Bertie and Alys and Ottoline

Alan Ryan

  • The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell. Vol. I: The Private Years, 1884-1914 edited by Nicholas Griffin
    Allen Lane, 553 pp, £25.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 7139 9023 6

Bertrand Russell has been dead for twenty years, but his ability to arouse strong emotions seems undiminished. The Economist’s reviewer of these letters – perhaps carried away by pre-election anxiety – offered the opinion that Russell was ‘a moral dwarf’, while others have commented pretty sharply on the disparity between the honesty with which Russell faced the ruin of his intellectual projects and the duplicity and self-deception of his marital and extra-marital dealings.

That is a harsh view. Whatever he became later, the Russell of these early letters is emotionally incompetent rather than duplicitous, self-laceratingly prim and proper rather than lecherous. On this evidence, a reader who knew nothing of Russell’s reputation as an elderly satyr would spend more time wincing with Russell that at him. The writer of these letters – the bulk of them addressed to his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, and to the woman who liberated him from the ruins of that first marriage, Lady Ottoline Morrell – must strike most readers as someone who, even in his early forties, was unequipped for adult emotional life. This volume, stout as it is, inevitably gives a fragmentary impression of Russell, even of Russell as a correspondent. Only a tiny fraction of his correspondence is represented here. Like many of his contemporaries, Russell was an incessant letter-writer. At the height of his passion for Ottoline Morrell, he wrote her three or more times a day: on a train journey to stay with the mathematician A. N. Whitehead in the West Country, he posted one letter at Reading and another at Marlborough, before writing another from the Whitehead’s house. Admittedly that was shortly after he had celebrated Christmas 1911 by explaining to Ottoline that her religious convictions were mostly tosh, so he was more than usually frantic and more than usually apologetic: but it was not entirely untypical.

Nicholas Griffin, the editor of this volume, reckons that between forty and fifty thousand of Russell’s letters are held by the Bertrand Russell Archives at MacMaster University; the correspondence with Ottoline Morrell alone runs to about a thousand items on each side. ‘It would easily be possible,’ he writes, ‘to do this volume over again several times with an almost completely different selection of letters each time.’ Very little of what Russell wrote is positively uninteresting, though I imagine I am not the only reader who has sometimes wished that Bertie and Ottoline had had a telephone, so that they could have misunderstood each other less often and cleared up their confusions more quickly. These post-crossed lovers were all too often responding to the wrong letter – with consequences too obvious to go on about, and cumulatively something of a bore.

As the volume’s subtitle suggests, Griffin has concentrated very heavily on Russell’s private life. Given the need to select only a tiny proportion of material, he has decided to publish only one letter that has been published before – the famous letter to Gottlob Frege in which Russell announced his discovery of the ‘class paradox’ which undermined the programme of showing the logical foundation of mathematics; and nothing that the layest of lay readers would have to struggle with, save for one absolutely unintelligible note to A. N. Whitehead just to make the point.

That second decision is probably right, or at any rate inescapable. All the same, it makes for a misleading picture. From 1900 to 1911 Russell and Whitehead were writing Principia Mathematica, the book which – widely unread though it was – epitomised a philosophical revolution. The aim of the book was to show that mathematics could be reduced to the newly-minted mathematical logic of which Russell and Frege were the co-creators. Russell would work on this appallingly difficult material for ten or more hours a day, wrestling with theorems whose proofs he could not immediately come up with, finding apparent paradoxes and plausible solutions of them. Whitehead thought that during this period Russell displayed a sharper mind than any philosopher in human history, Aristotle included. That continuous brilliance came at a price: Russell said he thought afterwards that the prolonged effort of concentration had unfitted him for absolutely first-class philosophical work thereafter.

From time to time these letters talk of letting someone younger and quicker fill in the gaps which he and Whitehead had left, and there is no doubt that although he went on writing philosophy until he was almost eighty, something vital had gone. Many things besides the fatigue he mentions played a part. One was the effect of Wittgenstein, who Russell instantly thought of as a young genius who would carry on where he left off. When Wittgenstein argued that this could not be done, that Russell’s views were wrong in important respects, Russell found it hard to shrug off his objections, and hard to press on in spite of them. Sex came into it, too: Russell’s greatest work was done when he was desperately miserable, celibate, locked into the loveless marriage with Alys. The ineffable truths of the logical foundations of mathematics secured an attention that was denied an outlet elsewhere. ‘I felt dimly that what gives pleasure is wrong, but what gives pain is always right or at least pardonable,’ he said of that time. Snobbery was an even less sympathetic part of the story. When Gilbert Murray got him to write The Problems of Philosophy for the Home University Library, Russell referred to the assignment contemptuously, described it as a ‘shilling shocker’, said it was ‘philosophy for the Midwest’ and intended to enlighten shop assistants: it remains about the best introduction to philosophy one can buy, and has been in print ever since 1912, but Russell never got over the conviction that real philosophy was special, not for the many, not for general consumption. It is not surprising, then, that as he launched out into the world, he wrote penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers and always felt faintly guilty about it.

It is a pity to see so little of the astonishing logician in these pages. But Griffin is quite right: the notes Russell and Whitehead passed to each other about their daily struggles would be unintelligible to 99 per cent of his readers, and explaining them would have caused him much pain without much reducing the pain they caused his readers. What Griffin settles for is a sort of epistolary biography, and it is for the most part done with great tact and good sense. The footnotes contain a certain amount of infantile leftism on political issues, but in general they are immensely informative about persons and places, while on personal matters, Griffin’s linking commentary displays the kind of calm benevolence Russell preached but found hard to practise.

He takes a generous and kindly view of Russell, finds Ottoline Morrell unfathomable but not unsympathetic, copes as best he can with the diffident Alys Pearsall Smith, and wages all-out war on the reputation of Russell’s paternal grandmother, Countess Russell. On a conventional view, she had much to answer for, since it was in her house and under her tutelage that Bertie grew up, and none too happily. On a less conventional view (which Russell himself was capable of taking by the time he wrote his Autobiography), she was a rather admirable woman, who endured family disaster, if not uncomplainingly, at least with the dogged resolution which her grandson kept for mathematical logic and anti-war campaigning, and notably not for family life. It was all done on will-power. She had been reluctant to marry her husband, the statesman better known as Lord John Russell (or ‘Finality Jack’) than as the First Earl Russell, for he was 48 to her 25 when they married in 1841, and nobody supposed she ever loved the man to whom she dutifully bore four children. She did her duty – in Griffin’s nice phrase, ‘She seems to have thought of her husband as something like a national monument entrusted to her care’ – but never entirely got over her youthful shyness and dislike of strong emotion.

The reason she took charge of Bertie’s upbringing is well-known. Russell was born in 1872, the second son of John and Kate Amberley: he Lord John Russell’s eldest son, she the daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley. Almost as soon as he was born, disasters rained down on the Russells. His uncle Rollo began to lose his sight and had to leave the Foreign Office, his uncle William went mad and was consigned to an asylum where he spent the rest of his long life, and his father had an epileptic seizure. In the winter of 1873-4, his parents and his older brother Frank went to Italy. When they came back, Frank had diphtheria; though he recovered, he passed it on to Rachel, his sister, who died; she in turn infected his mother, and in June 1874 Kate, too, died. Within two years, Countess Russell had lost a grandchild and a daughter-in-law, and had seen one son go mad and another incapacitated for work. Her daughter Agatha had some years earlier had a delusional collapse when she became engaged to be married; the marriage was called off, and she lived at home, swathed in a white shawl, a ghost recalling lost happiness. The final blow fell eighteen months later: John Amberley lost all interest in living without Kate and Rachel, and seemed to his friends to be waiting to die himself. In December 1875 he caught bronchitis; in January 1876 he was dead. He left behind a three-and-a-half-year-old Bertie, and an 11-year-old Frank, already a decidedly difficult child. There is a lot to be said against Countess Russell’s child-rearing methods, but nothing against the courage of anyone who sets out to look after orphaned grandchildren at the age of 60.

Russell’s parents had intended him to be brought up by two tutors, whose main qualifications in the eyes of John and Kate Amberley seem to have been the lack of religious belief – one of them Douglas Spalding, was a pretty good ethologist, but this seems not to have entered into the decision. It was discovered, however, that Kate had allowed Spalding to sleep with her; according to Russell, Spalding was consumptive, the Amberleys thought he ought not to marry, but ‘my father and mother decided that although he ought to remain childless on account of his tuberculosis, it was unfair to expect him to be celibate. My mother therefore allowed him to live with her, though I know of no evidence that she derived any pleasure from doing so.’ This scandalous history made it easy for the Russells to have the will overturned, and the grandchildren delivered to Pembroke Lodge, the gloomy grace-and-favour residence in Richmond Park that the Queen had given to Earl Russell on behalf of a grateful nation.

The other side of Russell’s family featured much less in his life. This is in many ways a matter for regret. From the point of view of young Russell, the vigour and brutality of the Stanleys might have saved him all manner of misery, while Russell’s description of the Stanleys in his Autobiography is so entertaining that it makes one wish for a great deal more. Griffin paraphrases Russell’s account of the difference between the Russells and the Stanleys: ‘The Russells were shy, priggish, religious, somewhat morbid. The Stanleys were high-spirited, free-thinking extroverts. Shyness was unknown among them,’ and goes on to quote Russell’s reflections on his genetic heritage:

My brother, who had the Stanley temperament, loved the Stanleys and hated the Russells. I loved the Russells and feared the Stanleys. As I have grown older, however, my feelings have changed. I owe to the Russells shyness, sensitiveness and metaphysics; to the Stanleys vigour, good health and good spirits. On the whole the latter seems a better inheritance than the former.

From ‘the point of view of the universe’, which Russell’s tutor Henry Sidgwick used to urge as the proper perspective from which to make moral judgments, it is hard not to be grateful that the genes went the way they did.

Griffin prints only one letter (to Alys) in which the Stanleys make a proper appearance. This is an account of dinner at the Stanley House at Penrhos; his Stanley grandmother had three sons, described inimitably in the Autobiography:

Her eldest son was a Mohommedan, and almost stone deaf. Her second son. Lyulph, was a free-thinker, and spent his time fighting the Church on the London School Board. Her third son, Algernon, was a Roman Catholic Priest, a Papal Chamberlain and Bishop of Emmaus. Lyulph was witty, encyclopedic and caustic. Algernon was witty, fat and greedy. Henry, the Mohommedan, was devoid of all family merits, and was, I think, the greatest bore I have ever known.

They naturally spent a good deal of time discussing theology, though Uncle Algernon mostly confined his comments to a friendly ‘all be damned, all be damned’.

Grandmother Stanley usually kept the dinner table in a roar. On this occasion Russell reported to Alys that the family had been arguing about the desirability of burial in the mausoleum at Castle Howard, when Lady Stanley announced: ‘Only a part of me’s going to be buried: my brain is to be left to the College of Surgeons: you know they only have brains of paupers and criminals as a rule, and they have never had the brain of a clever woman.’ Unlike the Russells, the Stanleys ate well – Algernon’s obesity suggests it was all too well. Russell quotes a visitor to Pembroke Lodge observing that ‘nobody ever seems to be hungry,’ and says he got fed rather well at the Stanley’s Dover Street house in London, though he also got interrogated and bullied too much for a child’s comfort. It’s nice to see from this letter that Lady Stanley thought so well of him at 22 that she remarked: ‘I wish you could be reduplicated.’ ‘Such a compliment from her means a great deal,’ he goes on – revealingly.

These letters are disappointingly thin on Russell’s childhood, adolescence and Cambridge years. They pick up when Russell falls in love with Alys Pearsall Smith. The Pearsall Smiths were upper-middle-class Philadelphia Quakers; by acquaintance and blood they were connected to the East Coast counter-establishment, high-minded educationalists, propagandists for temperance and women’s suffrage, inveterate social workers and hospital visitors – decent but somewhat stuffy, and in the end calculated to grate on Russell’s aristocratic nerves. Russell met Alys in the summer of 1889; his uncle Rollo took him to call on her family, who were near-neighbours in Surrey. Alys was five years older than Bertie, and although he said it was love at first sight nothing happened to suggest any particular affection on his part until 1893. Indeed, he seems to have visited the Pearsall Smiths at this point because they were amusing and lively and argumentative, qualities he later thought they were rather deficient in.

In 1893 he turned 21, inherited a smallish private income and could do as he chose without having to placate Granny. A hundred and fifty pages of these letters record his campaign to persuade Alys that she loved him enough to marry him, and to persuade Granny that the marriage was acceptable. Granny was adamantly opposed: she thought Alys too old, was terrified that any children they might have would be mad, and disliked the idea of Bertie marrying into the middle classes. As it turned out, she was absolutely right: Frank had already made a botch of his first marriage (a few years later he managed to get himself jailed for bigamy following a trial in the House of Lords), while Bertie tired of Alys after half a dozen rather boring years of marriage, and when he did finally have children, his eldest son was struck by mental illness.

Russell’s letters to Alys make alarming reading. Russell was exceedingly squeamish about everything to do with sex. His stay at an Army crammer at Southgate when he was 17 had thrust him into the company of the ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’ – budding upper-class subalterns making their first acquaintance with London prostitutes and eager to talk about their experiences at great and scabrous length – which had only reinforced his prudishness. He and Alys oscillated between an affectation of worldly wisdom and a desperate attempt to reconcile sexual passion with ‘purity’. They tested the purity of their love on a memorable afternoon when Alys allowed Bertie to kiss her breasts: apparently the experiment was a success, though it is hard to imagine what exactly it was supposed to prove. Several letters refer rather breathlessly to the experience, though Russell admits a bit shamefacedly that when he is away from Alys the sensual dimensions of the experience begin to predominate.

All the while, Granny Russell waged a rearguard action against the prospective marriage. Her chief weapon was the threat of insanity. Russell’s Autobiography once more describes more vividly that any of these letters what a horrific effect it had on his dreams, and noted in his diary an appallingly distressing night when he dreamed that his mother was not really dead, but hidden away in an asylum. It is the cruelty of Granny’s conduct that Griffin most complains of, and it is hard to dissent, whatever her motives, and no matter how right she was. Granny’s other weapons were more conventional: she kept on proposing to die, and kept on insisting on periods of separation for the young lovers in the hope that they would cool. It’s hard to believe that this was anything but counter-productive.

Treated as something other than a baby-snatching gold-digger, Alys would probably have allowed her doubts about her suitability for marriage to Bertie to grow and prevent the marriage. She knew perfectly well that she didn’t have the intellectual sharpness or the energy or the self-confidence to give him the kind of companionship he really needed. She sometimes hoped that he would take an interest in her social work, temperance campaigning, and the like, but was sharply rebuffed with the observation that what he was good at was philosophy. When Alys worried that she couldn’t keep up with his philosophical work, he replied: ‘Of course one doesn’t imagine that thee would do any brilliant original thinking, but thee might form part of the indispensable intelligent audience, which involves a lot of exertion and severe thinking, in order to get good taste in thoughts. And then thee will be able to criticise my thoughts, instead of laughing at the good ones and admiring those that are really commonplace.’

Russell’s letters to other correspondents are rather less dispiriting. With the French mathematician and logician, Louis Couturat, he kept up a brisk correspondence on the Boer War, a conflict which Russell first approved because he felt British authority in Africa was at stake, then deplored because he disapproved of war and imperialism in general, though Griffin somewhat fudges the fact that Russell went on thinking that some European power ought to civilise Africa, and was far from holding politically correct Third World First views in 1901. Russell is also brisk and interesting when tackling Elie Halévy on free trade and the British Labour movement.

It would have been nice to have had rather more about the famous Wimbledon by-election of 1907: Russell ran as the Liberal and Suffrage Candidate when the official Liberal Party flinched at putting forward a candidate in the safest Conservative seat in the country, and a rumbustious campaign followed. Griffin takes at face value Russell’s claim that his pacifist activities in World War One aroused less violent opposition than this by-election campaign, but the account here and in the Autobiography suggests that the by-election was mostly good fun, while Russell’s anti-war campaign was marked by real savagery on the part of the crowds that tried to wreck his meetings. Sadly, there is absolutely nothing about Russell’s failed attempt to get the nomination for the family seat at Bedford; the nomination – indeed the seat, too – ought to have been his for the asking, but his avowal of agnosticism and of an enthusiasm for the taxation of land values was too much for the selection committee.

The last quarter of the book consists of Russell’s letters to Ottoline. Their affair arouses very mixed feelings. On the one hand, she made Russell laugh and he felt liberated by her aristocratic unconcern for respectability and the opinion of others. She did something to liberate him sexually, though she did not find him particularly attractive, and he knew it. But her religious sentimentality was exactly what he did not need; because he wrote so well, Russell was tempted to write up his semi-mystical enthusiasm for mathematics and logic as if it might be the basis of a new secular religion. The results make painful reading. Ottoline forced him to hold his natural scepticism and lucidity in check. Since she was usually trying to manage two or three admirers at once – Griffin observes, in a wonderfully deft phrase, that she had a ‘pastoral’ attitude towards her lovers – it is hard to feel indignant about Russell’s small emotional duplicities, but easy to feel indignant about his attempts to shut down his own critical faculties. Griffin has perhaps made a mistake in choosing so few letters that show the skittish and light-hearted side of their relationship: Russell was capable of writing affectionate nonsense, and is both a more engaging and more interesting figure when he does.

The one man who emerges with his reputation entirely unscathed, however, is not a correspondent, but Ottoline’s husband, Philip Morrell, a decent, affectionate, small-‘l’ liberal in all his dealings, and the large-‘l’ Liberal MP for Burnley, mildly in rebellion against his Conservative brewing family, and infinitely tolerant of Ottoline’s crushes and passions. Later, of course, he was to shelter Lawrence, Huxley, Russell and a small army of conscientious objectors at Garsington Manor; here he remains a calming off-stage presence, ignoring Russell’s demands that Ottoline should leave her husband for a life of passion, poverty and infamy, but sympathising with all parties, waiting for storms to blow over and good sense to return. One doesn’t really want to know much more about him, for fear he had moments of rage against Bertie and Ottoline, but it is a pleasure to feel his presence in the background, blotting up the high-flown romanticism in which the greatest philosophical analyst of all time was indulging himself.