On July 31, 1916, Russell went to the Lavender Hill Police Station in London in support of Clifford Allen, the leader of the No-Conscription Fellowship, who was surrendering to authorities that day as a conscientious objector. Russell was also working for the NCF and was beginning to experience his own repercussions for his opposition to the War—just two weeks earlier he had been dismissed from his lectureship at his beloved Trinity College, Cambridge. Also at Lavender Hill that day in support of Allen was another NCF volunteer, Lady Constance Malleson, a young actress who went by the stage name Colette O’Niel. Because of her activist stance, she would soon find it impossible to find work on the London stage and, along with her husband, actor and playwright, Miles Malleson, would devote most of her time to pacifist causes.
In their respective autobiographies, Russell and Colette recorded their first impressions of each other on that summer day. Russell wrote that he had learned from Allen that Colette was “generous with her time, free in her opinions, and whole-hearted in her pacifism. That she was young and very beautiful, I had seen for myself. … On these data, I naturally took steps to know her better.” Colette observed: “He was sitting at the other end of the bench where I was sitting. A small man, with a fine brow, aristocratic features, silver-grey hair, and a passionate expression. He was conventionally dressed in dark clothes and he wore a high, stiff collar. He sat very still, his hands inert upon his knees. He seemed detached in mind and body—but all the furies of hell raged in his eyes.”
The first time they had the opportunity to be alone came two months later, on September 23. They both attended an NCF convention where Colette heard Russell speak. After the meeting, as Colette wrote, “we went to a restaurant across the road and had supper together. Then we walked back to the Attic [the Mallesons’ flat] and talked half the night. At least, Russell did.” Russell’s account adds an important detail: “We talked half the night, and in the middle of talk became lovers.” One morning shortly thereafter, Russell came upon a street vendor calling out “sweet lovely roses.” He bought a bunch and had them delivered to Colette. “Sweet lovely roses,” he later wrote, “were ever since a sort of refrain to all my thoughts of Colette.” At the time, Russell was 44, while Colette was a month shy of her 21st birthday.
Russell and Colette were greatly attracted to each other, but from the beginning, there were factors that impeded their relationship. There was the War, of course, and their own work against it, which often prevented them from seeing each other as often as they would have liked. Their marriages were not really a problem—Russell had been separated from his first wife, Alys, since 1911, and Colette and Miles were tolerant of other relationships. A greater dilemma was caused by Russell’s other romantic entanglements. His affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, which had begun in 1911, was admittedly waning, but he still had strong feelings for her. Earlier in the year, he had begun a futile affair with Vivien Eliot, wife of his former student, T.S. Eliot (see Letter 11). Meanwhile, he was just getting to know the writer Katherine Mansfield (see Letter 13).
Not surprisingly, Russell wondered about the nature of this new affair with Colette, who was not even half his age. He wrote: “I did not know in the first days how serious was my love for Colette. I had got used to thinking that all my serious feelings were given to Ottoline. Colette was so much younger, so much less of a personage, so much more capable of frivolous pleasures, that I could not believe in my own feelings, and half supposed that I was having a light affair with her.” He would soon discover, however, that his feelings for Colette were deeper than he had realized. He wrote: “The harshness and horror of the war world overcame me, but I clung to Colette. In a world of hate, she preserved love, love in every sense of the word from the most ordinary to the most profound, and she had a quality of rock-like immovability, which in those days was invaluable.”
For her part, Colette would later write: “I had an odd feeling that it was perhaps the most important thing that had ever happened to me—or would ever happen to me: this meeting with Russell.” In fact, despite other affairs, she would be in love with him for the rest of her life. Russell, too, would discover a recurring interest in Colette amidst his affairs and three more marriages.
Russell told Colette about Ottoline shortly after their affair began. Colette had met Ottoline the previous year—like many other pacifists, she and Miles had been visitors at Garsington, Ottoline’s home, and had been greatly impressed by their host. Colette took Russell’s news in stride—despite her deep feelings for him, she was not looking for marriage or exclusivity, at least not yet. Meanwhile, Russell did not initially tell Ottoline about Colette. This omission may have been indicative of just how deeply he felt about his new love, for he had usually confided in Ottoline about his other affairs. Ottoline was aware that something was afoot and coaxed the truth out of Russell in the early summer of 1917. Despite feelings of jealousy, she would not stand in his way.
It was around this time that Colette wrote the letter on display here, dated June 9, 1917. It is one of the very few surviving original letters from Colette to Russell—hundreds of other original letters were destroyed in a fire. (Fortunately, Colette had had these letters typed and edited; these typescripts are held by the Russell Archives). This June 9 letter is very brief but its feeling is very strong: “I am so full of happiness in the thought of you and of our love.”
Later that summer, the new lovers would escape the War by taking a holiday in the countryside—such holidays were always their happiest times. However, there is a portentous irony to one of Colette’s anecdotes of this trip. “One day we were out walking in rough, tempestuous weather and he sat down on the top of a heathery bank with his hair all wild in the wind and reeled off from beginning to end Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. … It suited B.R. – ‘tameless, and swift, and proud’.” What she did not know was that only a few years earlier Russell had just as enthusiastically shared that very poem with Ottoline, writing it out by hand in a commonplace book in which they shared verses that inspired them.
Meanwhile, the War intervened. In May of 1918, Russell began serving a six-month sentence at Brixton Prison for having written a pamphlet that “made certain statements likely to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the USA;” he would be released in September (see Letter 16). Russell and Colette had spent the ten days leading up to his imprisonment together, and while he was in Brixton, they surreptitiously wrote letters to each other, and Colette visited him as often as permitted. However, Colette had had an affair with the film director, Maurice Elvey, the previous year and was seeing him again, and she may also have had an affair with an American officer, one Col. J.B. Mitchell. Russell was beside himself with jealously. He wrote: “While I was in prison, I was tormented by jealousy the whole time…. I allowed jealousy to lead me to denounce her with great violence, with the natural result that her feelings towards me were considerably chilled. We remained lovers until 1920, but we never recaptured the perfection of the first year.”
The War ended two months after Russell’s release from Brixton, and despite the obvious relief, the War’s end had a further detrimental effect on Russell’s relationship with Colette. As he noted: “During the War we had many things to do in common, and we shared all the very powerful emotions connected with the War. After the War things became more difficult and more strained. From time to time we would part for ever, but repeatedly these partings proved unexpectedly temporary.”
The first parting occurred in 1921, but its genesis dated from 1919 when Russell began an affair with the woman who would become his second wife, Dora Black. Russell had earlier met Dora when she was a student at Cambridge’s Girton College. In the summer of 1919 she was among a party who joined Russell for a holiday in Lulworth. Colette and Dora were soon aware of each other’s place in Russell’s life, but what sealed Colette’s fate in Russell’s eyes was Dora’s desire to have children, even without marriage. Colette was passionately devoted to her acting career, which took off again at the end of the War. At that time, such a career was not compatible with having a family. Ironically, just as Ottoline had refused to leave her husband for Russell, now Colette refused to leave her career for him. In Dora, Russell found a willing alternative. When Russell visited the new communist state of Russia in 1920, he wanted Dora to go with him, but, for logistical reasons he was not able to take her (she ended up going on her own). However, Dora did accompany Russell to China later in 1920 where he was a lecturer at Government University in Beijing for a year.
By the time Russell and Dora returned to England in August of 1921, Dora was six-months pregnant. Russell and Colette had kept in touch during Russell’s sojourn in China, and both assured each other of their love. Colette was aware of the pregnancy and even of Russell’s and Dora’s plan to marry once Russell was divorced from Alys. (They would marry in September; meanwhile, Colette and Miles were separated and would divorce in 1923). In Colette’s mind, however, such was the nature of her relationship with Russell that they would be able to overcome these circumstances. Three days after arriving from China, Russell met with Colette once again. However naively, Colette was angry to learn that Russell and Dora did not just plan to marry but would actually live together. Their affair was over. As Colette wrote in her autobiography: “Those war years, as it turned out, held all my life. I woke up one fine morning in 1921 to find life finished.” It was the first of three endings, and they would not be in touch again for four years.
Russell and Dora had an unconventional marriage and were, at least theoretically, willing to accept other relationships. Eventually, however, the strain of multiple romances grew too intense. In the midst of this situation, Russell’s and Colette’s interest in each other was rekindled. They spent the last two weeks of July 1930 at the Russells’ house, Carn Voel, in Cornwall, where Colette met Russell’s young children, John Conrad and Katharine (who had been born in 1923); Dora was away at the time. In 1931, Colette sent Russell the manuscript of her autobiography which was published later that year. Its title, After Ten Years, conveyed her hope that Russell had returned to her, ten years after their initial break. However, Russell had once again found love elsewhere. As he informed Dora, he had “transferred his affections” to Patricia ‘Peter’ Spence, the children’s governess, who had been present at Carn Voel during Colette’s visit. For Colette, this marked her second ending with Russell.
In 1935, Russell and Dora were divorced, and the following year he married Peter; their son, Conrad, was born in 1937. Russell and Peter spent much of the Second World War in the United States. Meanwhile, Colette had retired from acting in 1932. She published two novels in the 1930s, including The Coming Back, a thinly disguised account of her love affair with Russell—she would later dismiss the work. She also left England for Scandinavia and, in the early months of the Second World War, bravely volunteered in Finland after the Soviet invasion. When the German army showed up in Finland to fight the Soviets, she fled by rowing single-handedly 50 kilometers to safety in Sweden.
Russell and Peter returned to England in 1944, by which time Russell and Colette had resumed writing to each other. In 1948, Russell visited her in Sweden. The following year Colette moved back to Britain and even looked for a cottage in Wales to be near Russell—he and Peter had a country home there—but ended up eventually buying a cottage in Suffolk instead. Russell’s marriage with Peter was unravelling, and it appeared that he and Colette might finally end up together. But Russell hesitated. His young son, Conrad, blamed Colette for the breakup of his parents’ marriage, and Peter encouraged his hostility towards his father. Once again, Colette felt thwarted in her love for Russell.
Colette wrote to Russell in November 1949: “I see now that your inability to care for anybody, with the whole of you, for longer than a rather short time, must be more painful to you than it is to those who are able to continue caring in spite of everything. Your life is a complicated cocoon, getting more and more involved always. Three times I’ve been drawn into its centre and three times thrown aside. … Goodnight and goodbye. It is at least a clean break.” They never saw each other again.
However, their relationship was not at an end. Their correspondence resumed before long, and in the late 1950s, by which time Russell had been married to his fourth wife, Edith Finch, for nearly a decade, Colette sent Russell a bouquet of red roses on his birthday—she would continue this practice for the rest of Russell’s life. In May of 1969, Russell received his last birthday bouquet from Colette—he was now 97 and would die the following February. He wrote her a thank you note: “A thousand thanks for the ‘sweet lovely roses’ which gave a sharp pang of joy. I think of you very often and very lovingly and with unfailing gratitude. With all my heart, yours ever, B.”
Colette began depositing her archives to McMaster University Library in the late 1960s, a task completed by her executor, Phyllis Urch, following Colette’s death in 1975.
Note: With thanks to Sheila Turcon for reviewing an earlier draft. Any remaining errors are my own.
Sources: (1) Bertrand Russell. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944 (Volume II). London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1968. (2) Constance Malleson. After Ten Years. London and Toronto: Jonathan Cape, 1931. (3) Ronald W. Clark. The Life of Bertrand Russell. Jonathan Cape and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975. (4) Nicholas Griffin, ed. The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970. London and New York: Routledge, 2002; includes the quotes from Colette’s 1949 letter to Russell, and Russell’s 1967 note to Colette. (5) Sheila Turcon, “A Bibliography of Constance Malleson”. Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies n.s. 32 (winter 2012–13): 175–90.
June 9, 1917
My Darling: Yesterday evening was quite perfect. I am so full of happiness in the thought of you & of our love.
I hope you got early to bed & are well rested this morning. I must start at once.
All all my heart is with you—
 ‘The Attic’ was what Colette and her husband, Miles Malleson, called their upper floor flat on Bernard Street, London. This letter was written on letterhead from Nimmy Nott Cottage, Bellingdon, but was not composed there.
 Russell and Colette had obviously been together the night before. They had both recently returned from a United Socialist Council conference in Leeds where Russell had spoken on June 3.
Bertrand Russell Archives, Box 6.67, Document 200804B. Copyright McMaster University. Copy provided for personal and research use only. For any other use, permission of McMaster University is required.