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Blue Fingernails

Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse

by Jessica Douglas-Home
Harvill(distributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 342 pp., $28.00

Violet Gordon Woodhouse, who died at seventy-seven in 1948, was the most admired English harpsichordist of her time; for much of her life she presided over a ménage of four adoring men, and she fascinated many of the prominent writers and musicians she came to know. In her well-written biography of Woodhouse, her great-niece Jessica Douglas-Home has much to say about her family’s odd history. She begins by reminding us what was expected of a conventional, well-to-do, middle-class Victorian wife. She would be judged by what carriage and horses she kept, by her dressmakers and milliners, by her delicacy—her skin protected by a parasol, her hands by gloves, her chores smoothed by servants and her cares by her husband, to whom she deferred on all questions of morality and politics. When her sons came to marry, their brides must be of a suitable social class, British, at a pinch American or European, but unquestionably Caucasian. In the days of colonies and Empire, to be allied to a family with “blue fingernails,” the mark of a past misalliance with natives, was unthinkable.

Yet that was what had happened to Violet’s father. In the eighteenth century a Dutch trader had married an Indonesian, or possibly an Indian, ranee, and in each generation at least one daughter of exceptional beauty and grace but with dark hair and dark complexion appeared. Such was her grace that she always found a husband, but the family into which she married snorted disapproval. A few weeks before James Gwynne married into this family none of his own would speak to him. Indeed, his wife’s mother had been so ostracized that she left when a widow for Holland, where there was no color bar. By the time Violet was presented at Court, damage limitation had taken over and her luminous black eyes and sinuous walk were put down to Spanish ancestry.

She was James Gwynne’s favorite child, and exceptionally gifted at the piano. But on one matter he put his foot down. No, she should not become a professional musician, however magical her playing. Like other girls she must marry. That was not difficult because she had several proposals, so she settled for Lord Gage—slightly lame, and seventeen years her senior. Her mother therefore took her aside and explained just what happens to girls on their wedding night.

Violet was revolted to the very depths of her being. To submit her delicate body to such coarse gropings and probings was unthinkable. She broke off the engagement but, determined to escape, looked for someone more pliable. She found a friend of her brother’s at Cambridge. He had failed all his examinations but was of a well-to-do family of wine merchants. He was kind, affectionate, and all his life ministered to her every wish. Among her married friends was a lesbian who had fallen under her spell. Violet got her to hint to Gordon Woodhouse before the marriage that their relationship was to be platonic. She told Gordon that “our little child with her fantastic soul” would shrink “from what most natures take as they do their breakfast.” Gordon accepted and never resented his fate.

That was only the beginning. When she first met Gordon, two other men were present, the first a large stolid Englishman, Bill, the heir to Lord Barrington. After four years of living with Gordon she invited Bill to stay—and he stayed with her and Gordon for the rest of his life. The other man she met with Gordon was Maxwell Labouchère, the nephew of the radical politician who moved the amendment to the legislation on sexual offenses under which Wilde was subsequently convicted. In 1901 Max was an indolent young barrister, intelligent and more a man of the world than Bill or Gordon. With Bill’s consent he also joined the household. The same year a cavalry officer named Denis Tollemache called on Violet one evening shortly before midnight to declare his love; he, too, was taken in.

Bill welcomed them all. He could talk sport and cricket to them, and although Max liked Mozart (a then unfashionable composer) they found in one another’s company relief from Violet’s interminable musicmaking. She was never in doubt which of them she loved. Bill held her heart. He would hug her but he did not share her bedroom. Nor did the other two.

Women fell for her as readily as men. Even before Violet’s marriage Adelina Ganz, the daughter of a well-known musical impresario, was at her feet. So were the Singer sewing-machine heiress Winnie Polignac and the novelist Radclyffe Hall. The composer Ethel Smyth was also mesmerized, but her attempts to inveigle Virginia Woolf to meet Violet were repulsed until 1934, when, after a performance of her Mass at Albert Hall, Ethel invited Virginia, Diana Duff Cooper, and a sprinkling of titled ladies to tea and buns at a Lyons’ Corner House. Virginia Woolf recoiled at the “sordid crumby room…all rather strident and obvious amid clerks and shop girls.”

The First World War threatened to break up Violet’s ménage. Denis was wounded at Loos, fought on the Somme, and was later feared killed but survived as a prisoner of war; Bill was emaciated by dysentery in Mesopotamia; and Max, who came through the Somme and Passchendaele, was killed on the last day of the German army’s offensive in April 1918. A few months before she had met the Sitwells, and Osbert introduced her to the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (who was to be killed a few days before the Armistice). She shared their rage against the continuation of the war.

How did this belle dame sans merci hold her men in thrall? She was not a beauty. She was striking, with large expressive eyes and a mass of hair which when it went white, she tinted blue. She was a dedicated performer and they admired her as an artist. Her day began with a walk and after that three hours practice on her harpsichord and later on that rare instrument the clavichord. Her only rival was Wanda Landowska; and Arnold Dolmetsch, a great expert on Baroque music, considered Woodhouse superior. By the age of twenty-nine she was accepted as a professional artist. Her Sunday evening “at homes” became fashionable, and famous artists such as Pablo Casals and the violist Lionel Tertis asked her to accompany them in concerts. Busoni praised her, even the satirical Thomas Beecham capitulated. Delius and Diaghilev visited her. She recorded in the Twenties for the leading record company and before long earned the equivalent in today’s values of å£30,000. Alessandro Scarlatti had been well known since 1907 but his son Domenico rated hardly a page in Grove’s Dictionary. Late in life she unearthed forgotten sonatas by him and made him famous.

She was supreme on the clavichord, a fiendishly difficult instrument on which the tone after sounding remains to some extent under the control of the finger. More perhaps than any other instrument it requires immediacy and flexibility. Violet considered that the secret of playing the clavichord was to secure a perfect legato. But when she chose to play staccato, for instance in the prelude in E minor in the first book of Bach’s forty-eight preludes, she would separate each note in the treble voice, giving each phrase an extraordinary eloquence and importance. Nor did she disdain even in eighteenth-century music to use rubato—her music teacher, Agustín Rubio, taught her to achieve the effect by delaying or anticipating ever so delicately her attack.

She did not have to play to captivate men and women. She was not charming, she was alluring. People with charm delight people and confirm their good judgment. The alluring delight people against their better judgment. She was a dominatrix and manipulator. She ordered Max to shave off his moustache: he complied. She knew how to generate an atmosphere of disapproval without actually complaining. During the war she heard that Bill in India had been thinking of marriage. When he returned, she got Gordon and her brother Rupert each to remind him of his “grave moral obligations” toward her. He came to heel; and considered that he rather than Gordon was her husband.

She allowed Bill on one occasion to share her bed. But her biographer doubts whether she ever allowed him to penetrate her. One of the merits of this book is that it does not spend pages speculating about the sex life of Violet and her entourage. Douglas-Home has examined a mass of documents and reminiscences and she can find no evidence that Violet ever overcame her aversion to sexual intercourse.

People assume today that if a man remains a bachelor he must be actively gay or kinky. But in Edwardian England the bachelor was a familiar figure. He was a man who might pay court to women in the afternoon or frequent their evening parties, at which Violet might play. Bachelors were assumed to be in search of the “right” lady or to be the victim of an unrequited passion. Or they preferred to live single on their income, which was inadequate to keep a wife in the style to which she was accustomed, but sufficient to provide a single man with the necessities of his class. Bill, Max, and Denis seem to have regarded themselves as knights serving a princess. They lived according to old-fashioned notions of chivalry; and if their lady did not desire a physical relationship, then a true knight would accept that. Was this not the convention praised in medieval romances and courts of love? As time passed very few doors remained shut to Violet. After the war Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell opened many for her and toward the end of her life she found herself performing at the request of Queen Elizabeth before her two daughters.

But there was one circle which she did not enchant. Quite soon after her marriage it dawned on the families of her four admirers that they had been snared by Circe. Gordon’s mother was determined Violet should never inherit a penny from her. Denis’s aunt wrote her fulminating letters accusing her of ruining his life. Violet’s mother was distraught that there were no children of her marriage, and her sister Dorothy, a homely woman, was consumed with jealousy for love of Gordon.

What pained them most was Violet’s extravagance. Gordon was well-to-do, not rich. After the war he was hard up for some years and they had to live in less opulent houses. But he could refuse her nothing. Her wardrobe bulged with dresses, gloves, shoes, hats, parasols for summer clothes and parasols for dark dresses. She would not give up her cascading hospitality, her retinue of servants, her habit of having her hair brushed three times a day by a maid and another summoned to help her put on her gloves. She liked to give presents, she liked jewels. “She knew where her destiny lay,” writes her great-niece of her early years. “…She was turning herself into a jewel, one which would be all the more precious for lying just out of reach.”

There is another theme in Douglas-Home’s biography: money. The English upper middle class regarded money as filthy stuff unless it came in the form of rents from landed estates, although the dirt might have washed off it if it had been earned in industry or trade by grandparents, and a dowry from whatever source was beyond criticism. One needed the money to live the leisured cultivated life which alone was supportable. The future all too often depended on a will, and nothing disrupts a family more than a will drawn in anger.

James Gwynne had already disinherited his eldest son Reginald, not perhaps all that odd since he had left Oxford with debts totaling the astonishing sum of å£125,000 in today’s values. He also quarreled with his two brothers, who left the family business to set up on their own. He later quarreled with his son Nevil so violently that Nevil struck him. In a will running to 7,500 words of dense complexity James disinherited Nevil and left everything to his two younger sons, Roland and Rupert. Violet got nothing. She appealed to her brothers for a share: they refused. Then her mother died; again everything she owned she left to Roland and Rupert. After 1918 Violet and her ménage were considerably poorer, and she was glad of her royalties from recordings. Gordon’s mother never relented. She died aged over ninety in 1923, and she left him and Violet nothing. All he got was an entailed house. The money went to his two unmarried sisters.

In 1926 Fortune’s wheel turned at last. Gordon’s two sisters employed a butler who had been with the family since he was a boy. Unfortunately he had taken to the bottle and serving one evening at dinner dropped the vegetable dish. He was fired on the spot. What was he to do, where was he to go? He took a shotgun, killed the two women, tried unsuccessfully to cut his throat, and was later hanged. Gordon’s cousin, the writer John Drinkwater, whom the two sisters had brought up from childhood, had been hoping to inherit their estate, but neither sister had signed her new will and accordingly all the money went to Gordon. Edith Drinkwater appealed to Violet to honor the sisters’ last wishes but she was adamant. “I am sorry about it, my dear, but you see, I like pretty things.” Drinkwater became an alcoholic, Gordon refused him a loan, and to this day his family nurses a grievance.

Now that Gordon was able to indulge her Violet moved once more with ease in the beau monde. The shock of the deaths in the war of Max and others she knew turned her toward spiritualism, tarot cards, and a desire to communicate with the Other Side. But music was at the center of her life, and she collaborated with Sacheverell Sitwell on rediscovering the works of Scarlatti. A young man who heard her play decided to throw up his career as a lawyer, learn cabinetmaking, and set up a workshop to make clavichords. She wrote splendid, affectionate letters to her close friends—never failing to find something malicious to say about their rivals or enemies.

Some may think that there was no need for Jessica Douglas-Home to spend such space describing the slaughter and horrors of the battles in the First World War, but she had good reason to do so. The memory of those battles was so intense for Violet that in the Second World War she became a bitter pacifist, praising appeasement, denouncing Churchill and finding excuses for Hitler. Some friends deserted her but most remained loyal, knowing how impulsive, stubborn, and generous to them she could be. As her sister Dorothy, who did not like her and resented the misery she brought to Gordon, wrote, she “was a genius in her way, and can’t be judged.”

True to her family’s tradition Violet upset people by her will. She had first promised her jewels to the wife of her nephew John Gwynne, Nevil’s son, and then to Rupert’s daughter, Elizabeth David, whose books and articles changed English cooking. A few days before she died she left them to Sacheverell and Georgia Sitwell. Her country house was not hers to leave, though Reresby Sitwell understood he was to have it; but she ordered Gordon to leave it to John Gwynne in recompense for her father’s injustice. Gordon did not long survive her and Bill set up a gravestone with Gordon’s name below hers. But between her name and his he left a space in which he intended his own to be carved. Had he not been acknowledged by all to be her true love? John Gwynne objected that Gordon was, after all, her husband. The two bickered for a few years and severed relations. Then Lord Barrington, as Bill by this time had become, died; and John had his way.

Is this story a vindication of Voltaire’s maxim to cultivate one’s garden? Or did Violet and her men do enough for art and in war to justify an existence of selfish complacency? It is at least a curious chronicle of English upper-middle-class life before and between the wars, excellently told—and deeply depressing.

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