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A few Remarks on Amy Dawson-Scott, Founder of International PEN

Talk given by Marjorie-Ann Watts

London, c. 2011

Marjorie-Ann Watts is the granddaughter of the founder of PEN International, Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, and the daughter of the first Secretary of PEN, Marjorie Watts.  After studying painting and illustration in the 1940s , she worked for a time as an Art editor and typographer, then started as a book illustrator before writing and illustrating her own books for children. In 2000,  she switched to adult fiction and has published a number of books including a Collection of short stories, a memoir of a wartime childhood in London and a Young Person’s Guide to European Painting. She has just completed another ‘Collection of Short Stories’.

Amongst her friends my grandmother was known as Sappho. Why?

Amy Dawson-Scott was born in 1865, and grew up during the years of the early suffragette movement. As a lifelong feminist, she greatly admired the Sapphoof history, not for her sexual preferences, but for her example, her vital personality, her poetry and her establishment of ‘Women’s Rights’. Living on the island of Lesbos 2,6000 years ago, the historical Sappho had established a school for women, rights of ownership and inheritance for women, allowing them to manage their own homes, write poetry, and generally lead a liberated sort of life. And from the day her epic poem about ‘Sappho’ was published, this was what Amy was called by those who knew her well.

To me of course she was ‘Grandma’, a short, plump rather fierce person, as likely as not in a long red trailing tea gown, and very often with bare feet. You had to mind your p’s and q’s when she was around as, in spite of her forward thinking and eccentricity, she was an Edwardian when it came to children and manners. We saw her mostly in Cornwall, then a wild and unspoiled place to which she was passionately attached. And I have vivid childhood memories of her walking barefoot across the cliffs, collecting sea coal on the beach, her large grey bell tent pitched periodically in our garden – from which, when she was there, an orange might suddenly and unexpectedly bowl towards one across the grass. 

Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott was the eldest child of Ebenezer and Catharine Dawson – (the Scott was added when she married), a strict and unhappily married Methodist couple living in Sutton. Two boys followed Amy, both of whom died, then another girl, Nellie – four pregnancies in three years, after which – perhaps not surprisingly, Mrs Dawson turned to drink. Amy was a headstrong and articulate child, deeply at odds with her unhappy mother, and later told terrible – and thrilling – stories of being beaten or chased round the house with a bread knife by her drunken mother, or detailed by her father to search for the tell-tale ‘black bottle’ in her mother’s bedroom.

Her mother died, and Ebenezer remarried when Amy was eleven. The step mother was not much better than the mother, and disliked her disobedient, wayward atheist stepdaughter. She was sent to a small boarding school where she continued as an awkward and rebellious pupil, although popular with the other girls because of her story telling gifts.

At seventeen she was sent to a finishing school where she started to write verse, some of which she sent to Browning. Thrilled, she received a letter of encouragement. (One letter).

In 1884, her father had to be rescued from bankruptcy, and Amy found herself a job as a living in secretary-companion to an elderly blind classics Professor and his invalid daughter. He considered her only half educated, and taught her Greek, Latin and logic, and allowed her the run of his very extensive library. She read everything voraciously, and it was here that she came across the heroic figure of Sappho, about whomshe later wrote her epic poem. Going to London to try and place it, unsuccessfully at first, she then paid Kegan Paul all her savings to publish it. It got one good review. A month later the warehouse was burned down and, uninsured, her edition with it. Bang went her savings. But then she met William Heineman, her first real live publisherand they got on. He became one of her dearest friends.

In 1889, a year or two after the poem ‘Sappho’ was first published, Amy was earning enough for her sister Nellie, to join her in London. In Sutton, their parents, horrified by two young girls being led so dreadfully astray, had prayers said for them in their local church.

The nineties in London were an interesting and exciting time. She soon got involved in the suffrage movement and women’s rights, and also began to earn modest sums by writing: reviews, poems and short articles which helped to support her and Nellie. People such as HG Wells, WB Yeats, Israel Zangwill, ‘Miss Forster’ – (until she met him, she thought EM Forster was a maiden lady) – and a little older, Francis Thompson, GB Shaw, Oscar Wilde were all part of the London milieu she was moving in, and Heineman introduced her to many of them. She began to be noticed, and also to acquire real friends, some of whom lasted through to the founding of PEN and beyond.

In 1892 Heineman published her ‘Idylls of Womanhood’ – (Stories of different women’s lives) – and, mainly though Heineman, who invited her to his literary luncheons, she suddenly found she was talking to the editor of the Yellow Book, to Annie Besant, Edmund Gosse, Whistler, Ford Maddox Hueffer and many others. Since, by now she was the published author of two books of verse and an attractive and well-read young woman, she was made welcome at parties and literary gatherings everywhere. She was entertaining, widely read and with an attractive and original turn of mind. People liked her. She and Nellie soon had a wide circle of friends.

Around 1897, she married, added her husband’s name to her own, and after a few years moved to Cowes and settled down to conventional domesticity with her husband, Doctor Horatio Scott, and three children. However, fourteen years on, the desire to write returned. She began to write a number of poems – published in Chambers Journal, and in 1907, Heineman brought out her first novel. By the time the family had moved back to London, three novels had been published with two more accepted; she had received encouraging reviews, and was in touch with many other writers, young and old, whose work she always found time to read.

It has been said about Amy Dawson-Scott that although modest in her creative achievements: nothing she wrote, with the exception perhaps of her marvellously garrulous and often acute journals – is remembered today, she had three really brilliant ideas. The first of these came to her now, at the start of the 1914 war – The Women’s Defense Relief Corps. Typically, she wasted no time in getting it up and running. The Times published a letter from her, suggesting it was time for women to take up work in order that more men could be set free to fight. Oddly perhaps, the suffrage societies did not respond, but individual women all over the country did. And in an amazingly short time, the WDRC grew into an efficient and extremely effective organisation. She was suddenly in demand, and invited to speak at various Town halls and venues all over the country with great enthusiasm. By 1917 the WDRC had proved its worth: women were working in unaccustomed jobs and situations everywhere, and in due course it transformed itself into the ‘Women’s Land Army’ of World War two. Then, early in 1917, Sappho had her second brilliant idea, The Tomorrow Club.       

Having herself been alone and friendless in London when very young, she sympathised with young and unknown writers. Hence her idea. A club where writers of tomorrow: young authors who had perhaps not yet had anything accepted – could meet already established writers, publishers, agents, informally over a cup of tea on a regular basis, at minimal cost.  She outlined her scheme to various enthusiastic young friends and then wrote to John Galsworthy for his support. After a judicious pause, he wrote back saying that it was a good idea and he would support it and become one of her speakers. She then wrote to the press, the Times printed her letter, and she was inundated with letters of interest. The young enjoyed meeting established well known writers who they admired, and the old no doubt enjoyed the flattery, the enthusiasm and new ideas of youth all for the price of a cup of tea. Even the young Noel Coward – about as far removed from Sappho as it was possible to be, thought it worth his time to attend, and was a regular visitor.

The Tomorrow Club was immediately successful and hugely popular. Sappho was a good and indefatigable organiser and had no inhibitions about inviting the Great of the literary world to come to the club – or about introducing her young friends to them. (Young friends called her Mrs Sappho.)

They met once a week in a variety of rooms and also in Sappho’s house in Alexandra Road, St John’s Wood. After the talk, there were questions, a cup of tea and general mingling chat.  For instance, the great Shaw came to the Tomorrow Club, and talked remarkably amiably to the young hopefuls sitting on the floor or boxes or wherever they could. In her journal, my grandmother wrote with surprise, ‘this subtle, caustic dramatist, with his world reputation for searing wit, proved to be a genial, friendly sort of man’. Taken at random, other speakers were Siegried Sassoon, EM Delafield, Lord Dunsany, AE Coppard, HG Wells, TS Elliot and many others. Of HG Wells she wrote in this same journal, ‘So commonplace-looking that, in a crowd, he managed to resemble everybody else’.

But that’s a digression. The Tomorrow Club went from strength to strength, and helped by my eighteen-year-old mother who had just learned to type, Sappho did the secretarial work and undertook to find a subject and a speaker every week. And she continued to do this even after she became involved with the PEN club four years later.

A word about Sappho’s role as a literary hostess. There were a number of literary hostesses in the London of this time who kept open house, and Sappho was one of them. Her home was always open on Sunday afternoons, and one would always find a nucleus of interesting and often famous, sometimes less famous but gifted people there, who enjoyed meeting and talking to each other. Often, she used to feed penniless and starving young writers too.  Henry Williamson of Tarka the Otter fame was one of these as he freely acknowledged. To quote from Alec Waugh – ‘she was an important figure, her voice influential in the adjustment of reputations … Everyone knew about her, everyone talked about her, most of her friends liked her, they all respected her.’

In 1921 Sappho had her third brilliant idea – the P.E.N clubas it was known, the ‘International’ bit came later. As well as her journal, she was in the habit of writing long gossipy letters each week to my mother, then working in Warsaw. And it is in one of these that she first mentions her ‘idea’ – a dining club for Poets, Playwrights, Editors and Novelists to my mother. After her experience with the Tomorrow Club, it didn’t take long to get her new ‘idea’ up and running, and very soon she had two members. Things proceeded apace, and the first Foundation dinner was held at the Florence restaurant in Piccadilly, 4/- a head, on October 5th. It already had 54 members, some of them friends who she had bullied and cajoled into going along with her idea. (Rebecca West, who was a close friend of Sappho’s was later to describe her as ‘a pest, but as you get to know her a lovable pest’). And Shaw wrote, ‘I joined because John Galsworthy said I must. He, presumably, joined because Mrs Dawson Scott said he must.’ But most of the first members were not coerced. They joined because they believed in the idea.

A committee was duly elected, and John Galsworthywas persuaded to become President.  For the twelve years until he died, he and Amy Dawson-Scott worked extremely hard to make PEN the international organisation they both believed in, and which it has now become.

Although so different in character – he a lawyer, deliberate, wise, unswayed by emotion, she emotional, enthusiastic, unconventional and wayward – they complemented each other, and the organisation went from strength to strength. Suggestions were made regarding European and American connections who could advise on whom to approach to start up centres in countries where they had influence. A list of British writers was prepared and Galsworthy wrote to them personally. Joseph Conrad, HG Wells and GK Chesterton were among those who responded, and by 1922many distinguished European writers had become involved, giving the newly formed organisation great international prestige.

In due course it became obvious that the small Executive committee could not deal with the huge volume of work piling up, and Sappho suggested that it was time to form an International Committee. She and Galsworthy would be on it, but other members would be writers living in England who had international contacts. The first meeting of the International committee was held on February 22 in 1922 at Sappho’s home. 

In his autobiography the late Ernest Raymond summed up my grandmother thus:

‘Essentially autocratic, she loved freedom and democracy and worked for them autocratically. Loving toleration she fought for it with an impatience that touched intolerance, and knowing that peace is the only habit for sane people, she enjoyed the battle for it. A fine, strenuous life, and one of which her children – whether born of her body or her spirit, whether in her home or International PEN, can be proud’.  

And as a grandchild, I agree.