When a court case was held to decide whether D H Lawrence’s paintings deemed to be obscene should be burnt, Ottoline Morrell, always a striking figure at six feet with red hair and dressed in outrageous, highly coloured, and dramatic clothes, stood up, pointed to the magistrate and said that be not the paintings should be burnt.
She had been very close to Lawrence, both of them loving nature, poetry, and paintings and coming from the same part of the country, although she was a duke’s sister and he was the son of a miner. Frieda, Lawrence’s wife, was jealous of their relationship, and Ottoline and Lawrence fell out partly because of Lawrence depicting her cruelly in Women in Love. (She wasn’t, as I’d thought, the model for Lady Chatterley, although she did have an affair with a stonemason 20 years younger than her.) But Ottoline forgave Lawrence, and her defence of his paintings in 1929 was just months before his death.
Ottoline was also very friendly with Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, and together they wrote words for her memorial plaque:
Faithful and courageous
Most generous and gentle
In the weakness of her body
She preserved, nevertheless
A brave spirit, unbroken,
Delighting in beauty and goodness
And the love of her friends.
She was friendly with Eliot from before he was famous and never seemed to fall out with him. She raised money for him and was supportive of his mad wife when most people weren’t. She was a friend of Woolf, their relationship becoming very close towards the end of Ottoline’s life. But Virginia Woolf, who like a true writer would never let the truth stand in the way of a great story, image, or line, said and wrote wicked things about Ottoline, who was a larger-than-life character in her looks, her clothes, her loves, and how she lived. Woolf may have been the person more than any other who led the world to think of Ottoline as a weirdly dressed, sexually incontinent, aristocratic eccentric.
Miranda Seymour sets the story straight in Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale, her 600-page biography of Ottoline. I’ve loved the book and through it come to love Ottoline, and I’m writing this blog as compensation for having finished the book and in a weak attempt to capture something of both Ottoline and the book. Sadly the book is out of print, reflecting how Ottoline, despite her high profile during her life, is fading away.
Ottoline did write memoirs, which Woolf helped her with and were published, but her real creations in life were her friendships, inspirations, conversations, passions, and way of life. Dead since 1938 she is remembered because she crops up in the letters and biographies of more famous people who did leave creations (poems, paintings, novels) that are still valued, because she inspired characters in at least 12 novels (Women in Love and Mrs Dalloway being the best known), and was painted or photographed by Augustus John, Duncan Grant, Henry Lamb, Simon Bussey, James Pryde, Dorothy Brett, Neville Lyton, Charles Conder, Cecil Beaton, and Cavendish Morton. Conder was the only one who painted her as she believed herself to be, and they are by far the most idealised of the pictures–suggesting to me that she may not have been strong on insight into herself.
Her lovers included Axel Munthe (when she was very young), Roger Fry, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John, Henry Lamb, Dora Carrington, and Lionel Gomme, the stonemason, who died young from a brain haemorrhage in her arms. Russell was her great love, exchanging 3500 letters from the affair until she died in 1938, but only the relationship with Gomme was sexually fulfilling. (It was reading Russel’s marvellous letters to her that led me to want to read about her.) It seemed almost as if she went to bed with people as an extension of her famously generous hostessing.
She, along with Russell and her husband, Philip Morrell, was strongly against the First World War when it was deeply unpopular to be so, and they hosted many pacifists in their home and farm at Garsington outside Oxford. Ottoline also worked with homeless people all her life and was famously generous.
In addition to the people I’ve mentioned she was friends with Herbert Asquith, W B Yeats, Henry James, Siegfried Sassoon, Nijinksky, Diaghilev, Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Bowen, Walter de la Mare, Andre Gide, Vernon Lee, Picasso, Katherine Mansfield, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maxim Gorky, and Stanley Spencer. There seem to be very few people significant in the arts between 1900 and 1938 whom she didn’t know. So she’s remembered primarily by the people she knew not for her own achievements, which took the impermanent form of friendship, love, conversation, kindness, generosity, bold dressing, and human warmth.