Ottoline Morrell

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Lady Ottoline will no doubt always have her detractors and her champions among literary and social historians, but on one point all commentators agree: she was an altogether extraordinary woman who did indeed live life on a grand scale. Over the years it has been the Bloomsbury writers who have provided the standard profile of Ottoline. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and D.H. Lawrence have all characterized her as a comically affected, ersatz bohemian, a society hostess who, without the talent to create art herself, collected and displayed artists in her Bedford Square drawing rooms and Garsington gardens. As the first biographer to have complete access to Ottoline’s private journals and letters, Seymour undermines these spiteful accounts and presents a picture of a generous, intellectually curious woman able to capture the allegiance of several generations of artists and critics. A newly discovered cache of Ottoline’s letters to Strachey exposes him in particular as a mean-spirited caricaturist and helps establish her as a sincere, cultivated benefactress, not the mindless dilettante of legend.

Born in 1873, the niece of the Fifth Duke of Portland, Ottoline Violet Anne Cavendish Bentinck endured a painful childhood, suffering under the emotional demands of a religiously zealous mother and the growing demands of her own emergent aesthetic sensibility. Seymour sees this early tension between the puritanical and the artistic resolved in Ottoline’s...

(The entire section is 470 words.)