Cotswold Life

A woman in love

‘She took Ber­trand Rus­sell to the gates of heav­enly pas­sion, but didn’t un­lock them as of­ten as he de­sired’

- Arts · Cowley, Oxford · British House of Commons · John Bercow · Oxford · Oxford University · D. H. Lawrence · Virginia Woolf · Bertrand Russell · Garsington · Aldous Huxley

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.

 ??  ?? Ot­to­line Mor­rell. Cour­tesy Na­tional Por­trait Gallery
Ot­to­line Mor­rell. Cour­tesy Na­tional Por­trait Gallery

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