The Hostess with the Mostest

Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale

by Miranda Seymour
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 450 pp., $30.00

There can scarcely be a book about the literary lions of London in Georgian times that does not mention Ottoline Morrell, and no country house was more famous in the First World War than Garsington, where she entertained them. The sister of a duke, she stood six feet high, her Venetian red hair towering above a long, muscular nose and blue-green eyes. She wore a vast hat and staggering creations of misty muslins or blazing brocades; she looked like an affectionate horse.

In biographies, diaries, and letters she features as a gargoyle, imperious, stingy, unsightly, and aspiring to a high culture that was beyond her. Bloomsbury was particularly unkind. To them she was a sacred monster. “We’re recovering from Ott. whose visit nearly destroyed us,” wrote Vanessa Bell. “I’ve decided that woman isn’t for me…and hope I shall never spend more than a few hours in her presence again.” Why waste sympathy on a creature who dyed her underwear lilac presumably to match her hair, asked Clive Bell. No metaphor about her appearance and behavior was too extravagant for them to invoke. Virginia Woolf saw her “brilliantly painted, as garish as a strumpet,” or as a “mouldy rat-eaten ship”—when she was not looking like “a foundered cab horse.” Lytton Strachey called her Lady Omega Muddle, “rongée by malevolence, every tea-party to which she hasn’t been invited is wormwood.”

It was not as if the D. H. Lawrence circle of Katherine Mansfield, Middleton Murry, and Dorothy Brett were much kinder. Brett at first adored Ottoline and made herself at home at Garsington. She pretended to dote on Ottoline’s daughter, Julian, and accused her of maltreating the girl; but on the one occasion Ottoline asked her to look after Julian she complained nonstop about “your wretched child.” When Julian was sent to a convent school Brett sent her a rope ladder with detailed plans for escape. Ottoline never spoke to Brett again.

Gilbert Cannan caricatured Ottoline in a novel and Aldous Huxley gave a satirical account of a house party at Garsington in Crome Yellow. Most devastating of all was D.H. Lawrence’s portrayal of her in Women in Love. Hermione Roddice is a woman who imposes her will with such persistence that her guests feel they are in prison. Ottoline was cut to the quick and did not write to him for ten years.

Miranda Seymour has set herself to rescue Ottoline Morrell from this morass of ill-repute. She enables us for the first time to look at that well-known world through Ottoline Morrell’s eyes. For the first time we realize from the two thousand or more letters they exchanged how passionately Bertrand Russell loved her, how she made him try to reconcile the emotional and intellectual sides of his nature, and how far he went in trying to unite his rationalism with her unshakable religious beliefs. Every intrigue and affair in which she featured, and a good many in which she did not, are pursued: one emerges slightly dazed as…

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