On Loving Bertrand Russell

"Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give."--Bertrand Russell

alys russellIn the autumn of 1901, some seven years after he had married Alys Pearsal Smith, his first love, Bertrand Russell had a revelation:

I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave. We had lived ever since our marriage in the closest possible intimacy. We always shared a bed, and neither of us ever had a separate dressing-room. We talked over together everything that ever happened to us… I knew that she was still devoted to me. I had no wish to be unkind, but I believed in those days…that in intimate relations one should speak the truth.

Russell's truth, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned out to be that his change of heart wasn't really his fault. Alys, after all, had character flaws that were far from insignificant.

She tried to be more impeccably virtuous than is possible to human beings, and was thus led to insincerity. Like her brother Logan, she was malicious, and liked to make people think ill of each other, but she was not aware of this, and was instinctively subtle in her methods. She would praise people in such a way as to cause others to admire her generosity, and think worse of the people praised than if she had criticised them. Often malice made her untruthful.

Alys was devastated by Russell's revelation, but she loved her husband unconditionally and profoundly, so wanted him to continue to live with her. Russell agreed to do so, in his words, because "there was no other woman to whom I wished to go, and there seemed therefore no good reason for not doing as she wished." However, things changed in March 1911, after Russell had a sexual encounter with Lady Ottoline Morrell, wife of Philip Morrell, and decided there and then that his marriage was over. Alys was informed, the couple separated and were eventually divorced in 1921.

Fifty years after Russell dropped the bombshell that he was no longer in love with her, Alys wrote this paean to their marriage:

Bertie was an ideal companion, & he taught me more than I can ever repay. But I was never clever enough for him, & perhaps he was too sophisticated for me. I was ideally happy for several years, almost deliriously happy, until a change of feelings made our mutual life very difficult. A final separation led to divorce, when he married again. But that was accomplished without bitterness, or quarrels, or recriminations, & later with great rejoicing on my part when he was awarded the OM. But my life was completely changed, & I was never able to meet him again for fear of the renewal of my awful misery, & heartsick longing for the past. I only caught glimpses of him at lectures or concerts occasionally, & thro’ the uncurtained windows of his Chelsea house, where I used to watch him sometimes reading to his children. Unfortunately, I was neither wise enough nor courageous enough to prevent this one disaster from shattering my capacity for happiness & my zest for life.

In 1949, Russell and Alys renewed their acquaintance and began a correspondence that continued for two years until her death. In April 1950, aged 82, Alys sent him the following letter:

I have so enjoyed our two meetings & thee has been so friendly, that I feel I must be honest & just say once (but once only) that I am utterly devoted to thee, & have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, & they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again. But my devotion makes no claim, and involves no burden on thy part, nor any obligation, not even to answer this letter. But I shall still hope thee can spare time to come to lunch or dinner before very long… Thine ever, Alys


(Source: Bertrand Russell, Russell: Autobiography)

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