by Perry Meisel
Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale. By Miranda Seymour. Illustrated. 452 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.
She was, said Virginia Woolf, "Helen of Troy." "She gave me a complete mental reorientation," said Aldous Huxley. She was, in a less hyperbolic assessment by Lord David Cecil, "a creative artist of the private life." With her mane of red hair, her six-foot frame and her dazzling and eccentric mode of dress, the beautiful Lady Ottoline Morrell, niece of the Fifth Duke of Portland and wife of the Liberal politician Philip Morrell, ranked among London's chief literary hostesses from 1907 until her death in 1938. Lady Ottoline has, as a rule, also been subject to "grotesque caricature," says Miranda Seymour in her new biography, and it is time to rediscover the real woman behind the myth of the vain aristocrat seeking admission to esthetic circles.
D.H. Lawrence's portrait of Ottoline as Hermione Roddice in Women in Love (1920) is just the kind of image Ms. Seymour wishes to challenge in Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale, although it is the Bloomsbury set that she holds principally responsible for Ottoline's bad historical reputation. Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey - all flattered Ottoline, then joked about her behind her back. With full access to Ottoline's papers for the first time, particularly her letters to Bertrand Russell (an earlier biography by Sandra J. Darroch appeared in 1975 without benefit of them), Ms. Seymour tries to produce a fresh Ottoline beyond the haze of Bloomsbury distortion.
Born in 1873, Ottoline Violet Anne Cavendish Bentinck weathered a painful Victorian childhood. After her father's death in 1877, her mother turned her into an emotional "slave," as Ms. Seymour puts it, passing along to her daughter a penchant for both nervous suffering and religious enthusiasm. Following the death of her uncle in 1879, Ottoline's half-brother Arthur became the Sixth Duke of Portland, and the family moved to ancient Welbeck Abbey in Notthinghamshire.
Educated at home, Ottoline was free to roam in nearby Sherwood Forest after lessons. Here her awakening sense of physical beauty began to clash with her precocious religiosity, foreshadowing a series of tensions later in life between the "puritan" and the "artistic" sides of her nature, as Ms. Seymour calls them, and between her aristocratic background and her bohemian propensities. She felt, Ms. Seymour tells us, like an outsider in both of the worlds she inhabited. "I could never learn my proper part," she confessed to her diary.
The conflict between Ottoline's spirituality and her love of sensual beauty found a perfect resolution in a religion of art based on the estheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, then still fashionable. By 1907, Ottoline had discovered her true vocation as a patroness of the arts, "the chance," as Ms. Seymour describes it, "to live a life of active benevolence outside the conventions." She and Philip Morrell had moved into 44 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, in 1906; by the following spring she was sending off invitations for what became her famous Thursday Evenings. By 1910, she was helping Roger Fry choose the paintings for the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London; by 1911, she was in the opening rounds of a stormy relationship with Bertrand Russell that lasted for the rest of her life.
Her marriage to Philip Morrell in 1902 was a devoted union but also an open one. "Too weak a character to dictate the form a marriage should take . . . he was putty in her hands," says Ms. Seymour. Of her serious lovers, however, only Russell was as important to her as her husband. With Russell, she could play out, openly and endlessly, the split in her nature between the spirit and the flesh, by turns enduring and enjoying Russell's vaunted sexual appetite, and always enjoying his mind.
If Bedford Square was Ottoline's court, then Garsington, the country house in Oxfordshire which the Morrells acquired in 1914, was her Forest of Arden. Like all of her houses, Garsington was, as Juliette Huxley put it, "a habitual work of art" (Ms. Seymour's book is illustrated, and the proof is manifest). Garsington was a "romantic theater," as Ottoline herself described it, renowned for its picturesque Italian garden and the "Shakespearean intrigue," as Ms. Seymour nicely phrases it, among the guests (during World War I, the house and surrounding farm also served as a refuge for conscientious objectors performing alternative service). So esthetically luxurious was Garsington that, on a good day, Ottoline could talk books with Lytton Strachey, then fetch D.H. Lawrence for a walk through the countryside.
Ottoline's sincerity and her capacity for suffering are Ms. Seymour's chief evidence in a case that is unnecessary to make. Ottoline vindicates herself, not as a journal writer (the extracts Ms. Seymour gives us are rather bland), but as a lovably infuriating character who would be far more comfortable, and far more vivid, in a crossover historical novel.
This potential Ottoline gets lost, however, amid all the documents on Ms. Seymour's desk. As estimable as Ms. Seymour's revisionary project may be, its successes and its shortcomings go, oddly enough, hand in hand. Ms. Seymour aspires to comprehensiveness rather than to shape, but the very abundance of her materials often turns her biography into an unwitting historiographical farce of the kind Ottoline's friend Lytton Strachey specialized in writing: the sardonic romance of the wide-eyed historian looking to separate fact from fiction (in her introduction, Ms. Seymour refers directly to Strachey's own words on the subject in Eminent Victorians), only to be swallowed up by a mass of evidence whose organization is beyond his powers unless he succumbs to generic melodrama.
The melodrama to which Ms. Seymour succumbs is drab hagiography. Bloomsbury's "duplicity," she argues, hurt Ottoline, making her feel the childhood dread of being the outsider all over again. Ms. Seymour wisely allowed herself novelistic liberties in her 1989 book on Henry James; here she takes advantage of the strategy only occasionally, although with superbly dramatic results when she does so. "How could it be designing," she has her hostess wonder, "to want to help people?" The indirect style is characteristic of Flaubert, and well suited to a persuasive representation of Ottoline. It also leaves the reader free to make an independent response. How indeed?
Ottoline Morrell was really a female dandy in the grand 19th-century tradition. She feminized estheticism as surely as Virginia Woolf did. She also gathered within herself the dandy's entire history by combining its aristocratic origins at the court of George III with its bohemian destiny after Baudelaire and Wilde. An aristocrat, she was languid and affected; a bohemian, she was passionate, flouting the very conventions that sustained her as Lady Ottoline. Like any good biographical subject, she eludes the hand that tries to grasp her.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1993.