BOOK REVIEW / Edwardian hostess with the mostest: 'Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale' - Miranda Seymour: Hodder & Stoughton, 25 pounds

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IN THE golden Edwardian summer, Lady Ottoline Morrell was in her late thirties and pretty busy. Besides doing her duty as a mother and the wife of an MP, she was an active founder-member of the Contemporary Arts Society, an indefatigable hostess and, for a time during the spring of 1911, mistress to three exceptionally demanding men, Bertrand Russell, Henry Lamb and Roger Fry. 'I was always a magnet for egotists,' she said, and extreme egotism is probably the only feature that those three had in common. Her journals, letters and private papers now provide many answers to the question of what she actually did: this magnificent book explains why it mattered.

For a start, she was famously beautiful. Our picture of her has been drawn with the acid pen of Lytton Strachey, distorted into caricature by the many writers who accepted her help and hospitality and failed to resist the opportunity to mock her idiosyncrasy. But artists loved her, and she was forever being asked to sit for them. She was six feet tall, with immensely long legs, abundant red-gold hair and turquoise eyes. She made the most of it, wearing scarlet high-heeled shoes and dramatic, glowing, swirling silken clothes. Her hats were legendary. George Barker remembered a 'prizewinning Cowes yacht balanced upon her marvellous auburn head' and another favourite resembled a teacosy trimmed with miniature hedgehogs.

Ottoline was very taken with Augustus John, who, writes Miranda Seymour with enjoyable relish, caused 'Bloomsbury gentlemen to draw up their skirts with maidenly shrieks as he stalked into their territory, handsome as a Celtic hero and rampantly heterosexual'. He painted her as a Sybil and a gypsy. Henry Lamb, a very trying little lover, depicted her as a holy, soulful saint. Simon Bussey, aiming at a similar effect, produced a Salvation Army officer, but it was Charles Conder who came closest to the truth. His portrait shows her as a watchful, wistful observer. She did seem to belong more to the 18th century than to her own.

So did her parties. Her pedigree - she was the half-sister of the Duke of Portland - gave her access to the wealthiest and most influential people in London and it was her happy idea to ask them to dinner on Thursdays, as potential patrons to the young and struggling artists she invited to meet them later in the evening. After her death, Henry Yorke, (the novelist Henry Green), wrote to her husband, Philip, of the immeasurable good she did in this way 'to literally hundreds of young men like myself who were not worth her little finger'. Among them were Jacob Epstein, Nijinsky and Stanley Spencer.

The famous Thursdays began in 1907 at Bedford Square and soon eclipsed Clive and Vanessa Bell's play-readings in Gordon Square and Vanessa's sister Virginia's buns-and-cocoa in Fitzroy Square. The Bloomsbury Group was just beginning, and although Ottoline's influence and circle of friends extended far beyond them, it was the Bloomsberries whose anecdotes about her established the distorted vision that survived. Miranda Seymour stays commendably calm as she carefully unpicks all the lies, rumours and gossip, though nobody reading this book could be left with much respect for them all. Their creed was, ironically, based on G E Moore's insistence on absolute honesty but was in practice only a hair's breadth from the spite and slander into which they continually lapsed.

Strachey was the worst. Camping it up in long red beard, high- heels, earrings and yellow corduroy shorts, he professed himself to be her most devoted friend while indulging in scornful descriptions of detestable fellow-guests, brainless hosts and hateful games. Virginia Woolf was one of the few to ask him why, if it was so loathsome to stay with the Morrells when they had moved to the manor house at Garsington, he was always going back, and for weeks at a time. In fact, she was not much better herself, writing gleefully to her sister in 1926, 'Garsington presents a scene of unparalleled horror. Needless to say I am going to stay there'.

Ottoline was, says Ms Seymour, God's own gift to them all and they revelled in mocking her, though eventually many of them regretted their bitchiness. Stephen Spender, who had written 'nothing in London is more tedious than a tea with Ottoline', admitted recently, feebly, that he 'had been given the impression that it was fashionable to ridicule her'.

Garsington was unique. Originally almost an extension of her Thursdays, it became a long-stay haven for pacifists and conscientious objectors during the First World War. With its large home farm, it provided a permissible occupation for people who were often better at writing sonnets than pig-farming. Though Aldous Huxley took to haymaking and Clive Bell was not above a little light hoeing with the village women, they were not efficient labourers and by the end of the war the Morrells were virtually bankrupt as a result of their abundant generosity.

D H Lawrence was a frequent visitor and chose to recreate Ottoline as the ghastly Hermione Roddice in Women in Love, another parody that eclipsed the truth. Though Ottoline managed to forgive him, even Virginia Woolf was moved to remark to her sister: 'My word, what a cheap little bounder he was.'

Above nearly all of this Ottoline sailed, and some people were brave enough to admire her publicly. In the cruel April of 1934 T S Eliot sent her huge bunches of lilac; the year before, old Walter Sickert did a can-can with her and, over the last 27 years of her life, Bertrand Russell wrote her more than 2,000 devoted letters. Working-class people with no snobbish hang-ups thoroughly enjoyed her eccentricities and her spontaneous kindness. In George V's jubilee celebrations she delightedly reported that people mistook her for a maypole and danced around her. With Philip's Burnley constituents or the villagers at Garsington she was immensely popular, though the local vicar was more ambivalent.

Her love-life was certainly unusual, particularly considering her lifelong religious fervour, not to mention her constant, concealed ill-health. Miranda Seymour explains her many affairs as an extension of her generosity, adding that she only enjoyed sex with one man, a young Oxfordshire stonemason called Tiger who died suddenly in her arms. Philip showed little interest and she assumed him to be indifferent to sex until two women bore him sons and a multitude of other escapades came to light, though Ms Seymour adds carefully that discretion still has to be observed about some of them. Women fell constantly and hopelessly in love with Ottoline all her life, from the stout and lively young art historian Maud Cruttwell, who wrote her 60 adoring letters in 1899, to the extravagantly stormy old composer Dame Ethel Smyth in 1933 who told Philip simply 'I worshipped her'.

Even a long review cannot do justice to the excellence of this biography. Though painstakingly researched and meticulously annotated, it is written with a humour and vigour worthy of its subject. The sycophants are savaged and the hypocrites humiliated. At last, you feel, closing it reluctantly, Ottoline has got the treatment she deserved.

(Photograph omitted)