Lady Ott

Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell

by Lady Ottoline Morrell, edited by Robert Gathorne-Hardy
Knopf, 302 pp., $6.95

Ottoline Morrell
Ottoline Morrell; drawing by David Levine

A great hostess is at the mercy of her guests: they analyze and dissect her. If her guests are artists she may be pilloried in paint or print, skewered for all time. If she publishes her memoirs, they are likely to be vapid, fluttering, or egotistical and confirm all that her enemies have said. To this Lady Ottoline Morrell is no exception. When she wants to say something important she begins to stammer or drone. Insignificant sentences succeed each other, and one is irritated by the self-pity and incompetence. But on another level she writes remarkably well and you catch something of the spirit that made her circle regard her with hostility and then again with affection, always as something of an enigma.

She describes her childhood, for instance, with detached amusement. The fifth Duke of Portland, her father’s cousin, was in the great tradition of aristocratic eccentrics. When he traveled by train he had his own coach hoisted onto a goods truck where it remained with drawn blinds throughout the journey. A procession of chickens turned on the spit in the Welbeck kitchens so that whenever he should call for one it would be perfectly roasted. His sole joy in life was tunneling in and around the house. For his servants he built a roller skating rink and “if he ever came upon a housemaid sweeping, he would send out the frightened girl to skate whether she wanted to or not.” When Lady Ottoline’s brother inherited the title at the age of twenty-one, this was the house in which she was immured, a shy, enormous girl with darkred hair, knowing that she was alien to the excrutiatingly Philistine and class-circumscribed society in which her brother moved, knowing that she was bored and yearning—but for what? Bible classes with the Welbeck servants, travel with a companion, and an encounter with Axel Munthe left her without an answer. She found one only when she married Philip Morrell, a young radical who was to sit in the House of Commons and make a lonely stand for his friends who were conscientious objectors in the war of 1914. She had found someone who no longer thwarted but encouraged her dislike of the conventions, and she found the key to unlock the entrance to the world of artists and writers such as Augustus John and Henry Lamb, Old Bloomsbury and D. H. Lawrence.

Her descriptions of her manoeuvers in this world are almost always interesting when she is content simply to describe how people looked and what they said. They are marred whenever she adds what she felt or thought. She could neither observe like an artist nor define like an intellectual. She did not know how she related to her friends. She wanted to spread light and affection, to unite people in bonds of love to her and to each other and to brood over…

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