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 the characters change partners and weave in and out of each other’s arms.
Almost at once a paradox takes shape. The way Bloomsbury (Keynes and Desmond MacCarthy excepted) exploited her hospitality and mocked her is repellent. And yet it is clear that Lytton Strachey was at one time infatuated—“Ah, she is a strange, tragic figure. (And such mysteries!)” Aldous Huxley and Koteliansky were enthralled and Virginia Woolf came genuinely to love her. T.S. Eliot wrote, “It is very difficult to think of things without anyone who meant so much to me.” Even Lawrence when he was dying and Ottoline had broken her silence replied in a well-known passage,
Don’t say you feel you’re not important in life. You’ve been an important influence in lots of lives, as you have in mine: through being fundamentally generous, and through being Ottoline. After all, there’s only one Ottoline.
How are we to account for the paradox? Christopher Ricks in a recent New Yorker review denies that it exists. Ottoline Morrell wanted to be part of that ghastly crew called Bloomsbury, and if she was hurt by them she was like those punch-drunk boxers, gluttons for punishment, who leap off their stool at the beginning of each round, swinging wildly. Why pity her or write about her now? She was an intellectual snob and they, the “pack,” were social snobs, titillated by her ancestry. Lawrence, for Ricks, was right to pillory her and them.
But Lawrence was guilty of the same treacherous back-biting. At the moment when he was proposing blood-brotherhood to Middleton Murry he was screaming that Murry was an obscene bug sucking his life away. Whether it was Katherine Mansfield, or Percy Lucas, or Mabel Dodge, he satirized the lot and spoke ill of them. Biographers are not necessarily literary critics. They need to be connoisseurs of people’s souls and psyches and should be interested in personal relations. They also have to be aware of the impersonal social forces that shape our lives. If Miranda Seymour is to be criticized, it is for failing to analyze these impersonal forces. Like Pope’s spider, she “feels at each thread, and lives along the line,” but I do not think she quite reaches the center of the web. Who then was Ottoline Morrell and why did she arouse such conflicting feelings?
She was born into a grand family, the descendants of William Bentinck who came over from Holland in the train of his lover, King William III. Her father expected to succeed his eccentric second cousin as Duke of Portland but died two years before him, and it was her half-brother who became the sixth duke and occupied Welbeck. The second of his large country houses, Bolsover Castle, he leased to his stepmother, and it was there that Ottoline grew up. A shy uneducated girl who held prayer meetings with the servants and workers on her brother’s estate, she managed to escape from the asphyxiating formalities of the upper class social round, traveled to Italy, dodged out of an entanglement with the Swedish doctor and writer Axel Munthe, who had dazzled her, and on return was so horrified by Asquith’s advances to her that she left Oxford in her third term and fled again to Italy to get away from him. Then a penniless young man proposed to her. She told him to wait until she had consulted her spiritual adviser. Her family was also dubious, but Henry James gave Philip Morrell a good reference and she married him, propelled him into politics as a Liberal (which enraged both his family and hers), and set up house in Bloomsbury.
She was a remarkable hostess, not as accomplished or persevering as her less attractive successors Emerald Cunard and Sybil Colefax, but unpredictable, spontaneous, sweet toward the shy, although incapable of shutting up the show-offs or killing the bores by a glance. At Garsington parties Philip would play Hungarian dances on the pianola and her guests would improvise dances, slow, fast, graceful or bounding, each according to his taste, alone as in a dream. She welcomed the young, and after the First World War a generation of Oxford undergraduates, among them David Cecil, Eddy Sackville-West, Maurice Bowra, and L.P. Hartley, went to Garsington to meet Yeats, Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. She demanded good manners, but she preferred the son of a stonemason, A.L. Rowse, to the titled sprigs from his college at Oxford.
Her career as a lover also began when she exchanged Belgravia for Bohemia. Philip Morrell was not attracted to her physically; but though their love-making was not a success she soon realized how dependent be was on her and she never ceased to care for him. Bohemia presented other attractions. She first fell for the flamboyant painter Augustus John, then for another painter, the cruel heart-breaker Henry Lamb, who was being wooed without any success by Lytton Strachey—Lamb made them both suffer, his letters to her being masterpieces of self-pity and insincerity. Next Roger Fry fell in love with her, and she stood by him through the great row over the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910, which Fry had organized and for which he was everywhere reviled.
The great love of her life was Bertrand Russell. She supplied his vanity with adoration and enslavement, he trained her scatty mind and put his at her disposal. Disappointed sexually with his first wife, Logan Pearsall Smith’s sister, Russell hoped to find what he wanted in Ottoline. He failed. Later he was to say his pyorrhea and bad breath were to blame. In fact she found him physically unattractive and only rarely did they hit it off in bed. Russell therefore looked elsewhere, encouraged to do so by her, only to find that she was not prepared to share him with anyone else. So back to her he rushed, and tried to keep his other affairs secret.
It was a romantic Victorian match. Russell once said that whereas the Bloomsbury Apostles at Cambridge were Edwardian, he and Lowes Dickinson were both Victorians. She admired “the beauty of his mind, the pure fire of his soul…his unattractive body seemed to disappear, while our souls united in a single flame; the flame of his soul penetrated mine.” He wrote, “I reach out to the stars, and through the ages, and everywhere the radiance of your love lights the world for me.” He tore up “dusty old growths in my mind” and refused to let her “hide under shady sentimental willow trees.” The imagery is Tennysonian, her worship of him reminiscent of Victoria’s for Albert.
Their very contentions were Victorian. No one discussed God at parties given by the Misses Stephen in their Bloomsbury house. Their father, Leslie Stephen, had abolished him. But Russell was still fighting Stephen’s battles and Ottoline was on the other side. She tried to convince Russell that God existed, and he was determined to convince her that he did not. At one time he was writing a book with her to describe their opposing beliefs and wanted to call it “The Religion of Contemplation.” In 1912 she met the young Wittgenstein and was delighted that he shared her love of Thomas à Kempis, Blake, and music. Not for long: Wittgenstein told Russell that his religious book was rubbish and the first six chapters of his work on the theory of knowledge were untenable. Later Russell was ashamed that he should ever have contemplated writing a book about reverential atheism and sorrowful faith and tried to suppress its existence. So they went on tormenting each other, each transfering affection to others. (Toward the end of the war she became besotted by Siegfried Sassoon and gave him shelter while he convalesced from shellshock; but this handsome homosexual brushed her off.)
From Seymour’s account it appears she got little pleasure in bed until one day in June 1920 she noticed a young laborer who was working on some plinths in the garden at Garsington. She won his confidence and by the end of the summer “Tiger” Gomme and she had become lovers; at last she knew sexual ecstasy. (Seymour speculates whether Lawrence had her in mind as Connie Chatterley; since Mark Gertler, who knew her secret, told it to Brett, and Brett probably told Lawrence. But these were the years when she and Lawrence were not on speaking terms and she probably not much in his mind.)
Then tragedy struck her. She had been touring Italy with her daughter for six months, and had hardly returned when she heard that Tiger had suffered a stroke and was dead.
She had had other shattering experiences. In the spring of 1917 when she was in a nursing home, suffering from the blinding headaches she endured all her life, Philip told her that the young Maria Nys (who was to marry Aldous Huxley) had tried to seduce him. Ottoline sent Maria packing from Garsington to her mother in Florence. Shortly afterward Russell revealed that Katherine Mansfield had been spreading malicious stories about Ottoline and decided that their affair must come to an end. Then Philip called at the nursing home and blurted out that he had been having an affair with his secretary as well as with her one-time maid, and that both were pregnant. He next had a nervous breakdown, from which he did not wholly recover for two years.
Social ruin had stared her and Russell in the face when Logan Pearsall Smith urged his sister to divorce Russell. Now Philip said he would have to resign his seat in Parliament unless Ottoline covered up his infidelities. “Don’t, don’t, oh don’t ever again deceive me, I beg and entreat that,” she wrote the day after she knew. She imagined that it would be obvious to Philip that her affairs were spiritual, never physical, adventures. Had she not prayed to God early in their marriage that his sexual desire for her would decline? Her daughter Julian also disappointed her. She preferred fast cars and the Charleston to cathedrals and galleries and longed for a conventional life, as the children of bohemians often do. Expected to be adolescents in childhood and adults in adolescence, they often rebel—anything to be ordinary.
At this time Ottoline seemed to lose self-confidence and appeared haggard and miserable. But her longest suit was courage. Courage to endure ill-health and later to suffer the disfigurement of losing half her jaw when bone cancer attacked her; courage in the First World War to join the pacifist cause and make Garsington a refuge for conscientious objectors. She never had much money. She had to sell her Bloomsbury house in Bedford Square when she bought Garsington; and when the farm there ruined Philip and her after the war, she returned to Bloomsbury where tea parties in Gower Street replaced luncheons and dinners. She did not care if people stared at her. In old age at George V’s Jubilee she walked out among the crowds. “Do you know,” she said, “they mistook me for a maypole. They tried to dance round me.” Nevertheless she was still making new friends when she was dying; in 1938, Stephen Spender and Henry Yorke (the writer Henry Green) were among her favorites.
Perhaps it was not altogether an accident that Henry Yorke was her most percipient admirer and understood better than anyone else what she really was like. His mother was born a Wyndham and he had an empathy with aristocrats. The paradoxical, ambivalent feeling that the writers and artists had about Ottoline Morrell can be explained if we examine that eternal touchstone to English life—social class. Bertrand Russell and Ottoline might be deviants but both were proud of their lineage, his even older than hers: a Russell had died on the scaffold allegedly for plotting the assassination of Charles II and his brother the future James II. Bloomsbury belonged to a different social class. The children of the intellectual aristocracy that had formed in the nineteenth century, they had been brought up to despise those who fawned on lords. Indeed Logan Pearsall Smith went even further. His American blood boiled when he saw the two aristocrats destroying his sister’s marriage and getting away with it without suffering social ostracism. Writers and artists were both fascinated by and suspicious of aristocrats. What right had Ottoline to crossexamine them about their love life? Indeed what were her credentials to enter their world? Did she really understand the rules?
Understandably enough Seymour sympathizes with Ottoline Morrell, but perhaps she forgets that these were the years when the Asquithian Liberals humbled the peers by passing the Parliament Act in 1911 which emasculated the House of Lords. The aristocracy, for its part, still inflicted social humiliations on the upper middle classes. That was partly why the artists and writers were too ready to accuse Ottoline of playing the grand lady. For her it was second nature to take presents to the estate workers and villagers at Garsington and know their children by name. That was how aristocrats behaved—and the villagers in turn enjoyed her ways and liked to see her take a hand getting in the harvest. The intellectuals considered she was playing Marie Antoinette and patronizing the locals. They despised Philip for being under her thumb and never gave her credit for her courage in joining the pacifist cause, which to Ottoline’s family and friends was the last straw. The conscientious objectors thought it was no less than her duty to let them work on the Garsington farm, enabling them to be excused from military service. Far from being grateful, they then complained that they were being exploited as cheap labor. Gerald Shove, a don at King’s and married to a cousin of Virginia Woolf, was so inefficient that he killed half the hens, and so high-minded that he tried to form a union among the farm laborers for less work and higher wages.
For aristocrats loyalty is to family, to hereditary friends, to institutions, especially to the institution of monarchy. If intellectuals are loyal they tend to be loyal to ideas, more than to people. This year Frances Partridge, the widow of Ralph and one of the last survivors of young Bloomsbury, published at the age of ninety-three the fourth volume of her diaries.* Interviewed by an intelligent and sympathetic journalist, she said, “Loyalty? I don’t know. To do something out of loyalty seems to imply you haven’t got any better motive.”
The intellectuals of Ottoline’s time hardly blinked when they said appalling things about each other—things which often were more than half true. Her Bloomsbury friends told her to be honest about people. But it was no good. She idealized those she took up with and suffered because her friends did not live up to her expectations. She showered them with presents; they suspected she was trying to buy them; then she would hear the wicked phrase by which they had betrayed her. Yet she did sometimes find loyalty. Writing to his wife, Desmond MacCarthy thought Lytton Strachey wrong to believe Ottoline’s life had been wrecked by Philip. “We will have…[to] remain, shan’t we? loyal to the dear bewildered bewitched selfentangling aspiring one?”
She was mortified when Siegfried Sassoon told her she was artificial. She went to a party: “I danced madly,” she wrote, “I was very unhappy about SS. It was the day I had seen him and I danced and danced to forget it all—and succeeded.” She installed in one of her cottages Sassoon’s friend, a Canadian poet and ex-soldier, nicknamed “Toronto” Prewett who shared her love of music and the beauties of nature. Then one evening he made a pass at her. “The agony of that time,” she wrote, “will never leave me, the castigation that his rudeness gave my spirit.” He later swindled the Morrells when he ran their dairy farm but when he justified himself to her by saying that he was revenging himself upon Philip because Philip treated her so badly, she exploded with anger and showed him the door.
Was she artificial? A child growing up sometimes discovers that others think him odd, think he does not fit in, and make him the target of teasing or ostracism. There are many ways in which the victim may respond but one is to turn himself into a clown. The others may laugh at him, even jeer, but they cannot ignore him; the clowning trumps the teasing. Ottoline Morrell’s fantastic clothes, the cascade of jewelry, the furnishing of her rooms, were her challenge. If the others gossiped, her indiscretions would be wilder and more lurid still. No one could regard her contrivances as natural. But though they had become part of her, she hoped against hope that her friends would see what lay beneath the trappings and give her credit for what she knew was at the center of her being, her heart.
Time and again Miranda Seymour is able to point out how in personal relations Ottoline behaved with understanding, never vindictively and always with generosity; and the conduct of her friends seems in contrast shabby. Only once, in writing of Ottoline’s embroilment with Roger Fry she does not, so it seems to me, get the balance right. Ottoline was determined to keep her affair with Russell safe from Bloomsbury’s prying eyes and she and Russell went to Feydeauesque lengths to keep their secret dark. Fry was an old friend and just before setting off on a trip to Turkey he came to see her. We do not know what happened but the letters Fry wrote her were so passionate that Seymour conjectures that “Ottoline had allowed him to make love to her and to believe that she loved him.”
But her next move was to tell Henry Lamb that all was over between them because she was in love with Russell. Lamb, furious that he was being supplanted by someone physically so weedy, wrote from Paris wheedling her to come there for a weekend where, inevitably, they went to bed, and, inevitably, she gossiped to him about Fry’s passion for her. Inevitably, Lamb told Lytton Strachey. What Ottoline did not know was that Fry had meantime fallen seriously in love with Vanessa Bell. On his return Fry accused her of putting it around that he was in love with her. Harsh words followed, and from then on he never hesitated to say damaging things about her. Miranda Seymour rightly thinks Fry does not come out of this well. But, then, does Ottoline?
Seymour is, however, particularly good at analyzing the oscillation of Virginia Woolf’s feelings about Ottoline. “Integrity to Virginia and her friends,” she writes, “still meant total candour; they could not forgive Ottoline for her enraging willingness to spread gossip while remaining discreet about herself.” For a long time Virginia Woolf saw Ottoline against the background of Welbeck (as she did with Vita Sackville-West against Knowle). The perfumed grace and decor of Garsington were foreign to the country cottages of her circle into which no interior decorator had ever stepped. (“I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented.”) But when the splendors vanished and Ottoline was reduced to living in Gower Street the fantasies vanished. At a tea-party when Yeats was declaiming Ottoline picked up an ear trumpet and, Woolf tells us,
The apparition of this bare and ghastly object had somehow a sepulchral effect—and I cried out, in the midst of all the poetry. Heavens Ottoline, are you deaf? And she replied with a sort of noble negligence which struck me very much “Yes, yes, quite deaf—“ and then lifted the trumpet and listened. Does that touch you? Well it did me, and I saw in a flash all I admire her for; and think what people overlook.
Homer, Heraclitus, and the ancients spoke of the Muses as gentle creatures. They are not gentle, they are merciless. They admit to the slopes of Olympus only the most palpable geniuses and the centuries resound to the hisses and moans of the Salieris whom the Muses have told they have too little talent. But it is those who have no talent at all but worship at their altar to whom they are especially savage. They encourage, sometimes with justice, the maestros to snub, spurn, and humiliate the patrons, impresarios, camp followers, and groupies who long to help, to be appreciated. Patrons can patronize and devotees can be pretentious gatecrashers intent on acquiring importance by associating with the great, unaware of the discipline to which the greatest of artists submit.
Ottoline Morrell devoted her affections, her dowry, her body, her peace of mind, and her generous gift of friendship to art and literature. She could not master the language of artists, but she learned to play their games; far from obliterating her personality, she enlarged it to gigantic dimensions for the delectation, as it were, of those artists she admired and wanted to encourage. The Muses gave her in return ridicule, ingratitude, an inadequate husband, faithless lovers, her truest lover sexually unsatisfactory, and the only lover who gave her pleasure dead within a year. In literature she appears as a caricature, and in history as a footnote. But thanks to Miranda Seymour the footnote at least now glows.
October 7, 1993