Founding History of PEN International

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By Yu Zhang

The primary founder of PEN International, aka International PEN, was Mrs. Dawson-Scott, an English novelist and poet, whose maiden name was Catherine Amy Dawson. She was once better known as Mrs. Sappho, and later as “Mother of PEN”.

1, Mother of PEN
Mrs. Sappho, organizer of To-morrow Club, was a novelist whose real name was Mrs. Dawson-Scott, and maiden name Catherine Amy Dawson.

Catherine Dawson was born at Dulwich village in southern suburb of London on 31st August 1865. Her father Ebenezer Dawson was a brick manufacturer, while her mother Catherine Armstrong was a Scottish descendant.

Catherine Dawson graduated from high school at 18 and started to earn her own living as a secretary of an elderly blind Professor Jennings, including to read aloud for him several hours a day. Professor Jennings liked her very much, especially for her clear and pleasant voice. He did not only taught her a lot of knowledge including Greek and Logics as well as Skepticism as being not credulous to others’ saying, but also paid her £400 a year, a very high wage those days when a skilled worker or ordinary clerk had an income below £100 a year while an university professor got £700-1000 a year for salary and other subsidies. When Professor Jennings died 4 years later, Amy was 22 who had saved enough to move to London and rented a flat there. She started her writing career by publishing on newspapers her poems, short stories, etc. to earn her a little money for her living without just using up her little fortune.

In 1888, Catherine Dawson was 23 when she published under her name of C.A. Dawson her first book Charades for Home Acting. One year later, She published at her own expense her first literary creation, a 210-page long poem Sappho, a epic eulogizing the famous ancient Greek woman poet. As the poem fully expressed the feminist idea of the romantic young author to seek every kind of freedom, she became nicknamed as Sappho to her friends and other acquaintances. Three year later, her second literary book was still a collection of poems directly entitled as Idylls of Womanhood, thus establishing her literary reputation as a feminist poet.

In 1896, Catherine Dawson married Dr. Horatio Francis Ninian Scott, a Scottish from North Ireland and a junior partner of the physicians attending the Royal Family, and then assisted her husband and taught her children instead of writing. Six years later, Dr. Scott eventually felt disgusted with London and so persuaded his wife, with their daughter of three and son of one years old, to move to West Cowes in the north of Isle of Wight, at the southern end of England. He started a private practice as a country general practitioner, and soon established his career with his skills of healing both in medicine and surgery. After she had gave the birth of her second son in 1904, Mrs. Dawson-Scott was freed completely from daily household duties, eventually living a easy and relaxed life day by day, and so germinated idea to write again. In 1906, fourteen years after she had quitted from the literary world, Mrs. Dawson-Scott, aged 41, published her first novel The Story of Anna Beames under a penname Mrs. Sappho, and two year later the second novel The Burden under her name of C.A. Dawson Scott. Then she became so productive as to deliver seven more books in six years until the First World War would broke out in 1914, including five novels, a nonfiction and a poetry anthology; and some short stories. In 1910, Scott family moved back near London. As a senior poet and new novelist, Mrs. Dawson-Scott returned to literary London.

In 1914, First World War would broke out. Dr. Scott joined the Royal Army Medicine Corps (RAMC) and was sent to France, leaving his wife alone to take care of 3 children at school. It was at the first week after the outbreak of the war that Mrs. Dawson-Scott showed her extraordinary organizing ability for the first time. She published a letter in the Times suggesting women to set up an organization for the civil or semi-military work so that more men could be enabled to enlist. Many people from all over the country wrote to her and asked her to be the founder, thus setting up the Women’s Defence Relif Corps (WDRC) with a thousand members forming many branches within a few weeks. The WDRC was very successful, but she handed it over to others to continue its work two years later as her purely patriotic enthusiasm gradually raised to a higher level concerned with the harms of war and the world peace. Her attention focused again on the issues of writing and writers.

Mrs. Dawson-Scott specially cared for, and was kind to, the ambitious young writers, particularly those hardly tolerated in society for their rebelling against the traditional doctrines. She did many reviews of their works, and invited authors of first novels to tea, or those hard-ups to a good meal and then gave them some tins of foods to take home. Thus, she made friends with many youths who called her Mrs. Sappho. She often introduced the new talents to meet her established old friends and recommended the promising ones to the editors, literary agents and publishers whom she had known well. These made her an idea to found the To-Morrow Club providing “writers of tomorrow” with the circumstances and opportunities for their exchanges, studies, inquires and developments, and to expand the home parties to the Club’s dinner meetings and lectures.

In the spring of 1917, Mrs. Sappho, aged over 50, founded her second organization in her idea, the To-Morrow Club, the predecessor of International PEN. The name “The To-Morrow” meant that its members would be writers “tomorrow” though many of them were just the funs of literature at the time of “today”, or so-called “literary youth”. This established writer appointed herself its Fixtures Secretary, planning and ascertaining the subject, speaker and chairperson of every meeting for “writers of tomorrow”. At those meetings, those literary youths could not only communicate with and learn from each other, but also draw experiences from her established friends who offered the lectures and chatting, seek advices and helps, and got encouragements and comments. Moreover, Mrs. Sappho sometimes invited specially the literary agents and editors whom she knew well to attend the dinners, and encouraged the tomorrow’s writers to take such opportunities of meeting them.

The Club was very successful under the direction and scheming of Mrs. Sappho. From 1918, the weekly dinner meeting and lecture became conventional. Her eighth novel Wastralls also came out in the same year, resuming her writing state of a book per year. In November, the First Would War formally ended with Briton as one of the victors, the families that had been separated by the war was about to reunite soon. Everything appeared to go upon highway.

Just what was called as happiness was what misfortunes leaned on, or extreme joy begot sorrow, so that it was also hard for the victors to avoid the byproduct of war — family splitting, which occurred after Mrs. Sapho and her husband got a short reunion. Not long after he had demobilized from army to be back in London in 1919, Dr. Scott felt that his wife’s impulsive emotion and social enthusiasm could not fit his aspiration to restore a quite family livelihood at all. Although her affection toward her husband was very deep, Mrs. Sappho could not possibly return to the role of Mrs. Dawson-Scott as the housewife of a country doctor. The old couple of over 20 years marriage decisively divorced very quickly, which became her biggest failure throughout her life and made her never be relived. It led her even more squint toward the psychics and psychical research, thus trying to communicate Dr. Scott’s spirit several years after he had died, which would become a main part of the spiritualist notes From Four Who Are Dead (1926) published 7 years latter, and 10 years later, or 8 years after International PEN would be founded, founding a spiritualist organization Survival League. Beyond the emotional and spiritual life, however, the divorce to Mrs. Sappho, a de facto “wartime single mother” already for 5 years, did not make significant impact upon or change of her livelihood, let alone her children who had grown up. Mrs. Sappho resided in London for nine months a year to keep on her literary and social activities. Beside the weekly events of the To-morrow Club, she had a salon of afternoon tea at home on a Sunday monthly, with her daughter’s assistance, to host 20 or more different guests relevant to the writings, including old and new friends in the local literary society, and sometimes visiting writers, reporters, editors and publishers from other countries. Her social circle became bigger and bigger.

Every summer, Mrs. Sappho took her children to stay at a country cottage Levorna in Coronwall for 3 months. She sometimes also invited some of her friends to meet each other for a vacation, to enjoy natural scenes and peasant foods, and discuss their works and ideas.

2. Birth of PEN
In 1921, it was fourth successful years since Mrs. Sappho created the To-Morrow Club. Following the publication of Wastralls, her first postwar novel in 1918, two more novels were published at a rate of a book per year. Her fourth novel has also been finalized. In July, Sappho went to Cornwall and rented the beach villa Levorna for summer as usual, writing her next novel The Green Stones. However, her daughter Marjorie who had been with each other for many years could not accompany her this time. Marjorie, just turned 21, had been working at the British Passport Control in Warsaw about a year, and received a long letter from her mother every week. Later on, she published the relevant contents of those letters when she recalled the early history of. PEN.

In a letter dated on 29 July, Mrs. Sappho mentioned her new idea for the first time, “Levorna, Thursday. Marjorie! I’ve got an Idea! A Dining Club—men and women of repute. I am going to write to Violet (Hunt) about it—she and I could do it—it neatly cuts out unnecessary husbands and wifes. Tuesdays for the Dinners—8 p.m. the Florence Restaurant.”

In her following letter to Marjorie six days later, Mrs. Sappho mentioned for the first time the membership of the Club as P.P.E.N.—Poet, Playwright, Editor and Novelist, later abbreviated to PEN. In the further following letter, she began using clearly the name of Pen Club, and considered its internationality.

Mrs. Sappho set up the first Dinner for the formal foundation of PEN Club at Florence Restaurant, Rupert Street, Piccadilly Circus, in central London on Tuesday 5. Most invitees praised her idea and agreed to join PEN.

On 5 October 1921, 43 writers attended the Inaugural Dinner, and all of them joined the PEN, regarded from that date as “Foundation Members.” In addition to Mrs. Sappho and her daughter, 41 individuals are listed in alphabetical order as follows:

1. Arthur Beverley Baxter (1891-1964);
2. Victor Bridges (1878-1972);
3. Ethel Coxon (f)
4. Charles Seddon Evans (1883-1944);
5. John Farquharson (1882-?)¬;
6. John Galsworthy (1867-1933);
7. Walter Lionel George (1882-1926);
8. Muriel Morgan Gibbon (f);
9. Louis Golding (1895–1958);
10. Austin Harrison (1873-1928);
11. Edith Shackleton Heald (f, 1984-1976)
12. M.T. Hogg (f);
13. Percy Hord (f);
14. Isobel Violet Hunt (f, 1862-1942);
15. Edgar Alfred Jepson (1863-1938);
16. Fr[iniw]yd Tennyson Jesse (f, 1889-1958);
17. Sheila Kaye-Smith (f, 1887–1956);
18. Lamburn;
19. Mrs. Lamburn;
20. Lewis Rose McLeod (1875-?);
21. Arthur E. Mann (1876-1972);
22. Mrs. Elizabeth Craig Mann (1883-1980);
23. Ethel Colburn Mayne (f, 1870-1941);
24. Edgar Charles Middleton (1894-1939);
25. Mrs.Yevonde Middleton (1893-1975);
26. Elinor Mordaunt (1872-1942);
27. Hermon Ould (1885-1951);
28. Edward Raymond Thompson (1872-1928);
29. Hylda Rhodes (f);
30. Kathlyn Rhodes (f, 1878-1962);
31. Marion Ryan (f);
32. Horace Shipp (1891-1961);
33. May Sinclair (f, 1862 – 1946);
34. Stephen Southwold (1887-1964);
35. Winifred Stephens Whale (f, 1870–1944)
36. Muriel Stuart (f, 1885-1967);
37. Netta Syrett (f, 1865-1943);
38. Rebecca West (f, 1892-1983);
39. Kate Douglas Wiggin (f, 1856-1923);
40. Stanley Wrench;
41. Mrs.Violet Louise Stanley Wrench (1880-1966).

Among the participants, there were 25 women and 18 men. Before the dinner, Mrs. Sappho failed to get Mr. Galsworthy agree to be the President, but after discussion at the meeting he was finally persuaded to serve as the President for a year. The Secretary should have been none other than Mrs. Sappho, but she mildly refused it for excuse of her poor health. Then her daughter Marjorie was elected as Honorary Secretary, and Austin Harrison, editor of English Review, as Honorary Treasurer. At the dinner, members of the first Executive Committee were also elected, including Harrison, McLeod, Evans, Shipp, Golding, West and Mrs. Mann.

A week after on October 12, the Executive Committee held its first meeting at the office of the English Review in Bedford Square, London. Harrison was elected its Chairman. The Committee also agreed to consult some individuals in Europe and North America for advices on whom to contact for creating PEN centers in their countries, named a number of well-known authors to invite to join English PEN or to be the Honorary Members in others countries.

As Harrison failed to demonstrate a strong leadership, the Committee asked Galsworthy to be its chairman after the first meeting. He started to chair the Committee at its second meeting another week later. According to the decision made by the second meeting, PEN held its first “ordinary” dinner in late October after its foundation, which 72 individuals attended, including several guests from the United States, Canada and other foreign countries.

On 10 November, the Committee held its third meeting and approved 24 new members, including Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Joseph Conrad. Marjorie Dawson-Scott was instructed to write to a number of well-established authors abroad and to invite them as the Honorary Members. On January, 2002, a number of world celebrities had accepted the invitation to become the Honorary members, including 5 of 12 laureates of Nobel Prize in Literature alive at the time and a future laureate: Selma Lagerlöf (1909), Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), Romain Rolland (1915), Knut Hamsun (1920). Anatole France (1921) and William Butler Yeats (1923). The others famous writers included Thomas Hardy,Johan Bojer,Geoge Brandes, Martin Andersen Nexø, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, George William Russell and Artur Schnitzler.

As the work on international communications was mounting up while the members of English PEN was rapidly increasing, it become too difficult for a small Executive Committee to deal with both matters. Mrs. Sappho wife raised her suggestion as made from the beginning, to set up an International Committee to take over the duties to organize and contact the centers abroad. The Executive Committee approved her proposal. The International Committee was to be led by Mr. Galsworthy and Mrs. Sappho, including several London-based members who had international contacts, e.g., an Executive Committee member Shipp, a founding member Stephens Whale, and three new members William Archer, Rosita Forbes and Edward Shanks. Marjorie was also the Secretary. On 26 February 1922, the International Committee of English PEN held its first meeting at Mrs. Sappho’s home, while there had been the news of a French PEN Center already in its foundation and several other centers in their preparations.

On 1 May 1923, the First Congress of International PEN held its first dinner at Hotel Cecil in London. Besides the English PEN as its headquarters, there had been 11 centers set up in 10 countries, Barcelona (Spain), Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Italy, Madrid (Spain), Norway, Romania, Sweden, and USA, which sent their delegates. 164 participants included also the honorary and ordinary members. The ideals of International PEN were developed in England by Mrs. Sappho, Mother of PEN, from her inspiration, expanded at home and abroad by many fellow writers with through their resonations, and responded by more and more writers from various countries, tending to their achievement.

1,Marjorie Watts, P.E.N. The Early Years 1921-1929, Archive Press, London, 1971
2,PEN International website,

(Chinese Text)