This essay exploring the literary world of Ottoline Morrell is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Lust for Brilliance
Would you be surprised to know that a woman who grandly succeeded in luring some of the most important creatives of the Edwardian era into her drawing rooms was beset with a debilitating lack of inner confidence? The insecurity felt by this member of the English elite was so pronounced she was willing to be the human equivalent of a reputational punching bag. Was it her obsession with overly clever people, even when they ridiculed her, that compelled her to keep them close? Did her hero-worship of fiction writers, even when they cast her as humiliating characters in their novels, make her willing to forgive and forget?
It was actually a mix of both, spurred on by this literary hostess’s addiction to creative stimulation, her attraction to precocious intellectuals, and her fear of boredom. But perhaps more than anything else, we can chalk it up to the one thing Lady Ottoline Morrell could not bear—to be sentenced to an unexciting life. “Just now and then one gets on tip-toe and peeps over into the unknown land, and unless one does, life is drab and ghastly,” she wrote in her memoirs.
This is admirable up until the point it’s clear that her desire to continually sail into uncharted intellectual territory made her the target of a band of bitchy brats known as the Bloomsbury group and a handful of backstabbing novelists. The poet Siegfried Sassoon chalks this up to naïveté: “She had yet to learn that the writers and artists whom she befriended were capable of proving ungrateful.” He wrote this in 1915, seven years after Ottoline had opened her first salon at 44 Bedford Square in London.
The machinations of the glib group surrounding her are only hinted at in her memoirs. They grow more tantalizing in a biography of Ottoline by Sandra Jobson Darroch because the author was the first writer given permission to comb through the nearly 7,000 letters in Ottoline’s possession when she died, each neatly organized and tied with colored ribbons. In these, Darroch found a more accurate account of Ottoline’s life than her remembrances can be trusted to give. This is because Ottoline edited them to cast a better light on herself, and then her husband Philip took his pen to the page after she died, sculpting them to his liking.
Thanks to her letters to others and those she received, the picture that emerges in Darroch’s biography is of a woman with an insatiable lust to consume brilliance, which exploded when she embraced the early twentieth-century’s hottest societal competition—the quest to be London’s most celebrated salonnière. As an aristocrat, she knew she had the pedigree to succeed so she set about creating the dramatic backdrop that would ensure her a spot at the top of the roster. Noting that her friends thought of her as someone who knew a thing or two about decorating, she described the inspiration for the gray and yellow color palettes she chose for the pair of large drawing rooms. These spaces in which she would hold her salon were designed after a French Pavilion in a Marcelle Tinayre book and a gray dance studio in a painting by Degas.
She didn’t have to put any effort into making herself into a statement piece: she was already known for dressing outlandishly, the descriptions of some of her outfits proving she had a penchant for the sensational. At six feet tall with a mass of copper-colored hair, she was striking before she put a stitch of clothing on. When decked out, as she always was, she was so dramatic that passersby would stop to gaze whenever she went for a stroll. She discovered that traveling by bus was not wise because of the stir she caused, and her entrance to a garden party given by Herbert Henry Asquith, the Prime Minister of the UK at the time, resulted in “a mild sensation” running through the crowd.
In his introduction to Lady Ottoline’s Album, the historian David Cecil paints a colorful picture of the first time he saw her in 1921, towering above throngs of women wearing flapper dresses on Oxford High Street: “a figure caught my eye—stately, upright, very tall, and clad in a dress of canary-coloured silk, shaped closely to her bosom and waist, and then spreading out in long full skirts that swept the pavement. On her rust-colored hair she wore a wide-brimmed hat of royal blue trimmed with curling ostrich feathers also of royal blue.”
Cecil was one of the young undergraduates at Oxford she would lure to her salons during her last years as a literary hostess, an involvement with the arts that spanned 29 years. But she was still a neophyte in 1908 when her initial salon evenings began. Known as “at homes” in London then, hers drew mainly Philip’s political colleagues at first. But ever the clever strategist, she put together a plan to expand the guestlist into more artistic territory by plundering other hostesses’ attendees, carefully noting the potentials who had some talent with or interest in the arts.
She held her soirées intermittently at first in order to attend other salons so she could poach artistic prey. Before long, she had wrangled enough creatives to make her “Thursday evening at homes” a weekly event. Darroch noted that among her early literary attendees were Henry James, Max Beerbohm and W.B. Yeats, each of whom witnessed the hiccups when “the most incongruous people would find themselves staring at one another across the Oriental carpet and an unbridgeable abyss of class, behavior, and interest.”
The writers and politicians usually got on well together; where Ottoline got into trouble was when members of the Smart Set, inhabitants of the aristocratic world into which she was born, barged in to take stock of “the scallywags she was mixing with.” Shifting her strategy, she grew more adept at sorting people into separate gatherings, and her reward was the number of famous and well-on-their-way-to-being-so knocking on her door on Thursday evenings. “Conversation, talk, interchange of ideas—how good it was!” Ottoline wrote. “I felt greedy for friendship and launched recklessly on the sea of London.”
It would be a while before she realized her boat had some leaky spots due to the fact she wasn’t satisfied to merely welcome intellectuals into her drawing rooms for discussions and readings; she wanted to infiltrate their lives, a desire to be a hyper-involved patron that would bite her in the end. Her M.O. was always the same: first she championed a person’s work, then she went beyond encouragement to promoting him, then she tried to share in the creative experiences. In a sense, she was the perfect model for the overbearing mother, a role that would have a high emotional price for a woman who claimed she was overly sensitive.
To prove she didn’t let her thin skin get in her way, she began dreaming up new combinations of people to invite to her soirées, an obsession that she turned into an art-form. By December 1908, the painter William Rothenstein wrote that she had the most delightful salon in London. But James was warning her that drawing in the young avant-garde crowd that made up the Bloomsbury group would cost her emotional capital: “Look at them,” he said. “Look at them, dear lady, over the bannisters. But don’t go down amongst them.” Ottoline admitted, “I disobeyed; I was already too far down the stairs to turn back.”
Vanessa and Clive Bell were the first of the Bloomsbury clique to enter Ottoline’s universe. She met them in the studio of Augustus John, who was painting Ottoline’s portrait at the time. “I looked at them with a certain amount of awe,” she wrote. “I had already heard of her and her sister Virginia [Woolf], the centre of the younger Cambridge intellectuals.” She met Virginia, who called Ottoline’s at homes an “extraordinary whirlpool” in early 1909, and the catty company Ottoline would keep gained great heft when she was introduced to Lytton Strachey in November of that year.
It’s not a surprise that Ottoline had heard of the Bloomsbury group because Virginia, Vanessa, and their brother Thoby Stephen were making names for themselves by holding their own Thursday evening at homes. Attendees were mostly Thoby’s Cambridge friends, and the principal tenet of their get-togethers was freedom of expression; they were also famous for insatiable appetites in talking about sex. This collective devil-may-care attitude was Ottoline’s main attraction to them. As Darroch wrote, “their talk was a fresh gust in her drawing room and she admired their cleverness and talent.”
With a number of starving artists on the Bloomsbury list, her pocketbook drew greater numbers of the daring darlings to her over time. Not only was she buying the art they produced, she raised the funds to form the Contemporary Art Society so they would have an opportunity to exhibit. Being on solid footing with the artists, she turned to the writers to coax them closer, but it’s here where the busy-body hit a confidence snag because she doubted she was smart enough to hold her own with them. When she first invited Strachey to her country cottage, for instance, she immediately regretted it because she worried she wouldn’t be on equal terms with such a shrewd guy.
Her instincts were right in the end, but even when her intuition had proven to be correct time and again, she had a habit of ignoring the warnings in her initial push to land the latest conquest. Strachey, whom Darroch dubbed the archpriest of the Bloomsbury group, was one of the sneakiest of these. He had a habit of making fun of her behind her back and could be quite cruel about her in letters to his pals. He was just beginning to make a name for himself as a writer when Ottoline first invited him for a visit, and she needn’t have worried that he wouldn’t relish time at her lovely cottage because he had been looking for a patron with a country manse.
Plagued by illness for about a year, which inspired him to name his body “Mahomet’s coffin,” Strachey had been composing a list of those in his orbit with rural retreats who would host him for stretches of time. Peppard Cottage, Ottoline’s country house to which she enticed him, was a perfect fit. This was the first of many times her hospitality benefited Strachey because it would be several years before he rose to fame. This was a pattern with most of the creatives she welcomed into her world—they would use her until their lives stabilized and then move on, sometimes betraying her in spiteful ways.
But Ottoline was far from innocent, and she admitted she had ulterior motives when choosing those who attended her salons. In a frank entry in her memoirs, she said she was trying to shore up her intellect by learning from the creatives. This knowledge-grabbing took an uptick when she met Bertrand Russell, who fell head-over-heels in love with her. She strung him along for years, blaming her lack of desire for physical intimacy on his halitosis. Truth is, it was never his body she wanted to ravage but his mind, and he would have a positive impact on her during their initial years as lovers. “I found my friendship with Bertie Russell was giving me more assurance as I felt that if he could care for me and like to talk to me it meant that I was not so very stupid and dull,” she wrote.
If she had only had the foresight to sublimate her attractions and keep them in the intellectual realm, she would have had an easier time of it, but it would be decades before she learned that lesson. Until then, she went from one romantic scrape to the next, the one with Russell one of the most protracted. At one time, she was romantically involved with Russell, Roger Fry, and Henry Lamb at the same time. What’s even more narcissistic about this is the double standard she set by growing furious when, one by one, they strayed. When Fry turned on her because he had begun an affair with Vanessa during a trip to Constantinople and he didn’t want his new lover to find out he’d been intimate with Ottoline, it inspired the Bloomsbury clique to begin their first smear campaign against the hostess.
By then, Strachey’s presence at her “Thursday evenings at homes” was so consistent he was being described as “almost part of the furniture,” though this didn’t prevent the notorious exaggerator from joining the fray. And it didn’t stop the rest of the Bloomsburries from showing up at her salon. By July 1912, Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen, and his sister Virginia Stephen [Woolf] were regular attendees, the diversity requiring Ottoline to devise a plan to make the avant-garde creatives and her more restrained friends comfortable.
“Having two large rooms, it was easy to keep the gay in one room and the sedate like Henry James, Augustine Birrell and Asquith in the other—carefully mixing them when there were signs of stagnation and boredom,” she explained in order to illustrate how seriously she took her duties as a salonnière. “I was naturally anxiously on the watch all the time to see that everyone was talking and as happy as I could make them. How I would torture myself afterwards as I went over the evening in my thoughts, thinking of someone that I might have introduced to another and feeling that perhaps a lifelong friendship between these two might in consequence have come about.”
She also saw making certain that young creatives met each other and that they had access to the older successful people who might help them in their careers as important facets of her role. “My desire for other people to know each other and be friends is an instinctive, unreasoning passion with me,” she wrote. Years later, as Ottoline was looking back at this phase of her life, she did so with awe because she felt she had begun to live her own legend as a grande dame who caused crowds to form around her in the streets and a woman who knew everyone-who-was-anyone intimately.
But her health was a constant issue and doctors advised her to embrace a quieter life in the country. She and Philip found an estate near Oxford, moving into Garsington Manor in May of 1915, though the revolving door of guests she hosted couldn’t have been the curative her doctors had in mind. The volume of company she orchestrated would later inspire her to say to Gilbert Cannan, “They regard me merely as a kind of manageress of a hotel.” He replied, “Of course we do.”
She wrote about her relief in escaping London, which had become a veritable war hospital with the outbreak of WWI, after a long delay that gave Garsington Manor’s former tenants time to vacate the property: “After nearly three years of waiting we have arrived here. I have dreaded it, dreaded the plunge of entering into such a completely new existence, and dreaded all the arranging and ‘house-moving,’ but now that it has actually happened, and that we are in the midst of it, not looking at it from a distance over a hedge, I feel full of fresh hope, almost as if we had stepped out of a dark nightmare into a fresh magic world, where all is blossom and spring and tranquility.”
From the start, she intended the house to be an oasis where artists, writers, and other sensitive people could unwind and express themselves in a supportive atmosphere. But this didn’t mean she relaxed her over-the-top brand of decorating. The special paint colors she created included a Venetian red lacquer for a paneled room that required much experimentation to formulate, and a pearly dove-gray in another space over which she painted a faint shade of pink that reflected the cardinal-red silk curtains. “I had a winter sunset in mind,” she wrote.
She worried that no one would want to come all the way from London to see her, but they did; and this time not just for evening soirées but for weekends and, in some cases, weeks at a time. By now, she had become famous enough that the most promising names in art and literature were vying for invitations. The black-and-white photographs of the guests she welcomed fill the pages of Lady Ottoline’s Album to present a veritable parade of cultural giants. Added to the roster who’d flocked to her London evenings, E.M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West, Cecil Beaton, T.S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, André Gide, and many others visited her in Garsington. The photos tell a story of camaraderie as they are gathered around the fireplace, sitting in wingback chairs reading, and lounging under the Ilex tree; but letters by the gossips prove there was a simmering pettiness undercutting the friendliness.
In the early years of Garsington, Strachey was one of the longer-staying guests. His snarky communiques dispatched from there to other friends were filled with mockery. “The house is a regular galanty-show…very like Ottoline herself, in fact—very remarkable, very impressive, patched, gilded and preposterous,” he wrote to David Garnett. To Virginia, he reported that Ottoline was stingy with food and that the bathrooms were insufficient, a major complaint of his no matter where he stayed. Others dished about her habit of dropping into bedrooms clad in an enormously long nightgown that trailed several feet behind her to chat with her female guests as they brushed their hair. Her matchmaking and meddling in everyone’s love life caused quite a lot of scuttlebutt, and for good reason.
The muckraking caused Dora Carrington to write, “I think it’s beastly of them to enjoy Ottoline’s kindness and then laugh at her.” No one else seemed to share Carrington’s concern thanks to Ottoline’s eccentric ways and her addiction to gossip. But Darroch makes a powerful point that the clashes were born from a deeper emotional tug-of-war, which implicates the other creatives: “Many of the people who came to Garsington had reason to be grateful to Ottoline, and, human nature being what it is, they couldn’t bear to be beholden to her. The spreading of malicious stories which pulled her down helped them reassert their independence.”
The author believed that Strachey, the noisiest of them, was not motivated by petty meanness but by his natural inclination to exaggerate about everything and everyone, and particularly about those for whom he felt fondness. Ridicule leveled at Ottoline wasn’t restricted to her home and her behavior; it was also directed toward her outrageous wardrobe. When Sassoon first met her, he thought she looked ludicrous with her long legs encased in voluminous pale pink Turkish trousers, which she was wearing while Dorothy Brett was painting her portrait. Ottoline bullied him into accepting an invitation to tour the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford the next day but Sassoon was so afraid she’d wear the loose pants, he hid behind a column to be sure she had something else on before he declared he was there!
When Ottoline visited Vanessa and Grant, who had moved in together at Wisset, she caused a stir as she was leaving. The get-up was recorded by Garnett, who wrote that she appeared in a dress that “might have been designed by Bakst for a Russian ballet or a Circassian folktale theme.” He said her “Russian boots of red morocco were revealed under a full, light-blue silk tunic, over which she wore a white kaftan with embroidered cartridge pouches on the chest, on which fell the ropes of Portland pearls. On her head was a tall Astrakhan fez.” Once Grant had handed Ottoline up to the seat beside the driver, “off they drove looking exactly like the advertisement for a circus.”
Though this level of mockery was mostly hidden from her, the humiliating caricatures by the novelists who accepted her hospitality were not. D.H. Lawrence was the first, using bits of her personality for a character in Women in Love. In her memoirs, Ottoline wrote, “I read it and found myself going pale with horror, for nothing could have been more vile and obviously spiteful and contemptuous…for many months the ghastly portrait of myself written by someone whom I had trusted and liked haunted my thoughts and horrified me.” Lawrence denied that he had based the character of Hermoine on her alone, saying that he had combined traits of a number of people to make a point about a certain type of woman.
“Really, the world has gone completely dotty!” he wrote to his agents when they informed him Philip had filed a libel suit against him. “Hermoine is not much more like Ottoline Morrell than Queen Victoria!” At this point in the story, I’m wondering why Ottoline didn’t shut it all down and kick everyone out of her life. Darroch found the answer in the hostess’s letters, which led her to believe, “More than ever before, Garsington seemed like some tableau transplanted out of the France of Louis XV, with Ottoline playing the part of Madame du Deffand. Brittle though it was, Ottoline clutched at the outward gaiety, to prevent her inward doubts from rising up and overwhelming her.”
The next novelist to borrow from Ottoline’s world was Aldous Huxley, who portrayed life at Garsington in his novel Crome Yellow, published in November 1921. This time, it wasn’t a few chapters that held hints of Ottoline as it had been with Lawrence: the entire novel was a parody of the existence she had built around her and everyone who circulated into and out of it. “I was filled with dismay,” Ottoline wrote. “I felt somehow that having given Aldous opportunities of meeting these people, I was responsible for these cruel caricatures, and that not only had he himself behaved dishonorably but that he had involved me in his own dishonor, and that it might be thought that I had acquiesced in his mocking.”
Six years later, W.J. Turner wrote the most thinly-veiled caricature of life at Garsington in his novel The Aesthetes. He did little to mask who was whom with characters named Esmond Darthy (Desmond MacCarthy) and Dytton (Lytton). It was also filled with cruel descriptions of Ottoline. This book flopped fairly quickly, but, unaware of her feelings about it, Yeats resuscitated it in 1936 when he praised it in the introduction to a published collection of Turner’s poems. Ottoline ended her friendship with the bewildered Yeats, who asked her why she was so angry. She wrote, “You rescued it from oblivion—the oblivion into which I was thankful it had fallen.”
Though she never forgave Yeats, she was able to get past her anger at Lawrence, who wrote to her in 1927 after a twelve-year hiatus. She had gone through a serious illness and he reached out to her to say he was glad she had survived. By this time, the Morrells had sold Garsington and moved to No. 10 Gower Street in London where she struggled to attract the same lit-elite she had in the past. She wrote back to Lawrence that she was feeling depressed and told him she feared her life had been largely wasted. Lawrence replied, “Don’t feel you’re not important. 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.”
But the melancholy mood persisted and she expressed the same nostalgia to Strachey, who blasted her for it—behind her back, of course. In a letter to his lover Roger Senhouse, he wrote, “A long letter arrived from Ottoline yesterday, all about old times—the result of reading old letters—rather difficult to answer. A certain amount of sentiment was clearly required—but how to provide it? You can’t get milk when the udder is dry.” He told Senhouse he couldn’t fathom why she didn’t understand how pointedly she was the source of the disasters that fell on all her relationships, the pattern caused by a lack of self-knowledge and violent instincts that were contradictory and seemingly uncontrollable. She “speaks in her letter of ‘ashes and poisonous vapors scattered on what might be too good,’” he added; “but the ashes and the vapors, alas! were of her own making.”
It’s fortunate that Ottoline didn’t know how many of her friends’ letters were filled with malice toward her given her admission that she had an inferiority complex “that cropped up full vigor from time to time.” It’s actually quite shocking how much vindictiveness was leveled against her. Lawrence’s wife Frieda wrote, “inside those wonderful shawls there is cheapness and vulgarity.” While staying at Garsington, Carrington was hiding her letters from Strachey (so Ottoline didn’t know how caustic they were) and writing to him about Ottoline’s lack of boundaries: “She makes me steeped in debt by giving me all her letters to read. And then has long jabberfications about people deceiving her.”
By the time Ottoline moved back to London, the cynical group she’d spent so many years cultivating was drifting away, so she found it difficult to match the success of the Bedford Square salon and the early years at Garsington. It was 1919, and in the post-war era, the most popular salons were staged by socialites with lauded names like Cunard and Colefax. In a surprising twist during her last years, Ottoline grew closer to Virginia, who encouraged her to work on her memoirs: “Please do it, I think it is one of the things you owe the world. Pick us all to pieces. Throw us to the dogs. It is high time you came off your heights and did a little dusting in a highminded manner.”
Ottoline didn’t stoop to the Bloomsbury level of picking others to pieces but she did get some things off her chest. What I was left with after reading Darroch’s account of Ottoline’s life is that the amount of bashing she took proves she was resilient, and had she not been determined to live an intellectually engaged life, the entire creative atmosphere of an important era in literature and art may have been dramatically watered down. That’s the interesting thing about her story: in spite of her biggest weaknesses, she was responsible for contributing to one of history’s strongest legacies in the arts.
Ottoline Morrell Gets Lit © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.