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Designing Woman : OTTOLINE MORRELL: Life on the Grand Scale, By Miranda Seymour (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30; 452 pp.)

August 22, 1993|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis is an assistant Book Review editor

When D.H. Lawrence first published "Women in Love" in 1920, he never denied that his wife and friends--Frieda, Katharine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray--appeared thinly disguised as the major, sometimes repellent characters.

One of the cruelest portrayals in the book is that of Lawrence/Birkin's discarded lover Hermione Roddice, with her sing-song, languorous, affected drawl. (Think of the exotic Eleanor Bron, who portrayed Hermione in the movie version, singing out "It sounds like Megalo-MAN-NEE-A!") Hermione is the classic aesthete, whose eccentric, deliberate mannerisms make her young house guests squirm in discomfort and embarrassment, suppressing giggles.

"Your passion is a lie," Birkin informs Hermione in front of his future love, Ursula/Frieda. "It isn't passion at all, it is your will. It's your bullying will. You want to clutch things and have them in your power. . . . You haven't got any real body, any dark sensual body of life. You have no sensuality. You have only your will and your conceit of consciousness, and your lust for power, to know."

Poor Ottoline Morrell, the real life prototype for Hermione. She just had that kind of affect on people. They thought she was controlling and ludicrous. Nobody tried harder to be kind, supportive, to strive intellectually or be loved than Ottoline. Yet nearly everyone she counted on as a friend poked fun at her behind her back.

What did Lady Ottoline Morrell do to merit this $30, 452-page biography?

Is it enough to have been personally acquainted with nearly every important writer or artist of her time? Taken Bertrand Russell as a lover? Belong to the British aristocracy? (Her brother was a duke.) To have been one of the founders of England's Contemporary Art Society? Introduced a skeptical British public to the Ballet Russe?

Ottoline is referred to in the biographies, letters and memoirs of every member of the Bloomsbury group. And she found herself--often to her own horror--appearing in the novels of her numerous "friends" in broth-thin disguises.

The best known may be Lawrence's Hermione Roddice, but not to be overlooked are Aldous Huxley's Priscilla Wimbush in "Chrome Yellow," Lady Caroline Bury in Graham Greene's "It's a Battlefield," Osbert Sitwell's parody of her as Lady Septugesima Goodley in "Triple Fugue" and Walter Turner's devastating portrait of one Lady Caraway in "The Aesthetes." In "Brideshead Revisited" Evelyn Waugh has Anthony Blanche "wonder aloud to Charles Ryder whether or not he should accept his Sunday invitation to Garsington," the Morrell's Oxford home where shy, tongue-tied students mingled with famous artists and writers.

Ottoline Bentinck was born on June 16, 1873, the only daughter in an upper-crust English family. She matured into a gangly young woman, six-feet-tall (at the turn of the century!) with a cascade of thick red hair, a large nose and protruding chin. She was considered an exotic beauty in her time. (Russell described her face in his memoirs as "horsy" and he had been her lover and a loyal friend!)

Ottoline knew her appearance was unusual, so with aristocratic panache, she developed a bold style uniquely her own. Her vividly colored gowns might be inspired by a Velasquez painting or the Russian Ballet. She sported enormous hats (one had little rodents perched on the brim.) Well into old age, she sailed into rooms in billows of satin, silk, embroidery, magnificent materials skimpily sewn into theatrical costumes.

She married badly. Handsome Philip Morrell was a failed attorney who aspired to liberal politics, for years alienating Ottoline's conservative titled family.

They had one daughter, Julian. Ottoline proved to be an uninvolved, less than ideal parent, not so different from other people of her background and class.

Philip turned out to be a serial adulterer with no sexual interest in his wife. Ottoline, in her innocence, thought he lacked a sex drive. "Every woman in Bloomsbury was claiming to have been eyed by Philip or propositioned by Bertie (Russell)," Seymour writes. "Not to have received their attention was to seem unattractive."

It was terrible loneliness, not sex, that drove Ottoline into the arms of men outside her marriage. One can hardly accuse her of adultery, she was so starved for affection.

Bertrand Russell fell madly in love with her. She could not reciprocate his physical passion, however. Despite that, they were lovers on and off for seven years. Philip, carefully covering up his own dalliances, practically blessed Ottoline's affair with Russell. Once, when the Morrell's took an eight-day holiday, Philip left midway in the week on the same day that Russell was due to arrive. The two men diplomatically took different trains.

Ottoline's main accomplishments in life rested in her various supportive roles as patroness, surrogate mother, lover, friend, therapist, confidante, buyer and publicist, to England's most talented painters and writers before and during the first World War.

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