Lady Ottoline was above all a stupendous hostess. One of those individuals historians and cultural pundits love to cuddle and criticize almost in the same breath. Her influence as a catalyst to artists, painters and writers during the Edwardian period and beyond was undisputed. Lacking the creative flame herself, she was excluded from the inspiration that she so remarkably fostered in others.
Born an aristocrat, Ottoline Violet Anne Cavendish-Bentwick, was bestowed with an unusual physique. At six foot three, with an impossibly beaky nose, she towered over her circle of protégés and so called friends, dressed in gaudy drapes and hats – Lytton Strachey described her appearance as “the Spanish Armada in full sail”-. She would add high heels to her attire and the final result was one of perplexing authority. Her cultivated façade added to her physical extravagance and made her often appear as an object of derision.
After an initial affair with Alex Munthe in Capri, Ottoline moved back to her stomping grounds. She married Philip Morrell, a liberal M.P. of pacifist leanings. They both entertained in their London home at Bedford Square. All the luminaries from the Bloomsbury circle frequented their parties, but it was at Garsington Manor, their country Tudor estate acquired by the couple in 1914, where Ottoline shone as a patron. The restlessness that pushed her to break the constraints of her aristocratic upbringing found an outlet in the salons where she generously encouraged the likes of Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, D.H. Lawrence, Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot among so many other admirers or hangers on. Her intellectual rebelliousness stayed safely on the side of non-political commitments, except for the pacifism that many of her class defended. She was not a participant in the world of Emmeline Pankurst and the emerging political and social rights for women.
Ottoline adopted the free morals of her companions and collected lover after lover. In 1911 she began a relationship with the philosopher Bertrand Russell which lasted for several years and was carried on with the acquiescence of her husband, a philanderer himself. It produced more than 2000 letters of correspondence and gives us a curious insight in a very unlikely relationship. In spite of their enduring bond, Ottoline hinted several times at the physical repugnance he provoked in her.
There was another side to Ottoline. A profound and vague spirituality that somehow ran parallel to her unattained longings to be someone she was not quite know how to be. She certainly wanted to be loved and appreciated. In her quest, she gave the best of herself to others. She may not have succeeded in giving it to herself.