Friday, 14 June 2013

Violet Gordon Woodhouse

Late in the summer of 1894, Rupert Gwynne and Gordon Woodhouse, having both just left Cambridge, held a party at the home of the latter’s parents, at which Woodhouse met Gwynne’s twenty-three-year-old sister, Violet.  Within weeks, Gordon and Violet were engaged.  Her intention was that the marriage should be platonic.  (In any case, the family later intimated that Gordon had had a hunting accident that left him sexually incapable.)  They were married on 30 July 1895; Rupert Gwynne was Gordon Woodhouse’s best man.  The bride immediately took charge of the relationship by way of the question of names.  On their honeymoon, she signed her maiden name in the hotel register at Scheveningen.  Yet when they returned to England she persuaded her husband to change his name, by deed poll, to Gordon Gordon-Woodhouse, so that she could call herself Violet Gordon Woodhouse, thereby using not just one but both of his names.
            Violet Gordon Woodhouse was an accomplished musician.  Ferrucio Busoni called her ‘one of the greatest living keyboard artists’.  She played the piano and the harpsichord at chamber concerts with the ‘early music’ pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch, and her own ‘at home’ concerts at 6 Upper Brook Street in London became fashionable.  Four years into the marriage, a relationship developed, with Gordon’s consent, between Violet and Gordon’s friend, the Hon. William Barrington, whom she had first met at that same house party in 1894 at which she had met Gordon himself.  There is some question as to whether even this new relationship with Bill Barrington was ever consummated.  As Violet’s biographer tentatively puts it, ‘it is not impossible ... that even at the height of their erotic passion her relationship with Bill was not fully consummated’.  In 1901, when Gordon and Violet moved into Southover Grange in Lewes, Bill moved in with them.[1]
            In the same year, this cosy domestic relationship was enlarged by one, when Max Labouchère (nephew of Henry Labouchère, he of the ‘Amendment’) joined them; and then by one more, when the Hon. Denis Tollemache, seventeen years old and just down from Winchester, also joined the fray.  Denis had loved Violet since, at the age of eight, he attended one of her musical recitals.  Gordon Woodhouse seemed perfectly happy to welcome the other three men into his marriage; and Bill Barrington, too, welcomed the two newcomers.  Violet’s biographer asks the necessary question with the necessary scepticism: ‘Could they conceivably be—inexpressible thought, only ten years after Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment—a nest of homosexuals?  Surely not’.[2]
            Violet’s brother Rupert got married in 1905.  His old friends Gordon and Bill were ushers at the wedding.  (There were seven Gwynne siblings, the youngest of whom, Roland, was certainly homosexual.)  Southover Grange was sold the following year, and Violet and three of her menfolk moved into Armscote House, near Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1907.  The fourth man, young Denis Tollemache, moved into the house next door.  (He also kept a home in London.)  The popular novelist Marie Corelli (1855-1924) lived nearby with her lifelong companion Bertha Vyver.  Violet Gordon Woodhouse had a number of prominent lesbian friends by now.  They included Christabel Marshall, secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and her son Winston.  Marshall had fallen in love with the actress Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, in 1899, and the two of them sustained a relationship for the next half a century.  The Princesse de Polignac, Winnaretta Singer, had recently been having an affair with the composer Ethel Smyth and was promoting her opera The Wreckers with a series of play-throughs in private houses.  Having heard the piece, Violet decided to help.  Although they had not met before, it was not long before a close friendship developed between Violet and the composer.  Smyth sealed it by giving Violet a copy of the life and poems of Sappho.  At a suffragist meeting held in London in 1910, she met Radclyffe Hall.  In 1915, Hall started visiting Violet and dedicated her collection The Forgotten Island to her.  They were close, but it is not likely that they were ever lovers.
            Denis, meanwhile, was taking part in the Battle of the Somme, and Bill was fighting in what is now Iraq before being posted to India.  In 1917 Denis was captured and imprisoned for the duration.  On 20 April 1918, Max Labouchère died on the line at the Somme.  Violet, who had been befriended by the Sitwells, found herself performing for other men who had been to Hell and back: Osbert Sitwell brought Robert Nichols, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Arthur Waley and others to hear her play.  In the post-war period she was paid further impressive homages.  In the summer of 1919, Serge Diaghilev brought Pablo Picasso to meet her.  T.E. Lawrence visited with Sir Ronald Storrs, and then on various occasions by himself.  Ethel Smyth brought her lover Edith Somerville.  It was Smyth who brought Violet and Virginia Woolf together—the Woolfs went to a private performance of Violet’s at her town house in Brompton Square in March 1931—but no friendship developed.
            When Violet died in January 1948, Bill Barrington was the principal mourner at her funeral, with Gordon Woodhouse following closely in his wake.  Bill and Gordon went on living together (Denis had died in 1942) for another three years.  Gordon died in 1951, Bill in 1960.

[1]Jessica Douglas-Home, Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse (London: Harvill, 1996), pp.74, 63.
[2]Douglas-Home, p.94.

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