Miranda Seymour states in her epilogue that she lived with Ottoline Morrell, "so to speak, for the past four years." Through the memoirs, journals, and letters of Ottoline and those she knew, Ms. Seymour got to know Ottoline intimately, and she superbly presents what seems to be almost every waking moment of her life. Ottoline was six feet tall and wore red high-heeled shoes and big hats. She had an affair and then a long-term friendship with Bertrand Russell, and she knew D.H. Lawrence and the Bloomsbury circle well. She didn't speak to Lawrence for ten years after he based a character in "Women in Love" on her. She was a host or benefactor to, or at least visited, just about every major European writer of the early 20th century, including W.H. Auden, Max Beerbohm, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, André Gide, Maxim Gorky, Henry Green, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, Aldous Huxley, Henry James, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Alberto Moravia, Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Spender, Lytton Strachey, H.G. Wells, Thornton Wilder, Virginia Woolf, and W.B. Yeats. People she knew other than writers included Charlie Chaplin, Diaghilev, Augustus John, J.M. Keynes, Nijinsky, Picasso, William Walton, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Herbert Asquith, the prime minister of the U.K. from 1908-1916.
She made small monthly payments to refugees and homeless women throughout World War I, and she later counseled prostitutes and unemployed women. She was generous in her opinions of almost everyone, yet, "What, the Bloomsberries might ask, had Ottoline achieved that gave her the right to judge her intellectual superiors, however kindly?" Her guests accepted her hospitality and then wrote letters to one another ridiculing her behind her back. One time, when Ottoline "sprawled over the high rail of a capsized pony-trap," Clive Bell had taken a good look at her underwear - "dyed lilac to match her hair, he supposed." Lytton Strachey "had been pouring out letters to Ottoline of abject adoration, begging for invitations and praising her," while he cruelly jeered at her to others. When she occasionally learned of behavior such as this, her attitude was to maintain courage. She was never artificial. Ottoline once confided her unhappiness at being rejected by Siegfried Sassoon to Katherine Mansfield, "who promptly passed on the conversation to Virginia Woolf," who no doubt spread the gossip.
This biography is an astounding accomplishment. Although I usually believe that no biography can be definitive, I cannot imagine that another biography of Ottoline could surpass this one. Its details, however, occasionally can be exhausting, and I wish that its 418 pages of text had been reduced by perhaps one-fourth. That would have made it a less definitive biography, but, as remarkable a woman as Ottoline was, I question whether she warranted the extent of Ms. Seymour's efforts.