Russell’s Paradox

The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell Volume 1, The Private Years, 1884-1914

edited by Nicholas Griffin
Houghton Mifflin, 553 pp., $35.00

The years between 1872 and 1914 are indeed “the private years” of Bertrand Russell’s long life, if they are compared with the period following 1914, the years of his militant pacifism and imprisonment for opposing World War I. But even during his lonely childhood in the splendid late Victorian house, Pembroke Lodge, of his grandfather Lord John Russell and his grandmother the formidable Lady Stanley, he learned to take for granted the daily arguments about great affairs of state among those who were directly or indirectly involved in them as members of the aristocratic ruling class; and this included his own family and his numerous cousins. It was naturally assumed that he would in due time appear on the public stage as a leader in liberal politics, and perhaps also as publicly supporting the most advanced radical causes as his parents, Lord and Lady Amberley, did before they prematurely died, of diphtheria.

Something of the vast wealth and worldwide predominance of the British aristocracy in this Jubilee and Edwardian period is reflected in Russell’s early letters, if only faintly. Russell rejected his golden opportunities, and, in spite of his furious grandmother, he married beneath him into the middle class, falling in love with a Philadelphian Quaker. He chose as his true home Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was both undergraduate and Fellow. As in all collected letters and memoirs from 1900–1914, the shadow of the impending catastrophe, the Great War, lies on the pages, and this throws into relief the never-to-be-recovered ease and self-confidence of a very fortunate Englishman at that peak of Britain’s power and wealth.

The douceur de vivre enjoyed in the country houses of the very rich in those long Edwardian summers, free from any pressing social anxiety, would never recur within that century or the next. Admittedly there were the Irish question, the woman question, and the suffragettes, there were slums and strikes, and Russell’s family was actively involved in all the issues of the day. But the reserves of stability and accumulated wealth were so great that Meredith’s heroines and the Cambridge Apostles could afford earnestly to refine their sentiments without worrying too much about what was happening on the margins of society, away from the obvious centers. Russell was free to design his life with the highest moral purposes in view rather than merely to respond to commonplace needs or to seek commonplace forms of success.

The lofty tone and the rather self-conscious nobility of most of these letters, particularly those written during his courtship of his first wife, Alys, are now strange and sometimes disconcerting, but they certainly are neither insincere nor unnatural. Russell repeatedly remarks that he must be thought a prig, and in his letters he copiously describes his longing for perfection, his moral uncertainties, his moments of mystical exaltation, and his moments of black despair. In his early life suicide on several occasions seemed to him a real possibility.

From childhood onward Russell was …

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