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At Lady Ottoline’s

The following sketch is one of the pieces included in a recently discovered notebook of Virginia Woolf’s, dated 1909. The notebook will be published for the first time this summer by Hesperus Press in a book entitled Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches, edited by David Bradshaw. “A Modern Salon” was dated March 31, 1909.

A MODERN SALON

One reads and hears much of the great French salons; and pronounces them always extinct as dodos, although what it is that is extinct, I do not know. It struck me last night, dining with the Morrells, that the effort was certainly in that direction, and if it failed, one would be able to see why.1 Lady Ottoline has a definite end in view; she is a great lady who has become discontented with her own class, and has found what she wanted in the class of artists, writers, and professional people.2 For this reason, she approaches them in a definite way; the only thing they have in common is a love of the arts. In return, they see her not as the aristocrat who is shut off from them although they may for a moment come into contact with her, but as a disembodied spirit escaping from her world into a purer air, where she can never take root.

This gives their intercourse a kind of lustre and illusion; they are always conscious that she comes from a distance, with strange colours upon her; and she, that these humbler creatures have yet a vision of the divine.

Her parties have always a certain romance and distinction from the presence of this incongruity. But when one has said that she has this taste for art and artists, one is puzzled to define her gifts any further. Perhaps that says all that there is to be said. At any rate, she seems to devote all her energies to the task, and to be consistently in the same attitude.

Like other people who are passive rather than active, she is very careful and elaborate in her surroundings. It seems that they too play a part.

She is remarkable if not beautiful in her person. She takes the utmost pains to set off her beauty, as though it were a rare object, picked up, with the eye of a connoisseur, in some dusky Florentine back street. It always seems possible that the rich American connoisseurs, who finger her Persian wrapper, and pronounce it “very good,” should go on to criticize her face; “a fine work—late renaissance, presumably; what modelling in the eyes and brow!—but the chin unfortunately is in the weaker style.”

She is curiously passive, even in her expression; and the pallor of her cheeks, the clean cutting of her features, the way she draws her head back and looks at you blankly give her the appearance of a cast from some marble Medusa.3

  1. 1

    In the spring of 1907, [Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938)] began issuing invitations to her famous ‘Thursdays.’ A few close friends were invited to dinner; slight acquaintances were told to come later and to dress as informally as they liked. Watching the writers and painters and musicians crowding into the drawing-room, planning who could be of most use to each of them, Ottoline felt that she had begun to discover her vocation at last. She could enhance the lives of people she admired.” See Miranda Seymour, Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), p. 75. “Once a week,” Mary Agnes Hamilton recalled in 1944 of a period just after 1909, Lady Ottoline Morrell “…used to be at home, and at [44] Bedford Square, in the great, double room on the first floor, with its superb fires, its deliciously soft chairs, its interesting modern pictures on the walls, and its masses of glorious flowers arranged with the most loving cunning, the rebels gathered, for coffee and cigarettes and talk.” See Remembering My Good Friends (London: Jonathan Cape, 1944), p. 74.

  2. 2

    Woolf draws on this passage from “Lady Ottoline…is a great lady” to the end of this sketch in “Old Bloomsbury” (Moments of Being, pp. 59–60), but this original, uncut version is more cutting.

  3. 3

    See Woolf’s letter to Madge Vaughan of May 1909: “We have just got to know a wonderful Lady Ottoline Morrell, who has the head of a Medusa; but she is very simple and innocent in spite of it, and worships the arts,” Letters, i, p. 395. See also Lee, p. 276, for Woolf’s falseness toward Lady Ottoline.

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