Tag Archives: Lady Ottoline’s Album

In a Word

“One suffers so much,” Denis went on, “from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean.” ( 211) – Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow IMG_2167 Chrome Yellow was recommended to me by a lovely fellow blogger after I read Lady Ottoline’s Album. In this wonderful and often hilarious book, Huxley satirizes his ‘set.’ Chrome, the fictional name of the estate, based on Ottoline’s own Garsinton Manor, is seen and experienced by young Denis who comes with youthful ambitions to be a writer, poet, indeed – a man!

“Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative–it’s admirable, isn’t it?” “Admirable,” Mr. Scogen agreed. “And what does it mean?”

Huxley describes the ennui of the upper crust of society to perfection. He mocks  the superior “education,” bestowed with entitlement,  which often results in a shallow, dilettante class.

“They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold […] On the label was a list of virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. It seemed so wonderful to describe that sensation of internal warmth” 

While the Ottoline-esque hostess is distracted by occult mysticism, artists come to find their muse and paint, writers come to work, young girls to have serious discussions and not fall in love.

Later, when I discovered alcohol, ‘carminative’ described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well.”

…of course everyone is there to fall in love or  at least die flirting. They all seem somewhat silly, either by virtue of excessive seriousness, or a certain passionlessness. But what does it all mean?

“Well, what does it mean?” asked Mr. Scogan, a little impatiently. “Carminative,” said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, “carminative, I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivatives, like carnival and carnation.”

A word is like a mystery, a snare of syllables encase it: understanding is within. The meaning is an opening, a pandora’s box of symbols and curiosities which mingle with the impression already given by the sound or vision of the letters: aligned, curving, swaying, with dancing periods hopping along the ‘i’s’ – a thing of beauty.

“Do come to the point, my dear denis,” protested Mr. Scogan. “Do come to the point.” “Well, I wrote a poem the other day,” said Denis; “I wrote a poem about the effects of love.” “Others have done the same before you,” said Mr. Scogan. “There is no need to be ashamed.”

A house, and the lives within,  seen from the outside can only be ill understood. Huxley takes that idea and has a lot of fun shrinking it to a word, then broadening it to person, a house, a village…

“I was putting forth the notion,” Denis went on, “that the effects of love were often similar to the effects of wine, that Eros could intoxicate as well as Bacchus. Love, for example, is essentially carminative.”

Of course true to our training, and nowhere is that training better than in England- except perhaps some Scandinavian countries that will remain nameless, we never simple state things, or leave our insides out for others to see or know. Often, one hardly knows one’s own insides.

“And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked the word up in a dictionary.”

Huxley’s story is highly amusing. The days are long, golden, frustrating for youthful would-be lovers, but full of quirky erudite conversations. The evenings are cool as the history of Chrome as its own heartbreaks and drollery is read aloud by Henry Wimbush, the current master of the grandiosity that is Chrome.

“Carminative: for me the word was as rich in content as some tremendous, elaborate work of art; it was a complete landscape with figures. ‘And passion carminative as wine…’ It was the first time I had ever committed the word to writing, and all at once I felt I would like lexicographical authority for it. A small English-German dictionary was all I had at hand. I turned up C, ca, car, carm. There it was: ‘Carminative: windtreibend.’   Windtreiband!” he repeated. Mr. Scogin laughed.

Of course, there is always the possibility that we are exactly the ridiculous creatures that we fear we are.

*As Huxley does not, I will be kind to those that don’t know the word in German either, as it turns out it means: relieving flatulence. Oh, Poor Denis. Poor us.

** All quotes come from pages 211-14

Advertisements

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
– 
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.