What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part III

III­. A Frantic Quest for Identity?

There is a severe deficit of literature describing Russell’s third marriage to the young Patricia Spence, who was twenty-two to Russell’s sixty-four years when they tied the knot in 1936. She was an ‘attractive’ Oxford undergraduate with whom Russell fathered his second son, Conrad, who later became a prominent historian.[1] Patricia, too, must have been something of a scholar, cited as a major contributor to Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, among his most popular publications. Given her age and lack of experience, Russell’s third wife must have contrasted Dora in just about every way; and this could well be considered his motivation for pursuing the relationship. Their bond spanned thirteen years, ending cacophonously in 1949. The subsequent rift between lovers foiled Russell’s relationship with Conrad, who did not again see his father until the winter of 1968, a meeting which, for both of them, caused a permanent breach with Patricia.[2] Though small affairs surely thrived amid Russell’s third and fourth marriages, his flight from Patricia began the summation of his career as a womaniser, which, at eighty years, might warrant remark in itself.

Russell’s third and final divorce was finalised in 1952, almost six decades after his first marriage in 1894. Oddly enough it was by the remains of his relationship with Alys that Russell happened upon his fourth marriage, the only one he appeared loathe to abandon, discounting the great departure of death. Russell first met Edith Finch in the early 1930s: they shared a mutual friendship with a woman named Lucy Donnelly, an acclaimed teacher of English whose countenance he had met by Alys’s introduction. Edith and Lucy had been very close, having taught together at Bryn Mawr College following Edith’s graduation from the University of Oxford. They lived in a house they themselves had built in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, to which Russell paid regular visits until Lucy’s death in 1948.[3] An operose and well-qualified woman, Edith continued to work as a New York editor well into her old age, having already published two biographies and a pensive philosophical work entitled Strange Humanity.[4] Russell encountered Edith again in 1950, having flown to New York to deliver the Matchette Foundation lectures. Their relationship developed quickly and they married two years later. Whether poised by the temperance of age or the result of ‘true love,’ their marriage was to bring ‘great happiness’[5] to both, and failed to imitate Russell’s previous relationships. They worked together, campaigned together, and lived together in what seemed to be absolute harmony. Russell’s later years strayed far from the halcyon days of the classic retirement, and with time he was met with more and more adversity; but handlocked with Edith he seemed no longer to heed the frantic capers of the lost child within him, a tendency which would—had it been present—surely seen her cast to the wind. The pair can be seen today immortalised in black and white, standing side-by-side at political demonstrations and cocktail parties alike, captured by the ironically youthful serenity of old age. Redeemed from the self-addled rancour of his youth, Russell was free to enjoy himself—neither in Edith’s shadow nor his own—in a way he had not previously allowed. Gone seemed to be Russell’s fanatic thirst for discovery: his letters with Edith discussed the weather, books read and unread, travel plans, and even groceries—mundane topics of everyday life imbued with a love for which he had spent many decades searching. They moved to Penrhyndeudraeth, north Wales, where they lived their final years together, saluting current affairs where necessary, but mostly overlooking the great wild fells of the British countryside.

What could have caused such a drastic change in Russell’s temperament? His sudden resignation to complacency was a vicissitude for which there appeared no prior warning. The sceptic would likely put his change in attitude to a result of old age: he no longer had the time or energy to pursue his capricious desires, and in that scarcity huddled into a comfortable marriage sufficient enough to die in. Could this be true? Could what seemed a happy ending have been nothing but the forfeit of an old man? Inference from the evidence would suggest otherwise. Though incessantly lost within them, Russell was certainly one to express his emotions, with no qualms in allowing his feelings to manifest at the expense of himself or others. Suffering quietly was therefore something he was unlikely to perform very well, let alone as a consequence of old age: the amounting years did little to temper his personality throughout his youth; why would they suddenly gain sway in his elderly years?

No—it would seem, given the observations made above, that something changed in the way Russell viewed himself from within his relationships. His and Edith’s marriage was functional and healthy in its deficiency of whatever infiltrated his previous experiences with women. Could this malignant catalyst have been his frantic quest for identity? It would certainly make sense: with each succeeding relationship Russell assumed a new identity, carrying with him new values and ambitions. He entered his first marriage with hopes of becoming the seemly Christian husband, both proper and suitable given its occurrence in the late nineteenth century. Once these efforts miscarried and culminated in divorce he fell into the hands of Lady Ottoline, who impregnated him with the desire to become a tortured artist. In this he failed, moving into his second marriage, which saw his already progressive views challenged by Dora, whose heavily liberal attitude forced him to become more progressive than ever before. Unable to keep up with her, Russell divorced Dora in favour of a woman whose youth and compliance conferred him the most prosaic of identities, the classic husband, wealthy and venerable. This, too, failed to make Russell happy, and true to his expressionist ways he left Patricia—an act which, considering his age at the time, plays testament to his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of happiness.

Could it be said that Russell and Edith’s marriage was not corrupted in this way? It would be overly romantic to suggest their relationship went unblemished by Russell’s tendency to seek essence in his relationships; but it is clear that any remnants of such failed to derail them. Together they endured intense hardship—including the mental decline of both Russell’s son and his granddaughters—with no evidence of a broken link between them. He seemed not obliged to reinvent himself for her, perhaps due to an inner sense of self he had before lacked. There was no self-estrangement, no bitterness, no competition: Russell simply fell in love with Edith, plain and simple, with no intent to alter or further himself in any way. Had this been the answer to Russell’s problems? It would seem so; the ensuing marriage seemed all but perfect. His Autobiography, a compendium of his entire life’s experience, was lovingly dedicated to her, to Edith, a woman for whom he had spent eighty years searching:

Through the long years
I sought peace
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.

Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace
I know rest
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep
I shall sleep fulfilled.[6]



[1] Barrette, P.. (1997). The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family. Available: www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~bertrand/family.html. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[2] Monk, R. (2001). Bertrand Russell: 1921-1970, The Ghost of Madness. New York: Free Press. 306.

[3] Turcon, S.. (1992). The Edith Russell Papers. In: russell: the Journal of the Bertrand Russell Archives. Hamilton, Ont.: McMaster University Library Press. 61-2.

[4] Ibid. 63.

[5] Ibid. 62.

[6] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. Ded.

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