A woman in love
‘She took Bertrand Russell to the gates of heavenly passion, but didn’t unlock them as often as he desired’
Describing someone as eccentric may cause offence, except to an eccentric. The bemused stares of others go unnoticed to those of an idiosyncratic bent: they don’t ignore ridicule, they simply don’t see it, being blessed with a sort of social, sartorial myopia. Such patched-of-elbow characters defy the laws of gravitas and do things differently; hard-core eccentrics are unconscious of more holes than sweater and simply wonder where the draught is coming from. There’s a whiff of otherness about them, and I’m not talking ripe pungency of cats and old books.
Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed the company and delightful oblivion of such people, some from old moneyed families, others with nothing but their wits to live on, but they all added brilliant colours to the tapestry.
As eccentrics go, Ottoline Morrell is up there with Vita SackvilleWest and the Bloomsbury set, all of whom have fascinated me for over 30 years. Lady Ottoline was a flamehaired aristocrat who captivated writers, painters and creatives of the early 20th century. Her ancestral lineage gave her a deceptively imposing air, made more formidable by aquiline features and a sixfoot frame, usually swathed in feathers, exotic garments and a flotilla of silks.
In creating a cultural retreat in an Oxfordshire village, she became synonymous with Garsington, a manor once held by Thomas Chaucer, Speaker of the House of Commons in the 15th century, and son of the playwright. Ottoline and her husband Philip, an Oxford solicitor, purchased Garsington Manor and 360 acres of land for £8,450 in 1913. Its ruinous state did not deter them; the neglected and unloved interior, with rotten floorboards and glassless windows, concealed a renaissance of the beauty that lay beneath. Built by William Wickham in the 1630s on monastic foundations that belonged to Abingdon Abbey, the manor is thought to have been crafted by master masons who honed their chisels on Oxford’s colleges. Now Grade Ii*-listed, this handsome manor house, sitting high on a hill, commands expansive views across the countryside.
In Ottoline’s hands, it became a comforting sanctuary, where gifted literati could fall into its sheltering arms. The Bloomsberries were regular guests, although as friends, razor blades would have been less cutting. She was the consummate hostess at her famous ‘Thursdays’, where influential writers and creatives gathered to compare talents. Ottoline suffered their mockery, dished out by those who dined at her table and then sneered in contempt behind her back, fuelled by intellectual snobbery.
Her lovers and friends read like a Who’s Who in the artistic world of the 1920s: Augustus John and Henry Lamb, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon and Roger Fry. She took Bertrand Russell to the gates of heavenly passion, but didn’t unlock them as often as he desired. Cruelly caricatured by Lawrence, she became the emotionally frayed Hermione Roddice in Women in Love, who ‘drifted along with a peculiar fixity of the hips’ clad in ostrich feathers and frail, yellow velvet. Aldous Huxley satirised her in Crome Yellow, reimagining her as Priscilla Wimbush, the empty-headed socialite ruled by the movement of the celestial heavens.
The walls of Garsington Manor boasted original artwork from the brushes of John, and Mark Gertler, in elegant rooms perfumed by the subtle scent of dried oranges and cloves. It sounds idyllic, but her guests took her, and her beautiful home, for granted, glories submerged beneath a riot of competing egos. Outside, the stunning Italianate gardens were her personal passion, inspired by trips to the Villa Capponi, overlooking the Tuscan hills; there was lush planting, statuary, a loggia, deep yew hedges – some thought to be over 200 years old – and monastic fishponds. Philip’s family had a long association with Garsington and he built the village hall in 1911, which still provides a social hub for the community.
During the Great War, the manor sheltered conscientious objectors, and the villagers took kindly to their benevolent lord and lady, especially the magnificently hatted Ottoline. They sold the house in 1928; it later played host to Garsington Opera from 1989 to 2011, and is now a private residence.
Ottoline was the heroine of her own literary masterpiece, with Garsington Manor the delectable setting. Though exploited for her kindness, she never swayed from doing what she thought was the right thing. She died in 1938 and, charitable to the end, requested no flowers; instead, money should be given to the poor. “It would” she said, “gladden my soul.” Her soul may have been uplifted in the afterlife, but it was shameful that an intelligent, intrinsically flawed fraternity used it so ill in this one.