Like Moths to the Flame of Ottoline

Did I actually ever read it? I can’t be certain that I did. If so, it was way back in the mists. I know I’ve watched several adaptations of it for the screen, big and small. There was the 1986 version with Sylvia Kristel – an interesting story herself – as the constantly disrobing focus, as well as a 1993 tele-series starring the late Joely Richardson that was also quite steamy. There is also a French version I may or may not have seen – my memory is so lacking these days – but given my passion for cinema from that country, it’s a fair bet I have.

But did DH Lawrence have an inspiration for what happened to Constance at Wragby Hall, or was it all fully from his imagination. There is good evidence that it was the former and her name, enough alone to invoke further investigation, was Ottoline. Why, we even know the name of the real life Mellors who enticed this upper crust damsel with his earthy charms. It was her very own gardener– Gilbert Spencer. And, what’s more, if we think of open marriage as having emerged from the fug of the swingin’ sixties, forget it. Our possible Lady Chatterley, Ottoline, was into it decades prior.

Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell was born a Cavendish-Bentinck in 1873. She was related, in a convoluted fashion, to the Duke of Wellington and became a lady due to her half-brother’s inheritance of a dukedom.

lady otto morrell

Her first love affair was with an older man, doctor come writer Axel Munthe. He was besotted and proposed, but was summarily rejected as he was atheist, she possessing a fervent love of her god. She soon rebounded an accepted advances from MP Phillip Morrell – a man of similar views on art and politics. He was, though, a notorious chaser of skirt and perhaps even slightly deranged, in that charming British way. They wed in 1902. They had an ‘understanding’ that the bit about the marriage vows that concerned fidelity didn’t apply to them. His rakish ways ensured he had more that a few pregnancies to deal with and Ottoline helped out by caring for any little bastards that came along from his loins. They weren’t without affection for each other and a daughter, Julian, arrived – her twin brother sadly dying at birth. But it wasn’t all one-way traffic. Various notables shared her bed, the most long lasting being Bertrand Russell. Their passion for each other saw over two thousand letters being exchanged. Others included Augustus John, the gardener of course and for a bit of variety, Dora Carrington – Lady O features briefly in the eponymous film of Dora’s life. There was a longish list of lesser lights of both genders who may, or may not, have – all involved in the arts in one way or another – except the horticulturist, although he moonlighted as a mason as well.

Although not overly wealthy by the standards of the day, the couple, nonetheless, at their height, supported two significant properties – Carsington Manor outside Oxford and a London town-house in Bedford Square – where else but in the suburb of Bloomsbury. Like moths to a flame the infamous habitués of that locale gathered at both locations to enjoy the hospitality of the intriguing couple – for she was exotic and different, to say the least, was Ottoline. TS Elliott was a regular, as well as Graham Greene whilst a tyro. During the Great War, Lytton Strachey sheltered with them while he fought off – sorry about the pun – the powers to be who wanted him at the front. Siegfried Sassoon recovered from his wounds at Carsington and was encouraged to go AWOL. You see the Morrells were committed pacifists, becoming none too popular in certain quarters due to their stance.

Straightened financial times came for the bohemian duo after the war, causing them to consolidate with a single, smaller residence. But their circle continued to grow to include Yeats, LP Hartley, DH himself and Virginia Woolf. Both Morrells fell under the latter’s thrall and became infatuated, but there is no evidence the great Woolf succumbed to their advances. Ottoline’s fervour for her religion, at odds with most of her set; her eccentricity in dress (vaguely Elizabethan) and her haughty demeanour, some suggesting covering up crippling shyness, only added to her status. But she became blighted by ill-health, being diagnosed with cancer in 1928. As a result she lost a portion of her lower jaw. She was greatly mourned in 1938 when she passed away, losing her battle, thanks to an administration of an experimental drug to ease her pain which, well, certainly did so.

Lady Ottoline Morrell by Adolf de Meyer ca. 1912

In death she left a legacy to us all. One of her rivals for the ardour of Russell, actress and writer Constance Malleson (her too devotee of the open marriage notion), based a novel around her life. Numerous others, including Huxley, Greene and Alan Bennett used her uniqueness to place a like woman in their works. Lawrence’s temptress, Hermoine Roddice, in ‘Women in Love’ he has acknowledged as being based on her, much to Ottoline’s distress at the time. So it seems a fair bet that her indiscretions with a man of the soil gave him the nub of an idea for another novel. She also had a fondness for photography. Google will take you to sites where you can view her portraits of the many celebrities of the day who graced her residences with their presence – fascinating. And in turn many artists placed her likeness on canvas – Augustus John among them. Cecil Beaton had his camera with him when he visited.

As was stated in an obituary of her, Ottoline had a ‘…great love for all things true and beautiful which she had more than anyone else…(and) no one can ever know the immeasurable good she did.’ Henry James describes her as ‘…some gorgeous heraldic creature – a Gryphon perhaps or a Dragon Volant.’ But let’s leave the last word to DH himself who wrote of Hermoine Roddice in ‘Women in Love’ – ‘Her long, pale face, that she carried lifted up, somewhat in the Rossetti fashion, seemed almost drugged, as if a strange mass of thoughts coiled in the darkness within her.’ That was Lady Ottoline – she was a one off.

The Lady’s photography =

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