Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938) - Sociability in 'A Spanish Galleon Hung with Golden Coins and Lovely Silk Sails' (Virginia Woolf)

Lady Ottoline Morrell (1903)

When I was living in London as a kid, I met someone who totally - but totally - changed my ideas and approach to sociability.

Eve Disher (1894-1991) was then well int0 her eighties and had been a minor painter of the Bloomsbury Group. She seemed to follow E M Forster's dictum of 'only connect' - garnering friendships with such disparates as Noel Coward, Ian Fleming, Kenneth Clark and Sir Arthur Elton, Bart., one of the pioneers of documentary film in Britain in the thirties.

Eve Disher as I Knew Her - We're Just About to Head Out for Dins

We first met through Julia Elton in Eve's large Eccleston Square flat, which was wall-papered with the history of avante garde British painting of the first half of the C20. But instead of talking about herself, she sat me down and said 'Hello Nick, I'm Eve. Lovely to meet you! Tell me all about yourself'. Which was not a conceit or a segue just to talk about her own big connected life and work. I was shy but quite uncharacteristically drawn out - by her intense warmth and empathy ... and have always been immeasurably grateful for being shown another way of being with people.

Now, I suspect Eve may have developed this seductive sociability either meeting, or hearing and reading about, Lady Ottoline Morrell - arch patroness and hostess for the Bloomsbury Group of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa and Clive Bell, E M Forster, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Vita Sackville-West, Bertrand Russell (Ottoline's lover for many years), D H Lawrence ... . There are debates about who were central to the group and who more peripheral.

Ottoline gave a context for the group at her 'Thursdays' at 44 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury ...

Ottoline First Home in London - 44 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury

... and at her country home, Garsington Manor ...

Ottoline's Country Home - Garsington Manor

A 'Greek' Moment in the Garden of Garsington Manor

Picnic with Dorothy Brett, Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell (Ottoline's lover of a number of years)

She slips through the pages of current British histories of the arts and letters, more as a footnote than a fully realized participant.

And this belies the importance of this extraordinary 'apparition' of the first decades of the C20 - variously described as 'a Spanish Galleon hung with golden coins and lovely silken sails' (Virginia Woolf), 'an over-sized Infanta of Spain' (Osbert Sitwell), 'a queen among women' (D H Lawrence), 'that fantastic baroque flamingo' (Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister) ... it goes on and on.

Ottoline in Particularly Baroque Mode (1912)

With her appearance alone, Ottoline would stop people in the street - provoking stares, laughter, even jeering - perhaps in Turkish attire, or pale purple hair when this was unknown, or .... . Even her voice was extraordinary - the writer Stephen Spender recalled how she 'emphasized syllables ... [in] horn-like blasts'.

Her florid and exaggerated hand-writing is a cypher for the over-blown persona.

Ottoline's Hand-Writing

Born into the aristocracy as the half sister to the 6th Duke of Portland and as a cousin to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Ottoline as a young woman broke with her class - studying at Somerville College at Oxforn University, and mixing in the bohemian artistic world, often an 'aristocracy' unto itself.

However, she was not always accepted into the new milieu in the way she wished. This was perhaps best exemplified in D H Lawrence's savage portrayal of her as Hermione Roddick in 'Women in Love' (1916) - someone 'only wanting to know' but, in this, sucking the life blood out of the thing.

Above and beyond all this, and in fact her true legacy, was Ottoline's rare gift of being able to stimulate and excite intimacy. Even those who made the greatest fun of her (such as Virginia Woolf) would be drawn back in again - with renewed contact and conversation.

And it is this characteristic Eve Disher - and so many others - took into her life and which made her special in turn.

And I'm more than grateful to have had an ever-so-tenuous connection - cos it has been one of the greatest influences on my own life.

Ottoline Morrell in old age

I think the best introduction is the biography - 'Ottoline - The Life of Lady OttolineMorrell' by Sandra Jobson Darroch (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, New York 1975).

Enjoy, if you dare!


  1. "She seemed to follow E M Forster's dictum of 'only connect' - garnering friendships"

    Looking at the international cast of characters that is your Facebook Friends list I have to say that you too are a Forster disciple.

    Interesting piece. A good entry for my book discussion group's next title - Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

    Alan down in Florida

  2. hey alan

    yep, i am - always have been - gues he's been an early model for being gay - i read the bio of quentin bell as a kid - and re-read it and ... till i realized i was hooked

    do you know the hermoine lee bio of virginia woolf? it's a new style of bio - it develops thematically instead of temporally. i found this a bit confusing - but maybe it's that i'm not used to such an approach

  3. Wonder what you think of "Carrington," the film about Lytton Strachey and Carrington that includes, I think, a portray of Morrell. Your evocation of this world is great; thank you. Reminds me how much I love the film, "Morris"

  4. Nick, did you know that one of the peripherals (if you like) was George Mallory, who died while attempting Everest for the third time - actually, no-one really knows whether he made it to the top or not. He had an affair with James Strachey.....can't have been a momentous occasion, but...... the suggestion is that his judgement was impaired in selecting Andrew Irvine (a 21 year old superman) for the expedition: [A rector's son, he became a Fabian socialist and agnostic at Cambridge, making friends with poet Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves and Bloomsbury painter Duncan Grant, and indulging in a brief homosexual affair.]


  5. hey guys

    there's a great e m forster bio by p. n. furbank - which catches all these people up again and from a slightly different angle - so you slowly put together your own take on them

  6. hey jason_m

    i loved the film 'maurice' too - particularly rupert graves as the gardener character - i'd read the book and like many others found the end a bit fanciful - tho nice in a big budget movie kind of way where there's the happy ending. i didn't want a bad end in any way, just that going off to south american seemed a bit unreal. being from a place (australia) where people ran off to (or were carted off in chains!) i can identify with the outcome to some extent. but having living in england for such a longish time and in a college at oxford uni for a summer (like E M Forster and his gay friends' cambridge experience) it's hard to imagine them taking off to 'foreign' parts to sort their sexuality and lifestyle - even given it's an earlier time

    with films they are hard for me cos i get such a strong impression from the book/s i've read that any movies seems not quite right - nothing to do with the movie - just a stumbling block in my head! but i did in fact enjoy 'carrington' cos it let me wander round that world for a bit and that's always nice.

  7. hey trevors2u

    had no idea - that's interesting to know! was james strachey lytton's brother? probably/must have read this but have forgotten.

    don't you think it's life that we choose people sometimes cos of their physical impact - sad that there were consequences here of the 21 year old superman!

    there's a good mark gertler bio - the painter who was another peripheral and catches up the usual suspects

    and i'm sure you'll already know the quentin bell 'virginia woolf' bio and the leonard woolf auto bio - i love them and read them again from time to time. refreshes my memory for the detail as much as anything else!

    bertrand russell's auto bio is a great read - for the affaire with ottoline too - and is approached 'dead true' (katherine mansfield) or with such honesty of self-examination combined with the sharpest insight - blows my hair back in this. and considering it was written so very very late in his long life!

    great to hear from you and have some more people to look out for - in an already crowded panoply!