Ottoline Morrell was the most famous literary hostess in England before and during World War I. Her “Thursdays” at her house on Bedford Square in London were matched only by the weekends at Garsington, the country estate where Ottoline and her husband, Philip, entertained some of the most famous artists and writers of the day, including W. B. Yeats, Charlie Chaplin, and T. S. Eliot. D. H. Lawrence parodied Ottoline in the character Hermione in his novel Women in Love (1920), and Aldous Huxley did the same in his novel Crome Yellow (1921). She had an affair with a gardener at Garsington in 1920 (which may have influenced Lawrence’s 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover), and another, longer affair with the brilliant philosopher Bertrand Russell, author of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913). Her husband was not idle: He propositioned the novelist Virginia Woolf, among others, and in March of 1917 announced to his wife that he had not one but two pregnant mistresses on his busy hands.
The story of the Morrells is just one of seven fascinating narratives Katie Roiphe weaves together in Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939. Her focus is less the scandals and the sexual adventures of these couplesand the triangles of various sizes and configurations they all maintainedthan their attempts to forge something new, marriage based on equality, freedom, and honesty. This period was one of incredible social instability. The Great War decimated a generation of British men at the same time that it propelled women into new roles and a new consciousness of the power they possessed, as in both the pacifist and the feminist movements of the time. The period also saw immense artistic experimentation and production. The major modernist artistsPablo Picasso, James Joyce, among many otherswere at work in this period redefining the very substance and structure of literature and art. Lovers were trying to shed outdated Victorian mores at the same time that writers were discarding inherited forms, in order to carve out something new, for literature as well as for human interaction.
Roiphe focuses on seven famous “families” in England in this intense period, from before World War I until just before World War II. She chooses writers and artists, plus one literary hostess, and uses their letters, diaries, and memoirs to reveal what they thought, wrote, and said about marriage and married life. This may have been the most writerly generation on record, for psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis had taught them the importance of feelings, especially sexual feelings, and their expression. They wrote voluminously about their feelings and about their relationships. Roiphe mines this library (her selected bibliography is a dozen pages long) and comes up with revealing glimpses of some of the most creative artists the twentieth century would see, people who were trying to figure out intimate relations in imaginative ways. Every chapter begins with a crisis in a marriage and shows whether it was resolved or not, and, in the process, Roiphe shows how successful these people were at forging something new in human relations.
H. G. Wells, for example, was the author of popular scientific romances (The Time Machine, 1895, The War of the Worlds , 1898) and in 1914 was settled into a comfortable country house in Essex with his open-minded wife, Jane, who had tolerated the series of sexual liaisons he carried on, when his current mistress, the writer and feminist Rebecca West, one hundred miles away, was giving birth to their son, Anthony. Roiphe spends her first chapter describing how these people managed their decade-long ménage à trois. West was a feminist and, like Wells, believed that not acting on one’s sexual attractions was hypocritical, but Roiphe concludes that, in spite of their radical ideas, West and Wells fell into a life of traditional marital hypocrisy anyway. In the end, she feels, they...
(The entire section is 1,626 words.)