Pussy Galore, Kissy Suzuki, Plenty O’Toole. The world of James Bond is filled with female characters possessing preposterous, cheeky or sexually suggestive names. But even Ian Fleming might have baulked at calling someone Phyllis Bottome.
But Bottome was a real woman. And without her influence there might have been no 007. Or indeed Ian Fleming.
Bottome died in 1963 at the age of 79 and, although she’s little remembered now, she was a successful novelist in the early part of the 20th century whose best selling books addressed the pressing political issues of her day. Her 1937 novel The Mortal Storm, for instance, was a clarion call warning the world about the appalling abuse of the Jews in Nazi Germany. It was turned into a Hollywood movie starring James Stewart.
She was also – excitingly – married to a spy. Ernan Forbes Dennis had been SIS station chief in Marseille and was then vice-consul in the Tyrol, a cover job for his continuing work for British Intelligence.
In the early 1920s the couple set up the Tennerhof, a skiing and language school in the small Austrian town of Kitzbühel that became a refuge for upper-class boys who’d gone off the rails. Soon after the school opened they received a young visitor who had left Eton in disgrace. Ian Fleming was young, troubled and headstrong.
In the Austrian Alps he found both freedom and discipline. When not cutting a swathe through the local womenfolk, he practised skiing, learnt French and German and, with Bottome’s encouragement, began to write. He produced his first short story, Death on Two Occasions, for her and absorbed her criticism and encouragement.
“They loved him like a son,” says Pam Hirsch, Bottome’s biographer. “The spark was lit there, and her ability to be a bestseller, the page-turning quality, I think he learnt that from her.”
In 1960 Fleming wrote to her: “My life with you both is one of my most cherished memories. And heaven knows where I should be today without Ernan.”
Ian Fleming at his home, Goldeneye, in Jamaica
For the rest of his life, Kitzbühel held a magical place in Fleming’s imagination. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond takes his new bride Tracy on honeymoon and witnesses her brutal murder. In the novel the young couple are heading for a then still obscure Austrian ski resort named… Kitzbühel.
After Kitzbühel, Bottome and Fleming remained in touch. In the 1930s she roped him into her attempts to arrange a British lecture tour for the psychologist Albert Adler, whose teachings she followed. In 1947 the Forbes Dennises spent a few days at Fleming’s Jamaican villa, Goldeneye. They exchanged copies of their books, and apparently took great pleasure in each other’s successes.
But could Bottome have made more than just an impression on Fleming? Did she play more than just a supporting role in his early life? Could the white-haired lady novelist have actually invented James Bond?
It seems like a wild suggestion. But in 1946 Faber & Faber published a novel by Bottome called The Lifeline. It introduces the world to a British spy named Mark Chalmers.
Chalmers is 36. He is sent abroad to spy for Britain by a secret service chief known only by one letter, “B”. He is armed with a suicide pill. He also shares a number of char- acteristics with Bond, among them his height, hair colour, tastes in food and wine and expertise in Alpine sports.
It was 1953 when Fleming’s James Bond officially arrived, emerging from the smoke and sweat of a casino at 3am in his first novel, Casino Royale. But the similarities between Chalmers and Bond are so great that the spy writer Nigel West describes the relationship between the two novelists as “thief and victim”: “1946 is the moment when Phyllis Bottome writes a James Bond book. He’s not called James Bond, he’s called Mark Chalmers.”
Daniel Craig’s first Bond film was Casino Royale
It’s an extraordinary claim. Since the publication of Fleming’s first novel, James Bond has become a multimillion-pound industry, spawning films, spin-off novels and merchandise.
Yet the similarities between the two books are certainly worth considering. As well as the physical similarities of Chalmers and Bond, they each undergo a kind of education in the course of their respective adventures. Both receive a savage beating. Both, in the course of recuperating from their wounds, hallucinate wildly.
Fleming’s biographer John Pearson agrees that Phyllis Bottome had an important influence on the troubled young Fleming, but he rejects any suggestion that she created his most famous character: “The Lifeline and Casino Royale are such different books.”
However, writer and critic Simon Winder thinks that Bottome may have had more to do with Fleming’s success than has ever been acknowledged before. “Phyllis Bottome seems to have been a substantial influence. [When it comes to the creation of Bond] she’s definitely been missed out.”
The Woman Who Invented James Bond? is on Radio 4 at 10.30am on Saturday
James Bond: Thunderball starring Toby Stephens as 007 is on Radio 4 at 2.30pm on Saturday