On March 19, 1911, Russell stayed at the London home of Ottoline and Philip Morrell en route to Paris where he was to give a series of lectures at the Sorbonne. Russell had campaigned for Philip, a Liberal candidate for Parliament, in the election of the previous year. On this particular night, however, Philip was absent, having been called away on business. After the other dinner guests departed, Russell and Ottoline stayed up until 4:00 talking. Russell bared his soul to her, and as he says in his Autobiography, “I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling.” Thus began one of the greatest love affairs in both their lives.
Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938) strove for “life on the grand scale.” This phrase was used by Miranda Seymour in the title of her 1992 biography of Ottoline and is taken from a 1927 entry in Ottoline’s journal: “It is indeed a damnably difficult thing to live fully, richly, generously and yet courageously. To live on the grand scale.” Though an aristocrat, she eschewed her background in favour of bohemian unconventionality and was renowned for wearing colourful and exotic clothes and hats and for mirroring this style in her home. Ottoline extended her unconventionality in support of new modes of art and literature. In 1910 she worked with artist and critic Roger Fry to select paintings for an exhibit at the Grafton Galleries in London that brought post-impressionism to the English public for the first time, featuring works by Cezanne, Gaugin, Manet, and Van Gogh. Perhaps most significantly she succeeded in making her home—especially Garsington Manor, a country retreat to which she and Philip moved in 1915—a refreshing, stimulating, and welcoming refuge for young artists and writers. Among those who partook of her hospitality over the years were T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Siegfried Sassoon, Aldous Huxley, and ‘Bloomsberries’ Lytton Strachey, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, and many others.
In the period leading up to their affair, Russell felt that his life was barren of passion and emotion. Nearly a decade had passed since he had announced to his wife, Alys, that he no longer loved her, though they had continued to live together unhappily. As well, he was intellectually drained after having just completed, with Alfred North Whitehead, the writing of the monumental Principia Mathematica. In the midst of this barrenness, it is not surprising that Russell found Ottoline totally captivating. Even her house amazed him. He wrote in his Autobiography: “Ottoline had very exquisite though rather startling taste, and her house was very beautiful.” Its “atmosphere … fed something in me that had been starved throughout the years of my first marriage. As soon as I entered it, I felt rested from the rasping difficulties of the outer world.” Russell was swept away by his feelings for Ottoline, including a strong physical attraction that he found liberating after a decade of rigid self-control.
Ottoline, too, fell in love with Russell but, from the beginning, she was more sensitive than he was to the practical circumstances that confronted them. While Russell wanted Ottoline to leave Philip for him, she had no intention of doing so. She cared deeply for Philip and their daughter, Julian, even though she acknowledged that she and Philip were more friends than lovers. Ottoline had also navigated affairs in the past, unlike Russell at this time, though that would change soon enough. (In fact, Ottoline would find it difficult to extricate herself from her affair with the artist, Henry Lamb, which had pre-dated her affair with Russell, and just days after the momentous evening of March 19 with Russell, she had a brief liaison with Roger Fry).
Less than ten days after their first declarations to each other, Russell and Ottoline had reluctantly decided that the circumstances facing them were too formidable to allow them to continue together. However, they agreed to one last meeting on March 30 to say goodbye. To that meeting, Ottoline brought the letter displayed here, dated March 29. As the letter reveals, Ottoline was already showing signs of changing her mind about a final goodbye: “I cannot believe that we are to part having just found each other.” She continues: “The more I think of you the harder it is to stay here. It all seems worthless compared to you…”. “You make all other people pale & puney.” While reality intervenes—“I keep thinking of the child”—she expresses her love for Russell effusively: “Our love is sacred through and through and I can only fall on my knees before you darling in utter gratitude for all you have given me.” She ends her letter with a note of hope: “Oh Bertie, don’t lose me quite. Keep me always in your heart. You have lifted me up to you and I want to stay there.”
The meeting to say goodbye ended instead with a determination that their affair should continue. Russell had already told Alys about Ottoline and he was now resolved to seek a separation from her. Alys initially threatened a divorce that would name Ottoline but was persuaded against it, sadly believing that Russell would eventually tire of Ottoline and return to her. Meanwhile, Philip was more accommodating of the situation and simply wanted the affair to be discreet. (Philip was having affairs of his own, but Ottoline would not become aware of them until 1917, by which time her affair with Russell had ended). Alys’ brother, Logan, though furious with Russell and Ottoline, worked out an arrangement that all could live with. The affair would continue, but Russell and Ottoline had to agree never to spend a night together, and Ottoline and Philip’s marriage would remain intact. Eventually, Alys would go to live with Logan.
The arrangement was not ideal, but the affair between Russell and Ottoline lasted for five years. Because they were frequently separated, they engaged in a vast correspondence. Even after the affair ended in 1916, they would remain friends and faithful correspondents until Ottoline’s death in 1938. In all, Russell would write two thousand letters to her, sometimes up to four in one day; Ottoline would write a thousand to him.
Russell and Ottoline soon became the subject of gossip, especially among the Bloomsberries. Later, D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, who partook of Ottoline’s support and hospitality and Russell’s friendship, would ridicule them in their novels Women In Love and Crome Yellow. While Russell and Ottoline were not indifferent to such treatment, they both had tremendous strength of character. An important element in their relationship was an awareness that they had both chosen to be outsiders. As Russell described it in his Autobiography: “We were both earnest and unconventional, both aristocratic by tradition but deliberately not so in our present environment, both hating the cruelty, the caste insolence, and the narrow-mindedness of aristocrats, and yet both a little alien in the world in which we chose to live, which regarded us with suspicion and lack of understanding because we were alien. All the complicated feelings resulting from this we shared. There was a deep sympathy between us which never ceased as long as she lived.”
Despite their circumstances, Russell and Ottoline were able to spend much happy time together. Russell even developed a great fondness for Ottoline’s’ daughter, Julian, which only heightened his own desire for children. For her part, Ottoline never felt the same physical attraction to Russell that he felt for her. Instead, it was as if she wanted an idealized, platonic love. She was at times in awe of Russell’s intellect and even revered him, but, more frequently, she was his support and confidante. She also made fun of him. Her impact on Russell’s life was immense. As he observed: “Ottoline had a great influence upon me, which was almost wholly beneficial. She laughed at me when I behaved like a don or a prig, and when I was dictatorial in conversation. She gradually cured me of the belief that I was seething with appalling wickedness which could only be kept under by an iron self-control. She made me less self-centred, and less self-righteous. Her sense of humour was very great, and I became aware of the danger of rousing it unintentionally. She made me much less of a Puritan, and much less censorious than I had been. And of course the mere fact of happy love after the empty years made everything easier.”
Ottoline had a deep religious faith and approached life with an openness rooted in instinct and feeling, a far cry from Russell’s vigorous intellect which was often uncompromising. However, under Ottoline’s influence, encouragement, and even collaboration, Russell explored new avenues of writing. Ottoline’s faith was a challenge to him, and in response Russell investigated non-dogmatic religion. They even attempted to write a book together about the subject, but the only lasting evidence of it was Russell’s article "The Essence of Religion" which was published in the Hibbert Journal in 1912 (Russell would later distance himself from the piece). He also tried his hand at fiction, but his The Perplexities of John Forstice, written at this time and to which Ottoline contributed, would not be published until after his death.
The lovers also frequently argued. Over the five years of their relationship, the dynamic that emerged was a pattern of Ottoline feeling overwhelmed by Russell’s demands, Russell feeling frustrated and pulling away, and Ottoline becoming intrigued again after periods of separation, especially if Russell showed interest in another woman. A tragic example of this dynamic began to play out in 1914. That spring, Russell was on a three-month lecture tour in the United States. In Chicago at the end of May he renewed his acquaintance with a young American woman he and Alys had previously met in England, Helen Dudley. Feeling again a distance from Ottoline, and aware that his relationship with her would never give him the lasting love and children that he desired, he compulsively suggested to Helen that such a life might be possible with her. He confessed to Ottoline in a letter what had happened and, upon his return to England, he and Ottoline, in keeping with their pattern, suddenly grew closer. Soon thereafter, just as the First World War broke out, Helen showed up to take up her life with Russell. Russell distanced himself from her, and Ottoline even took Helen under her wing for a time.
In his Autobiography, Russell gives this account of the end of the relationship with Helen (though he does not name her): “When she arrived I could think of nothing but the war, and as I had determined to come out publicly against it, I did not wish to complicate my position with a private scandal, which would have made anything that I might say of no account. I felt it therefore impossible to carry out what we had planned.” While this explanation rings true, it must also be assumed that he had a change of heart because of Ottoline’s renewed affection. Helen eventually returned to the United States; within a few years she contracted a serious paralytic illness and shortly thereafter experienced a mental breakdown.
In 1915, Ottoline and Philip moved to Garsington Manor. While Russell was a regular visitor, he blamed the move in part for the end of his relationship with Ottoline. Garsington, he wrote “was a beautiful old house which had been used as a farm, and she became absorbed in restoring all its potentialities. I used to go down to Garsington fairly frequently, but found her comparatively indifferent to me. I sought about for some other woman to relieve my unhappiness, but without success until I met Colette.” It was Russell’s relationship with the young actress, Colette O’Niel (the stage name of Lady Constance Malleson), that would bring about the end of his affair with Ottoline in the closing months of 1916. But Russell and Ottoline were never really free of each other, as their letters so richly convey. She would remain for Russell a confidante, and he would be, at times, amazed by her compassion, kindness, and generosity of spirit—truly life, and love, on the grand scale.
Sources: (1) Bertrand Russell. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (Volume I) and 1914-1944 (Volume II). London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1967 and 1968. (2) Miranda Seymour. Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1992. (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 Private Years, 1884-1914 and The Public Years, 1914-1970. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
44 BEDFORD SQUARE
Can I ever tell you what you have revealed to me darling – You make all other people pale & puney [sic].
I have sometimes thought how wonderful it would be to love & be loved – as you love – me but never thought it could be possible. People think me so self-sufficing & so I repell [sic] affection & I have not thought of it or desired it & even Philip I never feel really loved me. I still
cannot believe that we are to part having just found each other. Shall we not keep each other & find ourselves again perhaps years hence.
Our love is sacred thro & thro & I can only fall on my knees before you darling in utter gratitude for all you have given me.
You are far more wonderful & beautiful than I thought possible & every word you write to me fills me with reverence & deeper love for you.
The more I think of you the harder it is to stay here. It all seems worthless compared to you – but I keep thinking of the child (you are right whom I don’t actively love). 
You will remember won’t you that if you feel you can see me Here I am & really yours.
I long to go on writing to you but perhaps I ought not to for your sake.
I know I ought to want
you to love someone else but I cannot want it now. Oh Bertie don’t lose me quite. Keep me always in your heart. You have lifted me up to you & I want to keep there.
You make all others seem so small.
 The year was 1911.
 Her husband, Philip Morrell.
 “the child” is Ottoline and Philip’s daughter, Julian. Russell, who longed for children of his own, believed that Ottoline did not take an active enough role in Julian’s life.