BOOK REVIEW / Mistress of bedside manor: Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale - Miranda Seymour: Hodder, pounds 25

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LADY Ottoline Morrell has figured in so many memoirs, paintings and novels that her image is familiar: six feet tall, splendid of hair, nose and jaw, carelessly roped with jewels, her clothes brilliant as pantomime costumes, her hats hoisted like flags to defy mockery. Her character was, loosely, that of an artists' and writers' groupie of noble birth. She knew that the world of the imagination was more interesting than the hunting-and-shooting society she had been born into, and she moved out of the latter and into the former as soon as she could.

In her twenties she pursued culture in Italy, and found that culture could take the form of a lover, in this case Axel Munthe, who with equal adroitness first seduced and then got rid of her. She kept the wrist-watch he gave her all her life. She also kept her taste for men of genius, or at least flamboyance. No one is infallible in choosing from the first XI, but she didn't often fall below the second. She saw herself as a muse, and she took the trouble to prepare herself, following up her continental tours with two terms' study of logic at St Andrews and a further two of Roman history and political economy at Oxford. Her future husband first saw her there, negotiating a bicycle in full-length white silk.

Philip Morrell was not from the first XI. He was a solicitor, socially far below her. Still, the Duke of Portland, her half-brother and the head of the family, got a report on him from an Oxford chaplain and decided he would do. He was at any rate an improvement on Munthe, and Ottoline was approaching 30. The couple were married in 1902; marriage liberated her to live the life she wanted.

Philip started the marriage as a dull and decent man, and although he had his moments of glory - when, as a Liberal MP during the war, he spoke up for pacifists in the House - he was effectively humiliated and crushed by Ottoline. Do-as-you-would-be-done-by was not the creed of her class: she was amazed and appalled when she found that the husband she cuckolded openly and variously for decades could, in turn, be discreetly unfaithful. Miranda Seymour has uncovered much more of Philip's story than has yet been known, and a sad, tangled tale it makes. Virginia Woolf said he was as 'coarse as an old ram'; even coarse old rams, you can't help feeling, may deserve some sympathy.

It's the remarks of Virginia Woolf - and Bertrand Russell, Augustus John, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, D H Lawrence et al - that made Ottoline famous. First in Bedford Square and then at Garsington Manor (beautified to her individual and exotic taste), she entertained and befriended them, sending food parcels and cheques to the indigent and always ready to open up a spare bedroom or cottage. Like many outstanding hostesses, she was often repaid with ingratitude and spite, both private and public. Miranda Seymour astutely says her guests sometimes felt she was begging for their affection, and this made them cruel.

Miranda Seymour is the first biographer to be given full access to Ottoline's papers, and she has corrected and filled out the record in a sympathetic and surely definitive account. It reads like a labour of love, but it can't have been easy to do. Ottoline received more than 2,000 letters from Bertrand Russell alone. Philip Morrell, who survived his wife, worked over the memoirs she left. Different witnesses have given conflicting accounts of some episodes, and there is much confusion over tangled love affairs. One effect of this book is to make me feel I never want to read another word about who went to bed with whom in the Bloomsbury group.

But it's not Miranda Seymour's fault that they were such a promiscuous swarm, and that their proclaimed creed of honesty and openness seems to have meant so many lies and cover-ups. Her biography sails bravely and fairly on, adding greatly to our knowledge of the people and period, and always warm for Ottoline at the centre. As the years go by, she is shown entertaining and encouraging a new generation of talent (Henry Green, David Cecil, Stephen Spender, William Plomer), and also winning back the affection of the old, quarrelsome one.

Lawrence, Huxley and Virginia Woolf all reaffirmed their love and admiration. They saw she was indeed extraordinary; that you can be absurd without being contemptible, and that it had taken courage as well as selfishness to live as she had. There is something to dislike in Ottoline's imperious ways, but no other woman of her background had a life even half as entertaining.

(Photograph omitted)