“Garsington,” an Oxford don (US: professor) said recently, “is the most important site in Anglophone literature”.
That’s because celebrated hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell turned Garsington Manor, her Jacobean country house near Oxford, into a combined literary salon, pacifists’ refuge, and near-perpetual party for left-leaning members of the British intelligentsia.
From 1915 to 1927, Garsington Manor hosted the likes of W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, Lytton Strachey, and various Huxleys—not to mention Henry Lamb (with whom Ottoline had an affair), Roger Fry (with whom she also had an affair), and the philosopher Bertrand Russell (with whom she had a very long affair).
So some people might think it’s ironic that her surname was pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable; it’s not mor-EL, like the mushrooms, but MOR-al, as in, well, moral. When I first started to read about her I didn’t know that, nor did I know back then whether her first name rhymed with lean or with line. I made the mistake of mentioning this to my husband, who came up with alternate words for “The Happy Wanderer” (you know, the one that starts “I love to go a-wandering” and goes “valderi, valderah” in the middle, right?) for the dilemma:
I love to go philandering, with Ottoline Morrell.
Philandering, at Garsington, she does it very well.
She does it very well.
(That may stick in your head for days. I apologize.)
Oh, and her husband, Phillip Morrell, lived at Garsington Manor, too, and entertained lovers of his own (he may have once propositioned Virginia Woolf, but it didn’t get him anywhere). Phillip is generally overlooked because Ottoline was so colorful, in many senses of the word. She wore unusual combinations of clothes in bright silks and satins, draped herself in shawls and scarves, and topped it all off with enormous, sometimes elaborate, hats. Her hair was red-gold to some; others called it orange. The “horn-like blasts” of her voice swooped up and down like “a cow mooing”. She stood six feet tall and liked red high heels. She had “strong features” according to some reports and was horse-faced according to others, while Augustus John, who painted her, said she had a “prognathous jaw and bold baronial nose.”
But Ottoline had a gift for bringing people together, for smoothing over disagreements, and for making all of her guests feel included. She could talk to anyone, and made the effort to make everyone feel at ease. She mixed comfortably with all classes at a time when it was usual for everyone concerned, from farm workers to aristocrats, to feel awkward and embarrassed by social contact across class barriers. The half-sister of a duke, Lady Ottoline was known to dance with her servants on occasion, and would invite her daughter’s governess and the French maid to swim (UK: bathe) in the ornamental pond with her world-famous guests. Ottoline enjoyed people all across the spectrum, just as she enjoyed the music hall as well as ballet (and hobnobbing with her friend Diaghilev).
In photos, Ottoline doesn’t seem all that exotic; maybe black-and-white doesn’t do her justice and she was meant for an age of color film. As for her height and features, she seems to fit right in with the members of the Bloomsbury group, many of whom were tall and thin with long, narrow faces. But these same Bloomsbury figures and other frequent guests took advantage of Ottoline’s hospitality and then wrote cruel comments behind her back.
Stephen Spender said later “it was fashionable to ridicule her”. Another friend suggested that there were two Ottolines: the real one, whom people genuinely liked, and the constructed one, an idea people liked to kick around. Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey wrote catty remarks about Ottoline to each other for years, but at least they kept their comments (relatively) private. Hermione Roddice in Women in Love is D. H. Lawrence’s caricature of Ottoline, which she found tremendously hurtful. Aldous Huxley consoled her, then turned around and put his own uncomplimentary versions of her in Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves. W. J. Turner caricatured her in The Aesthetes; Yeats’s decision to continue promoting Turner’s work after that ended Ottoline’s friendship with Yeats.
The party ended in 1927 when the Morrells moved to London and sold the Manor. The house is still in private hands, although the owner lets the village hold a fete in the grounds. (For 21 years a summer opera company performed outdoors there, but it’s recently moved, too.)
I was lucky enough to be there for the village fete and so get a chance to wander the grounds, but between the demonstrations of Irish dancing, the coconut shy, and the competition for the largest vegetable marrow, it was hard to imagine literary conversations on the terrace, assignations in the formal gardens, or hanky-panky on the lawn. The rowboat rental on the ornamental pond made it impossible to imagine Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf swimming there, but I think that would be difficult to picture in my mind’s eye even without the rowboats.
What I did find easy to imagine, though, was Ottoline at the fete. All those different people and all that activity? I think she would have loved it.