian Fleming and James Bond. 


So what were the principal arguments? The case for the prosecution, as it were, focused on two key points. The first was that the protagonist of The Lifeline, Mark Chalmers, is near-identical to James Bond. Describe Chalmers' appearance (slim, six-feet tall), attitudes (particularly towards women), philosophy, and pastimes (skiing, climbing) without mentioning his name, and anyone listening would think you were describing James Bond.

The second point concerned the events at the end of Bottome's novel. Chalmers, who has been on a secret mission in Austria gathering Nazi secrets for British intelligence on the eve of the Second World War, is captured by the Gestapo, given a severe beating, saved in the nick of time, recuperates in a hospital (actually a mental asylum where Chalmers has been resident as part of his cover), falls in love with a fellow agent (Ida Eichhorn) who has been caring for him and whom he initially disliked, and has a bedside discussion about his purpose and the nature of good and evil with a local contact (Father Martin).

Compare that to the end of Casino Royale, in which Bond is captured by a SMERSH agent, given a severe beating, saved in the nick of time, recuperates in a hospital, falls in love with a fellow agent (Vesper Lynd) who has been caring for him and whom he initially disliked, and has a bedside discussion about his purpose and the nature of good and evil with a local contact (René Mathis).

Of the two arguments, the second is strongest, yet even that only suggests that Fleming was inspired by one specific element of Bottome's book (apparently Bottome sent Fleming all her books, and it is highly likely that he had read The Lifeline before writing Casino Royale). Claiming that Bottome had invented James Bond and that, as was hinted at in the programme, a case of plagiarism could be made against Fleming, is rather more of a leap, and to me is without foundation.  


Other points raised by Nigel West are minor and easily dismissed. The spy chief in The Lifeline is called B; Ian Fleming called his M. And Somerset Maugham's spy chief is R and the real one is C. Isn't it more plausible that the naming of M simply follows a convention well established in spy fiction (and reality), rather than the style of a single book? West also suggests that, like Mark Chalmers, Bond can climb like a mountain goat. In the films maybe, but evidence for this in the books, certainly Casino Royale, is lacking.

One obvious difficulty, apart from the fact that Ian Fleming first had the idea for 'the spy story to end all spy stories' during the war and before The Lifeline was published, is that The Lifeline and Casino Royale simply do not compare stylistically. Having read The Lifeline, I can confirm that it reads more like a John Buchan novel than a Fleming novel. It contains long philosophical passages and monologues, and has none of the pace and spare prose of Casino Royale. If Ian Fleming used The Lifeline as a model, then he failed miserably to follow it.

Another problem is that the events depicted in Casino Royale, except those at the end, do not mirror the events of The Lifeline whatsoever. In fact, James Bond would not feature in an Alpine-set adventure until On Her Majesty's Secret Service, published 10 years after Casino Royale. And Fleming's only story set in Austria, 'Octopussy', has Bond in a peripheral role – in Jamaica.

True, the character of Mark Chalmers is similar to Bond, but then again, so too is Ian Fleming; there is no dispute that Fleming gave Bond many of his own traits. It is worth pointing out as well (not mentioned in the documentary) that Ian Fleming acknowledged that the events of Casino Royale were based on his own experiences in the casino of Estoril in Portugal. Nigel West makes the supplementary case that Mark Chalmers was based on Ian Fleming, but this has the whiff of a circular argument. James Bond was inspired by Mark Chalmers who was inspired by Ian Fleming who provided the inspiration for James Bond. Why have a middle man at all? It seems to me that there is little need to invoke Mark Chalmers as the catalyst for James Bond when Ian Fleming's own life accounts for many of the details.

Something else that the programme didn't mention was that Ian Fleming was a literary magpie. He read widely, was in awe of certain writers (among them Raymond Chandler and Somerset Maugham), wrote fulsome reviews and bought copies of his favourite books for all his friends. Inevitably, aspects of the books he enjoyed crept into his own work. Indeed, this blog is about the things that inspired Fleming, and identifies the ideas or memes that the Bond novels share with the works of one novelist or another. Most recently, for example, I pointed out similarities between John Buchan's novel, The Three Hostages, and Moonraker, and I have made the case that the Bond novels are a British form of American hard-boiled thriller. This doesn't mean, however, that John Buchan or Raymond Chandler invented James Bond.

James Bond could not have been created unless The Lifeline and other books like it had not existed, just as the work of John le CarrĂ© and Len Deighton – the antitheses of Bond – could not have existed without Bond. Culture is created by taking or passing on, building on, and transforming ideas that already exist in the cultural environment. It lives or dies by being replicated (in the case of Bond books by being read and reprinted), exploiting a cultural niche (no one wrote quite the sort of books that Fleming wrote and the public was ready for it), and adapting to changing conditions (being made into Bond films).

So, did Phyllis Bottome invent James Bond? Not in my view, although I accept that Fleming recreated the ending of The Lifeline in Casino Royale. On balance, I'm with Pam Hirsch when she says that Bottome invented Ian Fleming as a writer. Still, I enjoyed the programme, and the fact that such a debate is the subject of a BBC documentary is testament to the continued success and cultural relevance of Ian Fleming's creation.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for succinctly putting this issue to bed, and for your equally succinct description of Winder's pernicious book: "an exercise in subtle denigration and damning with faint praise" sums it up exactly.

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    1. Yes, an Bond expert he may be, but a fan, it seems not. I'd put Sean Egan in the same category. He wrote James Bond: A Secret History, which is similar in tone to Winder's book.

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