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.

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