When Joseph Conrad met Lady Ottoline Morrell

first encounters
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Turning 40 that summer of 1913 put Lady Ottoline Morrell in mind of things yet to be done. She had still, for example, to meet Joseph Conrad and entice him to one of her Thursdays. She did admire him - would Henry James serve as intermediary? "But dear lady... but dear lady," James expostulated, pacing the length of her grey drawing room at Bedford Square. "He has lived his life at sea - dear lady, he has never met 'civilised' women." Conrad would not understand her, James said; as for Conrad's wife, she was a "good cook" - a dubious talent. But he provided the introduction.

Conrad responded warily. Lady Ottoline's Bloomsbury reputation as society hostess on the prowl had no doubt travelled even to the farther reaches of Kent. And her presence! "Like a Spanish galleon, hung with golden coins and lovely silken sails," wrote Virginia Woolf. Others termed it "overdone". There were rumours, too, of lovers - the painters Augustus John, Henry Lamb, maybe even Roger Fry, and that odd mathematician Bertrand Russell. Conrad replied that he was not, after all, very interesting, and declined her invitation.

No matter. Lady Ottoline would come down to Kent herself by train. (If she could not display him, she would at least describe him.) At his moated farmhouse, Conrad, conservatively attired in double-breasted blue, awaited her. His welcome was formal (she was half sister to a duke), but later he opened up and spoke of the past - the Congo, the sea - and of his present difficulties with his writing. Most thrilling was when he touched on his sufferings; Lady Ottoline vicariously sought just such "experiences of the soul". James may have been right about the wife - a "good-looking fat creature, an excellent cook" - but he was otherwise mistaken. Conrad's mysterious eyes suggested untold adventures and experiences. He could have understood her, if he'd chosen to.

He did not so choose. Instead, at afternoon's end Conrad accompanied Lady Ottoline to the station and with a bow put her on the London train