Aristocratic Rebels

by Hermione Lee
BERTRAND RUSSELL: A LIFE by Caroline Moorehead. Viking, $30.00.
OTTOLINE MORRELL: LIFE ON THE GRAND SCALE by Miranda Seymour. Farrar Straus & Giroux, $30.00.
BERTIE ANDOTT: The Movie. Why hasn’t it been made? We’ve had Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein and Sally Potter’s Orlando. And now—Peter Greenaway’s Garsington? Think of it. The starring roles: two of English history’s most cerebral, intense, and physically mismatched adulterous lovers, the diminutive, chinless, lecherous, aristocratic, iconoclastic philosopher, with his bright eyes and hyena laugh and mannered speech, and the immense, flamehaired, huge-nosed, huskily booming and whispering hostess, oozing with spiritual and emotional largesse. Parts to die for. Dudley Moore and Anjelica Huston? Woody Allen and Eleanor Bron? And the supporting cast! The ruthlessly abandoned wife, sad, awkward, desperate Quaker Alys, and the doting husband, handsome, unstable, promiscuous, devoted Philip Morrell. And all that famous crowd of Apostles and Bloomsberries, poets and politicians and philosophers! What walk-on roles! Virginia Woolf, lethally watchful, equivocal friend to Ottoline, describing Russell as a “luminous vigorous mind . . . attached to a flimsy little car, like that of a large glinting balloon.” Darkly demonic Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell’s possessive pupil and philosophical conscience. Ottoline’s rival lover, the smolderingly erotic painter Henry Lamb, sulking on the sidelines. D. H. Lawrence, disgusted, acrimonious, and vengefully satirical; Siegfried Sassoon, T. S. Eliot, Mrs. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Shaw, Lenin, Charlie Chaplin . . . And the settings! Peppard Cottage, the little Morrell country house near Henley; Garsington Manor, Cotswold stone jewel without, orientally high-colored stage set within, seething with jealous talents; Trinity College, Cambridge; Bedford Square; the House of Commons . . . And the dialogue! ”I feel just filled with utter thankfulness for you and worship. Darling darling Bertie.” “My love for you is as deep and boundless as the sea. I cannot tell you how great it is, but I know you know. Yours in utter devotion, B.” No: perhaps it would all be too much of a good thing —too much idiosyncrasy, too much color, too much period Englishness.
These two biographers handle the much-too-muchness of their subjects in different ways. (One difference is in naming: Moorehead, writing of a public man, speaks of “Russell”; Seymour, dealing with a private life, of “Ottoline.”) Both have a great deal of new material: Miranda Seymour rescues Ottoline’s emotional and candid memoirs from the reverential widower’s expunging hand, and Caroline Moorehead has profited from a mass of unpublished papers, particularly those of Russell’s wives and mistresses. Ottoline’s biographer is concerned with helping her escape from the standard image of “a bizarre and overbearing aristocrat who tried to get into intellectual society”— an image for which Seymour largely blames the Bloomsbury group (though I think Lawrence is as much responsible). She wants to replace the muchcaricatured grotesquerie of Ottoline in later years—maligned by Clive Bell as a haggard old wreck in her dirty finery—with a younger Ottoline, beautiful, adventurous, and original. So she tends to be effusive and chatty (about “Ottoline’s spectacularly bad press,” about “sex and religion” as “a famously heady brew,”and so on). In her enthusiasm for Ottoline’s generosity, sensitivity, and audacious spirit, her lack of snobbery and her valiant fight against lifelong illness, Seymour pours onto the page a marvelously fresh and intimate portrait that changes one’s feelings toward this grandly unconventional woman.
Caroline Moorehead has a harder job, I think. She has some solid (male) precursors (lives of Russell have been written by Ronald Clark, Alan Wood, and Alan Ryan, and a fine life of Wittgenstein by Ray Monk). She has to pace herself for a very long haul, from the Boer War to the Vietnam War, with her man prominently and influentially involved in all the major world events in between. She has to deal with the broad shifts in liberal thinking in this century and to decide to what extent Russell’s intellectual development is formative, or paradigmatic, of the age. So she must trace, in their context, his evolving and changing commitments to pacifism, socialism, progressive education, passive resistance, and disarmament. She must make us understand the links between his fervent atheism, his belief in the possibility of social reconstruction (at once optimistic and grimly realistic), and his repudiation, as a logician, of idealism and his conviction that all knowledge rests on empirical evidence. And she is dealing with a much less sympathetic, as well as a much more intelligent, character, and has had to decide when to take offense.
Fortunately, she steers clear of the current fashion for pejorative, witchhunting biographies and lets Russell’s frequent awfulness—outstanding even by contemporaneous standards—speak for itself. As in: “If only he [Bernard Berenson] would not permit himself the physical liberties which Jews indulge in of touching one and putting their hands on one’s shoulder and so on.” Or: “Who is that Jew at Oxford?” (referring to the philosopher A. J. Ayer, whom Russell knew quite well). Or, referring to Lytton Strachey’s homosexuality: “diseased and unnatural.” Or, on eugenics in Marriage and Morals (1929), recommending sterilization tor “feeble-minded women” whose offspring would be worthless to the country.
“Controversial stuff,” Moorehead comments meekly, choosing not to be outraged by her outrageous subject. There is, after all, quite enough witchhunting going on within this story of a lifetime’s resistance to authority. It starts with Russell’s ostracism by, and dismissal from, Cambridge for his pacifism in the First World War, and his imprisonment in 1918 for advocating peace with Germany. It continues in 1940 with a savagely censorious American campaign of moral indignation against his appointment to a chair (“a chair of indecency”) at the City College of New York, and it ends with his week’s prison sentence, at the age of eighty-eight, for “inciting the public to disobedience” at the Hyde Park Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally of 1961.
In the American conflict Russell’s inextricable egotism and heroism are seen at their most vivid. His attitude toward the States—characteristic of many upper-class British intellectuals—was one of mingled scorn and greed. “If I ever want to come here again,” he observed on a visit to America in the 1920s, “please remind me not to: the people are horrible, and the beastliness of the country makes me miserable.” But he was happy to return on lecture tours for ever larger fees, even as his criticisms of the country (first aired in an Atlantic Monthly piece in 1915, urging America to take a firmer stand against the “warring governments” of Europe) became more and more extreme. They culminated, in his nineties, in his vitriolic opposition to the Vietnam War and his obsessive attacks on American domination of the world:
Whenever there is hunger, wherever there is exploitative tyranny, whenever people are tortured and the masses left to rot under the weight of disease and starvation, the force which holds down the people stems from Washington.
This intemperance may well have taken its tone, Moorehead suggests, from the influence of the sinister protégé, Ralph Schoenman, Russell acquired in his old age. And yet much of what Russell said about America was right. After he was driven from his post in New York by public outcry, he drew analogies between Nazism and the opponents of academic freedom in America. The comparisons were prophetic of the McCarthyism to come. And what politically correct campus would now appoint the anti-Semitic, womanizing Bertrand Russell to a chair?
WITH SUCH an incomparable mixture of integrity, idiosyncrasy, and arrogance on her hands, Moorehead does well to maintain a moderate tone. Her descriptions of Russell tend to be given in voices other than her own. A young American meeting him when Russell was twenty-two, in 1895, said, “He gave me a feeling of intense mental life almost unrivalled in my experience. Ideas simply leaped from him.” Beatrice Webb described him in her diary a few years later as dark-haired, bright-eyed, nervous, alert, quick, intellectually audacious, and a delightful talker, with no tolerance for bores or for “other people’s emotions.”Norbert Wiener, the German-American philosopher prodigy, at Cambridge in 1913 called him a “keen, cold, logical machine.” In 1918 a fellow noncombatant summed him up as “very childlike in his engrossment with his own emotions, virtues, vices, and the effect he has on other people. The oddest mixture of candour and mystery, cruelty and affection.”
And so the exasperating personality —cold, vain, cranky, charming, utterly confident of his own rightness, blazingly energetic and relentlessly clearheaded—is carefully established, and nowhere more emphatically than in this version, by Colette O’Neil (the actress Lady Constance Malleson, his lover, on and off, for more than thirty years): “When BR really wants anything, he lets NOTHING WHATEVER stand in the way of getting it. He has always been like that.”
When Moorehead deals with Russell’s work as a philosopher, she is somewhat dutiful and flat, though clear enough on his collaboration with Alfred Whitehead, his shift away from George Moore, and his troubled intellectual relationship with Wittgenstein, who detested his popularizing self-help books, including The Conquest of Happiness. (Although this was timely for a postwar audience looking for “a new philosophy of life,” Wittgenstein called it a “vomitive.”) Moorehead does communicate the mental excitements of a man for whom the discovery of Euclid at eleven (“one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love”) and a sudden revelation in early manhood of the answer to Kant’s question “How is geometry possible?” were milestones in his inner life.
But she does best with the outer life, the active expressions of Russell’s powerful will: his self-assertive marital and sexual behavior, and his analogous, but more admired, intransigent and anti-authoritarian acts in the public sphere. Russell’s peculiar childhood—the early deaths of his radical, aristocratic parents, and his Victorian religious upbringing by his grandmother, the puritanical widow of Lord John Russell, in the grand and gloomy Pembroke Lodge—clearly has a great deal to answer for in his later relationships. Moorehead isn’t overbearingly psychoanalytical: she deals quietly, for instance, with Russell’s fears of inherited insanity in his family (an affliction that indeed affected the desperately unhappy lives of his son and his granddaughters). She gives the facts simply of Russell’s cruelty to his first wife: his notorious moment of disenchantment (“I went out bicycling one afternoon and suddenly realised that I no longer loved Alys”), their horribly prolonged breakup (“So as not to feel overpoweringly irritated, Russell decided to stop looking at her”), Alys’s selfdisgust, and her wretched later life, fifty years spent hoping for his return.
Russell’s minor liaisons—his irresponsible flirtation with the unstable Vivien Eliot, his ruthless shedding of the unhappy American girl Helen Dudley (“I broke her heart”)—are coolly presented. Moorehead cannot quite remain neutral about Russell’s exploitation of the remarkable Colette, whom he left and returned to and left, over and over again, from 1916 to 1949. (“If you leave me,”she wrote once, “I’ll not kill myself . . . I’ll still love you as I’m loving you now; but I shall not tell you what is in my heart. I know that we belong together. If you don’t know it, there is nothing I can do.” There was no reply.) But she evenhandedly shows how bitter his second wife, Dora, could be (their divorce, for all their vaunted principles of sexual freedom and equality, was viciously recriminatory) and how “difficult and dislikeable” was his young third wife, “Peter” Spence. Russell’s contradictions—sexual greed and puritanism, commitment to educational reform and inability to bring up his own children happily, belief in equal rights and the demoting of women’s intellectual capacities—come across infuriatingly.
There’s some comedy, too, not least in Russell’s attempts at fatherhood (after the birth of his first child he wrote to Wittgenstein: “At first he looked exactly like Kant, but now he looks more like a baby”; and he told his children, in later years, to lean out of the car window and shout “Your grandfather was a monkey!” at passers-by, “to convince them of the correctness of Darwin’s theory of evolution”) and in Russell and Dora’s managing of the permissive 1920s Montessori-style Beacon Hill school. Here children of progressive middleclass intellectuals were sent to develop their “spirit of enquiry.” Stories of Dora’s quests for chamber pots in primary colors, her instructions to the staff to let the children swear and flick butter at the ceiling during mealtimes, and her school plays (“Thinking in Front of Yourself,” in which the hero, Youth, makes his life choices among a worker, a “modern" woman, and a factory owner), or of Russell’s concern for the children’s bowel movements (“considered so important that Russell himself would sit on the lavatory, his trousers round his ankles, surrounded by children on their pots. When these tipped over, as they often did, no fuss was made”), have a particularly English flavor to them. That sort of affected, well-meaning, privileged bohemianism runs all the way from William Morris to Dartington Hall and the Green Party.
MOOREHEAD IS in no doubt that the love affair with Ottoline was one of the most important things that ever happened to Russell, and she quotes him saying in his autobiography, “She made me less self-centred, and less self-righteous . . . She made me less of a Puritan.”
The great quarrel between them was over belief, an issue that shows up the differences between these two biographers. Moorehead talks mildly of Russell’s worrying away at the question of faith and realizing that either Ottoline would have to “abandon her dependence on her God” or he would “have to find some compromise acceptable to them both.” She notes that the novel they wrote together, about a young man searching for a faith, The Perplexities of John Forstice, was not a great success and was almost immediately repudiated by Russell as “too sentimental.” But Seymour makes much more of Ottoline’s spiritual grip on Russell, and argues that in the religious debate between them he moved a long way from his earlier sense of “cosmic loneliness.” She puts more emphasis, too, on the battle for dominance over Russell’s mind between Wittgenstein and Ottoline: “If Wittgenstein had had his way, Russell would never have written a word about religion and morals; if Ottoline had been allowed to have hers, he would have written about nothing else.” It’s characteristic of Seymour to go for the more dramatic interpretation. (When Ott and Bertie were reunited after his American trip in 1914, Moorehead writes, “their fondness for each other” was undiminished; Seymour’s version is, “Their sexual relations now entered a new phase of blazing intensity.”) But her case for a profound influence that was later played down by Russell looks plausible.
And they had strong affinities. They were both intensely eager for material to sink their teeth into, but Ottoline’s passion for experience, as Miranda Seymour vividly demonstrates, went into society, relationships, faith, imaginative intimacies with artists, interior design, clothes—all things that left Russell cold. They were both vain exhibitionists who didn’t care for convention. They had both had odd, grand childhoods. Ottoline spent a solitary, pious, undereducated youth in Bolsover Castle (home in the seventeenth century to the literary Duchess of Newcastle, Ottoline s role model), shadowed by a tribe of unsympathetic aristocratic relatives. Throughout her adolescence she looked after her depressed invalid mother. This all makes painful reading. They both dedicated themselves to the cause of conscientious objectors in the Great War. Seymour waxes eloquent on Ottoline’s hospitality at Garsington to intellectuals and artists turned farm laborers, and the mockery and satire she got in return: “My chief mistake has been to be too kind to people who have abused it and have tried to live on us.” They were both incompetent parents. For all her partiality, Seymour cannot disguise Ottoline’s lack of sympathy for her daughter, Julian (she was the survivor of twins, and it was the much-wanted son who had died), whom she was always accusing of selfish, sulking ingratitude, stupidity, and cruelty, but who just wanted to be more ordinary than her mother.
Ott and Bertie’s love affair was ardent but sexually incompatible: at first she found him physically unattractive (especially because he had bad breath, resulting from untreated pyorrhea), and she “had a horror of sexual frankness.” Eventually his infidelities and his demands made her unhappy; but after the affair ended, the friendship remained. Seymour argues strongly for Ottoline’s sensuality and attractiveness. But in her marriage of companionship (Philip Morrell satisfied himself elsewhere, producing—to Ottoline’s dismay—two illegitimate children by two women at nearly the same time) and in her affairs she seems to have been more interested in minglings of souls than of bodies. Whenever she fell in love—with the much older fashionable doctor Axel Munthe, who seduced her when she was twenty-four, with Henry Lamb and Siegfried Sassoon, and with Russell— she paid a price for her susceptibility, as Russell did not. Seymour has discovered, from the uncensored journals, only one affair that fulfilled her, and this was with “Tiger,” a young gardening boy at Garsington. (Seymour suspects that this extraordinary liaison may have filtered through to Lawrence and provided a hint for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.) But poor Tiger died of a brain hemorrhage in Ottoline’s arms, the week before Virginia Woolf was due to arrive for a weekend at Garsington. Woolf observed that Ottoline’s mood was “low in tone.”
WHAT UNITES Ottoline Morrell and Bertrand Russell historically is that for all their bold modernity, they were figures in transition, leftovers from a previous era. When Russell, at sixty-six, composed a (greatly premature) obituary for himself, he wrote that his life “had a certain anachronistic consistency, reminiscent of that of the aristocratic rebels of the early nineteenth century. . . . He was the last survivor of a dead epoch.” In the late 1920s, when he and Ottoline still met regularly as friends, he compared them to “two shipwrecked Victorian mariners adrift in the twentieth century.”
These anachronistic aristocrats and the world they remind us of should not be sentimentally lamented or idealized. But the couple did share a quality that makes them admirable, for all their absurdities and their self-admiration. “Conventionality is deadness,” Ottoline wrote in her diary in 1907. “Your life must break bounds set by the world.” And, in 1929, “I know I have given love, affection, interest and sympathy. It has often been trampled on, abused or misunderstood and derided, but that doesn’t matter. . . . Selfsatisfaction is death.” Writing to her in 1918, Russell imagined what he would like a future biographer to say of him.
I existed from my own centre, many things that I did were regrettable, I did not respect respectable people, and when I pretended to do so it was humbug. . . . I hated hypocrisy and lies: I loved life and real people, and wished to get rid of the shams that prevent us from loving real people as they really are.
George VI, on giving Russell the Order of Merit in 1949, remarked, “You have sometimes behaved in a way which would not do if generally adopted,” and Russell replied, “How a man should behave depends upon his profession. A postman, for instance, should knock on all the doors in a street at which he has letters to deliver, but if anybody else knocked on all the doors, he would be considered a public nuisance.” Both Ottoline and Russell knocked on a good many doors. The quality they shared was courage.