Did Fleming steal JB from novelist Phyllis Bottome?
Posted 10 January 2017 - 12:38 AM
Did a woman inspire Ian Fleming's James Bond?
8 December 2016
The author of Bottome's biography says the young Ian Fleming was "deeply troubled"
A BBC Radio 4 documentary to be aired this week casts a fascinating light on the early days of Ian Fleming and his most famous creation, James Bond. Its presenter, News Quiz host Miles Jupp, explains more.
James Bond has gripped our national imagination since he emerged from the scent and smoke and sweat of a French casino at three in the morning in 1953's Casino Royale.
The 30-something British agent with the lock of dark hair, the cruelly winning way with the ladies and the licence to kill has become one of Britain's most iconic fictional creations - and, thanks to a multi-million pound film franchise, one of our most successful cultural exports.
But was James Bond invented not by Ian Fleming, but by a lady novelist with a shock of white hair and the remarkable name Phyllis Bottome?
That's the extraordinary claim I explore in a documentary for Radio 4 titled The Woman Who Invented James Bond?
A fictional spy called Mark Chalmers may have provided the template for James Bond
Phyllis Bottome is not much remembered now, but she was a widely respected and prolific author in the early 20th Century.
She published her first novel aged just 20 and kept at it, producing well-reviewed books every year or two for more than half a century.
Her most famous novel, The Mortal Storm, was an attempt to wake British readers to the desperate plight of Jews in Germany. Published in 1938, it became a Hollywood film starring James Stewart two years later.
In 1946, Bottome published a novel called The Life Line. The spy writer Nigel West believes it is nothing less than a smoking gun.
"In 1946, Phyllis Bottome writes a James Bond book," West says. "He's not called James Bond, he's called Mark Chalmers, but he has every characteristic of James Bond."
Chalmers, the hero of Bottome's novel, is a 36-year-old, dark-haired master at Eton who is signed up to work for British intelligence by a friend, Reggie, who works at the Foreign Office.
After a meeting with "B", the head of British Intelligence, he is despatched to the continent with a mission to communicate with a British sleeper agent and a suicide pill in case it all goes wrong.
Chalmers is a keen aficionado of mountain sports, enthusiastic about fine food and wine and has an eye for a pretty girl. He also speaks fluent French and German.
Seven years later, the world would be introduced to a character named James Bond.
He's in his late thirties. He is sent to the continent after a meeting with "M", the head of British intelligence.
He is a keen aficionado of mountain sports, enthusiastic about fine food and wine and has an eye for a pretty girl. He also speaks fluent French and German.
There's nothing necessarily sinister about two books appearing some years apart with similar characters and themes.
But Fleming knew Phyllis Bottome. Indeed, the summer after The Life Line was published, Bottome and her husband Ernan Forbes Dennis holidayed in Goldeneye, Fleming's Jamaican villa.
The connection between Fleming and the Forbes Dennises went back to 1926 when Fleming was sent to Austria in some disgrace.
There he was enrolled in the Tannerhof, a school Phyllis and her husband ran in the Austrian Alps.
Fleming learned to ski, speak French and also, with Phyllis's encouragement, wrote his first short story.
Bottome's husband had been a spy and served as SIS station chief in Marseilles. It was an intoxicating atmosphere for the young Fleming.
"The Forbes Dennises were hugely important for Ian's development," says John Pearson, Fleming's biographer.
"As he said himself, without Phyllis and Ernan he would never have been able to get going and do his thing."
In a letter to the Sunday Times in 1962, Fleming generously acknowledged the positive influence that Phyllis Bottome and her husband had on him when he was a wayward youth.
But did his debt to Bottome go deeper than that? Did he take the idea for James Bond from his old mentor? It's a controversial thesis.
'Thief and victim'
Nigel West argues that the relationship between Fleming and Bottome is that of "thief and victim". But if so, the thief and victim seemed to remain on friendly terms until Phyllis's death in 1963.
Pam Hirsch, author of The Constant Liberal: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome, says the title of The Life Line was emblematic of her relationship with the young Fleming.
"Phyllis and her husband Ernan were a lifeline for a deeply troubled young man who might not have actually survived if he hadn't had all their care, their love, and their writerly attention as well."
Hirsch is reluctant to suggest Phyllis "invented James Bond". But she does say "she sort of invented Ian Fleming the writer".
Fleming's novels have sold millions of copies since 1953. Phyllis Bottome's The Life Line is not currently in print.
But could it have planted the seed that would flower into James Bond?
Documentary presenter Miles Jupp presents Radio 4's The News Quiz and has appeared in Rev
Posted 11 January 2017 - 08:07 PM
Took me a bit longer than I thought it would...
First of all, many thanks for presenting the case here in such detail, glidrose. Indeed, while having read about Bottome's work and influence I wasn't aware of this amount of detail. So there are some obvious - and indeed suspicious - details Bottome's hero shares with Fleming's. But so, I would argue, are there between Dennis Wheatley's Gregory Sallust and James Bond - with the added detail even that an important setting in From Russia With Love is almost a verbatim 'sample' from a Sallust adventure published ten years earlier. But certainly Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora could just as well claim a slice of the cake Fleming baked with 007. And must not Simon Templar have shed more than a drop of his DNA into the making of Bond, too? How about a certain Mike Hammer who dropped off the public radar for ten years, only to reappear in 1962 as a broken drunk after he supposedly lost the woman he loved, guilt-ridden because he blames himself for her death. Could this rather unique development for a protagonist of the he-man genre have gone unnoticed by Fleming?
It's been said already in the rebuttal Willman helpfully provided the link to, the fact that Bottome's version of M is called 'B' doesn't actually imply much, not if we look at Maugham's 'R'. And I truly think the influences of the above, which Fleming for the most part acknowledged happily, do not point to anything else but the fact he liked to read what he wrote himself. And surely he was influenced by it. But actual stealing, actual plagiarism...I think that's still a stretch.
Yes, of course there have been others before Fleming working the tropes and the turf and the elements of secret war and espionage. And their protagonists often are just that modern day mix of Maxim de Winter and Heathcliff Kingsley Amis described James Bond as. But this only proves that, like with many inventions, the time was simply ripe for this kind of hero. Fleming hit the right buttons at the right time. And he had the great luck of Hollywood looking out for fresh stuff to put on their screens, which doubtlessly influenced Fleming at least as much as the thrillers he read.
But almost more important - to me - than the supposed plagiarism is the prominent verdict that Ian Fleming was 'a deeply troubled young man...'. I would even go as far as calling him troubled for the best part of his life, not just his youth.
In the run-up to Fleming's 100th birthday - and in countless articles before and after - much has been made of the similarities between Bond and Fleming, how much they were alike, how debonair and refined and upperclass they both are, to the point of being next-to interchangeable. Frankly, I think this is for a large part misreading Fleming and misunderstanding his background. I feel it would be much more to the point to call Bond the man Fleming wanted to be - without ever daring to. Bond's was the life Fleming dreamed of leading.
The young boy Fleming grew up in wealth and luxury, but also in complicated circumstances due to the early loss of his father. At once he lost an important role model, replaced by the near untouchable figure of a public war hero. Not a figure a boy could ever pit his own will and his own growing character up against. The next male figure of comparison, his older brother Peter, remained for long years an unbeatable contender and apparently often the source of bitter resentment since Peter succeeded in so many fields before Ian could even start putting his mark on them.
Add to this the demands of a mother who was only too aware of the family's status as 'nouveau riche' (Fleming's grandfather was the one to earn the wealth, he supposedly started out as a clerk) and consequently put thick layers of her own brand of snobbism and 'England expects' onto the boys. With the result that, whatever Ian touched, was always just that little bit below what was acceptable in her eyes; left from Eton early, left from Sandhurst in disgrace and without commission, passed the Foreign Office examination but wasn't offered a job. His various love affairs were often regarded by his mother as either not fitting or, worse, even responsible for his other career failures, thereby ending more than one hopeful relationship on the cliff of her chagrin.
And the things Fleming really excelled at, journalism and writing, were seen more as a pastime than a respectable ambition for his position. This in turn seems to have given Fleming a constant feeling of being inadequate, not just in his mother's eyes but also his own. And it would seem this persisted, in spite of early attempts at psychotherapy, long after he was already a famous and lauded writer in his own right, surpassing his brother in every respect.
'Troubled' in this context seems to put it mildly.