Books: A musical magic circle

Sarah Bradford reads the life of an Edwardian Lady with a taste for scandal; Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse by Jessica Douglas- Home, Harvill, pounds 20
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Even today a woman who lived openly and in style with a harem of four men, three of them younger than herself, would be considered out of the ordinary. But then Violet Gordon Woodhouse, the subject of this biography, was an extraordinary woman to whom normal rules (in her view at least) did not apply. In her eyes and those of her friends, her unique artistry on the harpsichord and clavichord, coupled with an alluring and dominating personality, entirely justified what to Edwardian society was an uniquely scandalous way of life.

Violet was undoubtedly an enchantress, both in her magical musical powers and her ability to enslave men and women, husbands, lovers, servants, friends. At the time people attributed this to her exotic Indonesian ancestry; her maternal grandfather married the granddaughter of a Sumatran ranee. Violet was exceptionally graceful, small, slim and dark, with brown eyes and jet-black hair (which later in life she dyed an astonishing steely blue). There was, however, nothing exotic about her father's family. The Gwynnes owned an engineering company, Gwynne & Co, based on their invention of the centrifugal pump. James Gwynne (Violet's father) married her mother, May Purvis, against ferocious family opposition undoubtedly based on suspicions about her mixed blood. He was a stubborn, practical man: among his wedding presents to his delicate, romantic bride who was suspected of being tubercular, was the prosaic gift of a respirator.

James Gwynne's ascent to the squirearchy mirrored the rise of the middle classes from trade to landowning typical of the Victorian age. He bought two East Sussex manors, Folkington Place and Wootton, steadily acquiring land from neighbouring aristocrats until by the end of his life it could be said that "the hunt could run all day without ever leaving Squire Gwynne's boundaries." At Folkington there were Canalettos on the walls and a fine library, hothouses, and stables for 20 horses. James was a tyrannical and unsympathetic husband and father in the Victorian mode. Violet was the only one of his seven children never to suffer from his black moods and fits of temper; she could beguile her father into giving her almost anything she wanted. She was the family star, always the centre of attention, her musical genius recognised from the age of seven. By the time she was 20 she was moving in musical circles and occasionally playing in public. She longed to be allowed to play professionally but this her father would never allow; despite her horror when told the facts of life by her mother, she realised that marriage was her only route to independence and self- fulfilment.

When she was 23, she set her sights on Gordon Woodhouse, in whom she detected the qualities she needed in a husband - kindness, loyal devotion and an income large enough to support her. Gordon was shy and not very interested in women. Violet made it clear from the start that their marriage was to be platonic and he accepted it. She was already an object of desire for lesbians, although it is not clear how far her relationships went in this direction; she was undoubtedly a flirt and encouraged adoration in both men and women.

Gordon gave Violet lifelong devotion on her own terms, not even seeming to mind when she fell in love with the Hon William Barrington, heir to an Oxfordshire estate, and he with her. Gordon accepted his wife's obsession with Barrington; by 1901 they were living in a contented menage a troi at Southover, a household financed and run by Gordon, while Violet concentrated on her music and her role as goddess of the shrine and Bill developed his talent for garden design. It was not long before it became a menage a cinq as two more Violet worshippers, the rich, witty Max Labouchere, and, later, the Hon Denis Tollemache joined the circle. Hovering in the wings would be Violet's female adorers. It was tacitly accepted that Bill was Violet's real "husband".

Violet's exotic life-style is given added poignancy by being described through the eyes of her plain spinster sister, Dorothy, who cherished an unrequited tendresse for Gordon. "Bobo" as she called Violet, remained to her an object of wonderment as, with exquisite selfishness and absolute single-mindedness, she created her own image, indulging her taste for unusual and expensive clothes and objects, and developed her musical talent.

On a typical day in London, she would spend the morning practising then sally forth to Fortnum and Mason, accompanied by her "tail" of four adorers who would compete with each other to buy her presents. Music was at the centre of her life, she was friends with Delius, Sir Thomas Beecham, the composer, Ethel Smyth (who of course fell in love with her), Dolmetsch, Diaghilev. She gave Sunday concerts at her house in London, where, among others, the young Osbert Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were transfixed by her performances.

World War One broke up the magic circle; Denis was captured, Max killed and Bill sent to the Middle East. A combination of the war and Violet's extravagance had such a severe effect on Gordon's finances that Violet was forced to play for money; in her late 40s she was at the zenith of her abilities and much in demand. Delius wrote of her that she was "a real artist - who plays the harpsichord most beautifully and plays us all the lovely English music of the 15th and 16th centuries - also Bach and Scarlatti." In the post-war years her skills reached new heights, touching even the unmusical, like Roger Fry. During World War Two she developed an intense relationship with Sacheverell Sitwell who encouraged her in a late-flowering passion for Domenico Scarlatti.

Jessica Douglas-Home has a real gift for the evocation of the spirit of place, particularly in the chapters on Violet's post-war life with Gordon, Bill and Denis at Nether Lypiatt in Gloucestershire, their home from 1923 to the end of their lives. Her descriptions of the house and surrounding countryside come alive, as do the Arts and Crafts circles in Gloucestershire, the "Artists of the Golden Valley" patronised by Violet. Gordon Woodhouse having been cut out of his mother's will because of her disapproval of Violet's menage, Violet had her usual stroke of luck when the butler murdered Gordon's sisters and their inheritance passed to him. She could now afford every luxury; visitors to Nether Lypiatt were struck by the wonderful food orchestrated by Gordon, the beauty of the garden created by Bill, and the sight of Violet's two Pekingese being taken for a drive in her chauffeur-driven Daimler. Jessica Douglas-Home brilliantly illuminates Violet's life and the intricacies of her friendships while never losing sight of the importance to her of her music.

Violet was a monster but nonetheless a life-enhancer and a performance artist of real importance. With skilful use of letters and diaries and painstaking research, Douglas-Home has contrived an entrancing portrait of this unusual woman which will enchant even those who are uninterested in music.