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Complex portrait of one who lived on grand scale



Miranda Seymour

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

452 pages. $30 Ottoline Morrell has always gotten bad press. A strikingly original woman who wore only the most bizarre of hats on her masses of copper-color hair, Ottoline stood 6 feet tall even before she slipped into high-heeled red shoes. "Conventionality is deadness," she wrote in 1907, when society still demanded conformity, so society noticed that she wore Marie Antoinette's pearls when she visited her half-brother, the Duke of Portland, and when she mucked about in the perennial borders at Garsington.

Men desired her. Bertrand Russell was only one of her famous lovers; she pursued Siegfried Sassoon, and the artist Henry Lamb pursued her. Designing capes and curtains, distributing her largess, prying opinions about love out of the Oxford undergraduates who bicycled down for tea -- Ottoline was outrageous. Vanessa Bell found her contemptible; Nijinsky, who liked her, compared her to a giraffe. She looked like an exotic; she acted like a queen. Bloomsbury caricatured her as an outsider at her own parties, a vulgar woman lacking taste, talent or tact, and a grotesque despised for bossiness and meanness.

In "Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale," Miranda Seymour challenges the conventional view that Ottoline ingratiated herself into intellectual society by pretensions to brains and wealth. Unrestricted access to journals and letters and to Ottoline's original uncorrected memoirs enables Ms. Seymour to develop a new, complex portrait of the virago Virginia Woolf described "as a liar, a spiteful bitch, a mouldy rat-eaten ship, garish as a strumpet, slippery-souled, nefarious and abandoned."

At other, less hostile times, Woolf praised Ottoline's integrity, and was so struck by her beauty that she felt as if she had "suddenly got into the sea, and heard the mermaids fluting on their rocks."

In this fascinating and detailed biography, Ms. Seymour -- who obviously likes Ottoline and admires her spirit -- depicts the transformation of a shy, insecure, undereducated girl with a neurotic penchant for Thomas a Kempis into a very rare specimen of philanthropist.

Born in 1873 and unprepared for any role in life except that of wife, Ottoline refused to submit to the Victorian stereotype of womanhood idolized by the Edwardians. Instead, she turned herself and her home into works of art exhibited for community consumption. In a vague, aristocratic way, she wanted to do "good works," and she craved intellectual stimulation: "I must live life up to the hilt," she confided. "I entreat of fate to let me live finely."

But Ottoline always overdid everything -- including friendship -- and in her rush to bestow patronage, she forced herself on people, actually begged them to be her friends, and smothered them with attention.

A complex, paradoxical figure, she admitted to "a horror of opening myself to the world," yet she chose clothes that put her on public display. Ottoline and her pugs, her elaborate Italianate gardens, her liaisons -- spiritual, mystical and physical -- were "God's own gift to the quick and witty" members of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey.

D. H. Lawrence's portrayal of Ottoline as the "utterly horrible and disgusting" Hermione Roddice in "Women in Love" destroyed their friendship, and Aldous Huxley's attack in "Crome Yellow" devastated her. The Bloomsberries described her Thursday night salons at Bedford Square and her literary house parties at Garsington as pretentious at best. Yet artists and writers valued her opinions. Roger Fry, in fact, asked Ottoline, as a member of the Contemporary Art Society, to select paintings for the immensely influential Post-Impressionist Exhibition.

Resisting the temptation to casually psychoanalyze her subject's extravagant gift-giving, eating disorders and religious fixations, Ms. Seymour shows a woman who, in her own great need of love and attention, often forgot that her daughter also had needs.

In her own way, Ottoline stuck by her selfish, ineffective and slightly unbalanced husband, Philip Morrell, defending and protecting him through his infidelities and illegitimate children. It is no wonder that she wanted soul-baring, ethereal lovers, for most of her sexual forays, especially with her husband, were unsatisfactory.

"I know I have given love, affection, interest and sympathy," she wrote in her journal in 1929. "It has often been trampled on and abused or misunderstood and derided, but that doesn't matter. . . . "

What did matter was emotional intensity, and perhaps that is why all the major writers and artists sought her out at Garsington, the country home she made synonymous with cultural patronage. Ottoline never wrote great books, but during the birth of modernism she emerged as a fantastic self-creation; her own character may even have lent something to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Ottoline never painted a great picture, yet she sat for everyone from Augustus John to Roger Fry. Her contribution to art in the 20th century was her courage to live "life on the grand scale." She knew that it was "a damnably difficult thing to live fully, richly, gorgeously, and yet courageously," but she did just that.

By the time Ottoline died in 1938, disfigured by necrosis of the jaw, the grand scale had been reduced. T. S. Eliot and his wife had separated; Lawrence, Strachey, Nijinsky and Ottoline's boy-lover Lionel "Tiger" Gomme were dead. The friends who were left behind mourned deeply for her and for themselves. Virginia Woolf wrote her obituary for the Times; Henry Green praised "her love for all things true and beautiful." She had in truth lived a life of "active benevolence outside the conventions."

Ms. Seymour has made cunning use of letters and manuscripts to place Ottoline in her time and to prove that the woman was even more fascinating than the fictional character. Her private papers reveal that Ottoline had great insight into herself, little self-pity and much passion. Perhaps her great failing was her intense sincerity: Ottoline was compulsively earnest. Living life on the grand scale seemed to deplete her of all sense of irony.

Dr. Kaplan is an associate professor of English at Goucher College.

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