Jessica Douglas-Home’s biography of her great aunt, Violet Gordon- Woodhouse, tells two related stories: that of a woman who altered every life that she encountered, and that of the society in which she moved. In Violet’s world high culture, eccentric life-style, and aristocratic manners achieved a never-to-be-repeated synthesis. And when that world was swept away by the First World War, a part of the English soul was lost.
Only in England could Violet have existed: she was a product of the gentry class, who was incomplete without a country house, and who found solace in the old-fashioned men who owned them. At the same time she belonged to the Bohemian culture of Edwardian and Georgian England – a culture that combined urban wit with pastoral yearnings, cheeky satire with Anglican solemnity, and English rootedness with an eager appropriation of foreign ideas. Yet Violet’s charm depended on her not-quite English appearance, her lively Mediterranean manner, her scholarly Germanic taste for early music and authentic instruments, and her astonishing ability to attract every man who appealed to her, and to retain him in a very unEnglish ménage. Nor was it only men who fell for her: the composer Dame Ethel Smyth was one of several women (the writer Radclyffe Hall was another) whose erotic impulses were awakened by Violet. Ethel loved Violet for her eager confidences, her girlish manners, her graceful movements and her burning oriental eyes. And Violet had the knack of shining those eyes into every heart that attracted her, cancelling the image of her rivals.
Yet Violet had a secret, and one that could not, in that age of innocence, be brought into the open. She recoiled from passion, and wished for all her unions to be chaste. So great was the force of her personality that she persuaded Gordon Woodhouse, heir to a fortune made from the wine of Marsala, to accept an unconsummated marriage. Achieving the security that she needed, Violet began to surround herself with attachments that verged on the erotic and always – or almost always – avoided it. First came Gordon’s close friend Bill Barrington, heir to the Barrington title, then Denis Tollemache, the boy who adored her as the embodiment of art and high culture, and finally Max Labouchère, scion of a political family and man of the world. Violet’s ménage à cinq with these men, into which she welcomed the many others who found her irresistible, depended on a strict regime of chastity. Yet passion lurked in the wings: that of Ethel for Violet, of Gordon for Bill, of Bill for Violet and finally – because Violet too was human – of Violet for Bill.
Violet’s love of life did not avert her own incipient tragedy, which reflected the greater tragedy of her country. She was framed not to have a child but to be one. Her posture belonged to the collective failure of will, whereby England entered the twentieth century with its soul averted from the future. Just as Violet, alighting like some enchanted butterfly on man after man, spirited away the will to reproduce from each of them, so did England, entering the First World War, throw its own prospects away, sacrificing its youth in the trenches. Violet’s lovers were caught up in the storm: Denis was captured and imprisoned after his battalion had been almost entirely destroyed, Bill was posted for the duration of the war to India, and Max was killed.
Violet’s erotic complexities were mirrored in her musical career. She began as a pianist in the Lisztian tradition, appealing to Edwardian taste by producing huge emotions from a fragile child-like frame. But she discovered her niche when Arnold Dolmetsch included her in his campaign for early music. She mastered the harpsichord, dulcimer, clavichord and lute; studied the early English music that was beginning to attract the attention of contemporary composers; and finally launched herself as the leading exponent of the repertoire that we now know as Baroque. She joined Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams in the propagation of English folk-songs; she welcomed the early modernists and the music of the Ballet Russe; she became a leading performer of chamber music and a willing apprentice to the Spanish cellist Rubiò, whose love she incited in her usual way. Yet it was the Early Music movement that shaped her career. In it she perceived an avenue out of modern life into a realm of chaste emotions, where no-one insisted, and no-one was harmed.
Violet’s life was remarkable in another way. Although she studied hard and was constantly improving her skills, she also lived recklessly, not only by dancing constantly on the edge of passion, but also by spending whatever money she could on pleasing herself, her lovers and her friends. She and Gordon bought the manor house of Armscote in Gloucestershire, where she devoted his fortune to hospitality and expensive clothes. She maintained Bill, Max and Denis in style. And whenever she and her men peered into the coffers and found, to their astonishment, that they were empty, some new nest-egg would be unearthed and promptly squandered.
Witnessing the destruction from afar Gordon’s maiden sisters decided to save the remainder of the Woodhouse fortune by cutting Gordon and Violet from their will. But the charmed life continued, and by an extraordinary stroke of fortune, the two Misses Woodhouse were murdered by their Butler before they had finally signed and sealed their will. Gordon found himself heir to Burghill Court in Worcestershire, and it is to this house that Violet repaired with her men. By now, however, the Great War had taken its toll. Max had been killed in action while Denis, who had been captured by the Germans and spent the war years in a German prison, came home frail and helpless. Denis died and Violet moved with her husband and Bill, by now her lover in every sense of the word, to another country house, Nether Lypiatt. Here she too died, leaving Bill and Gordon to eke out their remaining days, with Gordon in the role that he had perhaps always wanted: that of Lady Barrington.
Violet reflected, in her life and art, the mood of an epoch. She was fascinated by forgotten art and music, forgotten customs, disappearing folkways, and a rural way of life already destroyed by industrialisation and the expanding markets on which she and her class depended. In the face of impending catastrophe she sought a timeless perfection, a freezing of the moment, averting her gaze from the coming destruction and from those human glories which are earned through suffering. Violet, like the England that she loved, was recoiling from the future and investing emotional energy in an irrecoverable past.
I decided to tell the story through Jessica’s eyes, as she conjures her great aunt’s spirit from the debris of Nether Lypiatt. Jessica enters the dream that Violet created – the dream of a life fixed forever in the ‘perfect tense’, where love means purity and passion stops at the garden gate. As the story unfolds, Jessica begins to understand Violet’s success, in freezing her world in a tense of her own choosing. And she also observes the price of this success as the magic dwindles and the childlike innocence is lost. Released from the dream at last, Jessica is able to take heart from her great aunt’s valiant refusal of the present, and to return with a new self-confidence to the business of living in the now.
I have retained the principal outlines of the story, and tried to give a truthful picture of the extraordinary domestic situation that Violet was able to create and to manage, and of the loss that she was unable to avert. Her four ‘husbands’ were not exactly as I describe them (for example, it was Denis, not Max, who was the real musician), but I have tried to represent the variety of emotional attachments that they prompted and endured, and to display the real impact of the First World War on their milieu.
I have used two English folksongs, ‘God Made a Trance’ (no. 362 in Cecil Sharp’s collection), which was sung in the pub at Armscote by a lady who went by the odd name of Mrs Reservoir Butler, and ‘The Truth Sent from Above’ (no. 364 in Sharp). The first appears at the end of the Prologue, and also in other places where the image of Armscote is pertinent, while the second is a kind of motto for Bill Barrington, summarizing his very English style. At crucial moments I have quoted the actual words used by the characters – in particular the touching letter, the last that he wrote, sent to Violet from the trenches by Max Labouchère.
The music contains allusions to Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Mozart, and also to the final cadence from Tristan und Isolde. I also quote from Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘March of the Women’, composed as an anthem for the suffragettes. Although the music is tonal (with atonal episodes), it does not imitate early music in the way that the incomparable Tchaikovsky imitates Mozart in The Queen of Spades, but merely tries to invoke Violet’s feelings towards the art that brought her solace and which helped her to keep her balance on the prolonged emotional tightrope that she had woven.