The “Real” Lady Chatterley

There was much commentary when, in the late 1920s, writer D.H. Lawrence clandestinely released the novel whose title left little doubt about its scandalous subject: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Its heroine, the young noblewoman Constance Reid, lived a false marriage with her wheelchair-bound husband but discovers the pleasures of sex with another man. The problem is not even the adultery, but because it happens to the gamekeeper of his property, a man of simple origin and who could never be accepted into British high society. With language considered foul and detailed descriptions of their sexual encounters, there was something else. Among the British, it was very clear who the author could have been inspired by for the book, none other than his protector, Lady Ottoline Morrell. And with that possibility, what he was describing was even more scandalous to British readers than to the rest of the world. So much so that the book was banned in the UK until the 1960s.

Ottoline was born Ottoline Violet Anne Cavendish-Bentinck, daughter of a general and an English Baroness and related to the House of Windsor: she was a cousin of the Queen Mother and second cousin of Elizabeth II. When her half-brother became Duke, she gained the title of Lady, following the traditions of the monarchical hierarchy. She studied political economy and Roman history at Oxford and was a patron of many renowned artists. Unfortunately, much to her disappointment, many of her protégés would later paint negative and caricatured portraits of her life, as we will see below.

Six feet tall, with red hair and extravagant costumes, she had several lovers even before her marriage to Philip Morrell in 1902. Like her, Philip loved art and was liberal in thinking (just like Constance and Clifford Chatterley in D.H. Lawrence‘s book) and agreed with his wife that they would have an open marriage.

Ottoline dallied with men and women, from the philosopher Bertrand Russell to the painter Dora Carrington, but it was her affair with a gardener, Lionel Gomme, who worked on the Morrells’ Garsington estate, that led many to believe that Lionel inspired Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Although she didn’t have sex in a lumber yard, her affair with a young bricklayer who came to carve pedestals for her garden statues was a topic for the gossip on duty. She was said to have been deeply hurt by Lawrence’s depiction in Women in Love (which mocked her for treating guests “like prisoners marched out for exercise”), as well as that of other authors, which she found ungrateful. Her lifestyle inspired some of the literary classics of the 20th century in addition to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Counterpoint, by Aldous Huxley; Women in Love also by D. H. Lawrence; Battlefield, by Graham Greene and the play Forty Years On, by Alan Bennett, are some of the most famous. He appeared as a minor character in biopics of artists he protected, such as Wittgenstein, Carrington, Benediction, and Tom & Viv.

Fate was somewhat cruel to the Morrells. Despite the luxurious appearance, the couple faced financial problems that forced them to sell properties and live with less pomp. Ottoline was diagnosed with cancer (which required the removal of her lower teeth and part of her jaw) and died ten years later, in 1938, as a result of an experimental drug administered by a doctor. Though literature had been hard on her, Virginia Woolf redeemed herself for the criticisms she also leveled as she penned the words on Ottoline’s tomb: “A brave spirit, unbroken, Delighting in beauty and goodness, And the love of her friends”. And a peerless muse.

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