Near Land’s End in Cornwall, the westernmost point of the island of Great Britain, where the rocks and cliffs of terra firma put up a heroic resistance to the incessant waves of the Atlantic, the landscape ends with some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. To get here you have to take a train from Paddington station in London and travel for seven hours to the ancient market town of Penzance, the end of the line. Up the hill and down a cobbled street called Causewayhead, there is an Oxfam shop selling second-hand books and clothing. And there, behind the counter every Tuesday and Friday, is an eighty-seven-year-old woman—as sharp as a knife and nimble as a cat—Lady Katharine Tait, also known as Kate Russell, the only daughter and last surviving child of writer, mathematician, and philosopher Bertrand Russell: my idol, my god.
I came to Cornwall because I was told that she lived here, in the same house her parents had bought in the spring of 1922. I don’t know if Allah is great or whether fate is. The fact of the matter is that my translator, Anne McLean, lives with one of Lady Katharine’s nephews. Thanks to her, then, rather than to Allah or fate, I was invited by Russell’s daughter to spend a couple of days in the same house where her parents, Bertie and Dora, spent perhaps the happiest and most fruitful years of their lives. And I slept there, in astonished calm, for a couple of nights. The calmness came from the beauty, the tranquility, and the silence of the place; the astonishment at my strange luck: by what miracle was I able to sleep in a room where Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great logician and colleague of Russell’s at Cambridge, had once slept? What mysterious good fortune led me to meet the only daughter of Bertrand Russell, the intellectual who had most influenced my moral and intellectual education? At times the astonishment kept me awake.
But to begin at the beginning. When Lady Katharine (her title is due to her father having been an earl) finishes her shift at the Oxfam shop, we all take a bus to Porthcurno, a tiny village known to a few specialists in the British Isles for three memorable facts: for the first underwater telegraph cables between England and her colonies (first India, then Australia and the Far East, finally North America), today described as “the Victorian Internet”; for a fantastic open-air theatre called the Minack, built into the cliffs overlooking the ocean; and for a simple house called Carn Voel near the entrance to the village, which was the summer home of Bertrand Russell, his second wife, Dora, and their children. The house was frequented by the family for ten years, until 1932, and later occupied year-round by Dora, who died there in 1986.
In the book Kate Russell wrote about the house where she now lives, she describes it like this: “it stands four-square, a child’s drawing of a house with a door in the middle, a window either side, three windows above and then two dormers like misplaced eyebrows.” The description is perfect. I might only add that the house is surrounded by magnificent natural scenery: green, green pastures with cows and horses, a huge field of cauliflower, gentle hills with more little white houses like children’s drawings, and a sudden series of cliffs that drop straight into the ocean, with inlets and bays where the water, when the sea is calm, is as clear as the coral-ringed islands of the Caribbean, and when the seas is rough (as it usually is), is violent with strong undertows and waves that crash against the rocks.
It may be that there are few places on Earth with a beauty so gentle and at the same time so rugged and intense. It is the perfect setting for that ancient legend so loved by the romantics, that of Tristan and Isolde: King Mark of Cornwall sends his nephew, Tristan, to bring his new bride, Isolde, back from Ireland. The young man and the young woman accidentally drink a magic potion on the ship on the way back. Unable to resist the effects of the potion, the young wife becomes an adulteress and the young nephew is powerless to stop himself from betraying his uncle—a familial tangle that can in part serve as a prologue to the conjugal difficulties that would finish off the happy marriage between Bertrand and Dora Russell. But more of that later.
For now I’ll say that Bertrand Russell, my idol, my god, married four times in his life and also had many lovers. With all his partners, while he was with them, he was able to devote himself with a calm spirit to what he always did: improving the world, criticizing its irremediable stupidity, and freeing men from their futile prejudices. It’s possible that his skeptic’s mind was nonetheless susceptible to the myth that successive love affairs were indispensable for creativity and imagination, that a new woman was the fuel that gave renewed impulse to his ideas. If this was the case with Bertrand, we could say that Dora inspired some of his most important works, in mathematics and philosophy (Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, The Analysis of Mind, The ABC of Atoms, The ABC of Relativity, What I Believe, Why I Am Not a Christian), as well as in pedagogy (On Education: Especially in Early Childhood, Education and Social Order) and in everyday life and morality (Marriage and Morals, The Conquest of Happiness, Sceptical Essays). All these books he wrote, in a decade and a half of marvellous intellectual productivity, while he was with her.
Dora Black, his lover for several years and then his wife, was also undoubtedly a fascinating person. Socialist, feminist, teacher, writer of numerous pamphlets on sexual liberation and women’s liberation, she exerted a deep influence over the philosopher for more than fifteen years. Both were involved in various libertarian crusades in favour of liberal anti-authoritarian education (they founded a famous alternative school, Beacon Hill, that ran for more than fifteen years), for radical pacifism (which only the rise of Hitler would make them renounce), and for a profound re-envisioning of all the moral principles that had ruled Victorian society (into which Russell was born), as well as Edwardian society (in which Dora was raised).
To give one example, during the time they were together, Dora was a founding member of the English section of the World League for Sexual Reform on a Scientific Basis, and co-organizer of their London conference in 1929, where speeches were given by H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Hugh Walpole, and of course Bertrand Russell, among others. To give an idea of the libertarian spirit and dream of rationality that animated them, the welcome address to the delegates from dozens of countries was delivered in Esperanto. And the presentations dealt with abortion rights, homosexuality, sexual freedom within marriage, sex education for children, and so on. In the 1920s, that magnificent decade, Dora and Bertrand still believed, with a somewhat naive overconfidence, that conflicts and human relations could be regulated by rational thought, mutual tolerance, and the scientific method.
To understand their romantic entanglements at that time, rather than reading Russell’s Autobiography, which is somewhat brief and reticent on this subject, it is much more useful to read Dora’s autobiography, The Tamarisk Tree, and Kate’s memoir, My Father Bertrand Russell. Reading these books gives the impression that the attempt to lead a more sensible life, one governed exclusively by an enlightened reason, can suddenly clash with the primitive demands of the most irrational and impassioned animal instinct (present in the human animal, of course, even in a human animal as rational and compassionate as Bertrand Russell).
Parallel to their intense intellectual life, Dora and Bertrand wanted to establish, in practice, a new kind of marriage where instead of fidelity there would be loyalty, where there would be no reason for jealousy, and in which they could talk openly about the sexual adventures each of them had. The gamble was risky, but they took it, and Dora pushed it to its ultimate consequences. Dora, much younger (and sexually more spirited than her husband), put her theoretical convictions into practice and took a young lover, an attractive American journalist, war correspondent, and adventurer named Griffin Barry, who was also open-minded. She was not in love with him, as she was with Bertie, but they went on trips and spent some pleasant times together.
While Russell was on a speaking tour of the United States (where they ultimately cancelled his contracts because of his “immoral” opinions about sex and matrimony), Dora became pregnant by Barry. When she realized it, she wrote to her husband, telling him the news without much enthusiasm. Since she was a defender of the right to abortion, she asked him if he would prefer her to terminate the pregnancy. The philosopher answered by telegram, saying not to do anything, that they could raise the new little one between the three of them. He recognized, as well, that since he hadn’t been doing “his part,” it was good that another man was doing so, since Dora wanted to have more children. When Griffin Barry found out he was going to be a father, he ran away to Paris like any old seducer, and only returned months later to meet Russell face to face.
And so Harriet was born, Dora’s third child (after John, the first-born, and Kate, my hostess on this visit). Russell plucked up his courage and initially even recognized the baby girl officially as his own, granting her his famous surname of lords and earls. But at the same time he was growing very close, physically and emotionally, to the children’s governess, Patricia (known as Peter) Spence. While Bertie and Dora carried on their travels and untiring intellectual activity, the marriage now had two phantoms at its side. Perhaps what Bertrand could not abide was his wife’s second pregnancy by the same man. In fact, Dora actually wanted another child with Bertrand, but as he was no longer fulfilling his conjugal duties with her, she became pregnant again by her friend the American journalist. And so Roderick was born. Bertrand, then, felt more comfortable with his new love, Peter, and distanced himself from his wife, perhaps no longer able to maintain in practice his theoretical ideals of sexual freedom within matrimony. This was fine up to a certain point, but it was not possible to overlook the issue of paternity.
For a time Rusell’s libertarian ideals led him to persist in the attempt, and it seemed possible to carry on living an uncertain balance of reciprocal infidelity: the four adults with the four children in a ménage à quatre (the expression is Dora’s) of consensual cuckolding. They even spent a holiday together in Hendaye, on the French side of the Basque Country. The anger, hostility, dissatisfaction, and various implacable jealousies, dictated by the heart and not understood by reason, eventually tore the relationship apart. The separation and divorce were marked by the customary terrible fights conducted through lawyers, mutual recriminations, and resentment. In the end, Bertrand married the governess with the masculine nickname. The Second World War broke out while they were in the United States, where they were forced to remain for the duration. With Peter he had his last child, Conrad, named in honour of his friend, Joseph, the sailor and writer. The four children stayed with Dora, although, since their parents shared custody, the two elder ones, John and Kate, spent half of their holidays with their father. Vacations were measured with such mathematical precision that if there were an odd number of days, each parent was entitled to half of the middle day. The years of lawyers and disputes buried Dora and Bertrand’s dream of Beacon Hill, that vision of a different kind of school and a new kind of pedagogy without fear and with freedom. The school eventually had to close due to Russell’s absence and his change of heart. Stubborn, miserable reality (which often appears as insuperable economic problems) prevailed over desires and good intentions.
Dora’s children grew up, but the eldest, John, suffered serious mental health problems. There were in the Russell family latent genes of insanity, which Bertrand always feared. John’s wife was also mentally unstable; and the couples’ daughters were always a difficult burden and a sort of nightmare for the philosopher. Manic depression, suicide, asylums, hospitals, halfway houses. . . . the saddest case is that of his granddaughter, Lucy Katherine Russell, who set herself alight in the forecourt of a church near Penzance, in the cause of world peace. We visited her grave with her aunt. Anne cleared away the weeds and long grass that were covering the epitaph, and, rather moved, we read the words her grandmother Dora had inscribed on her tombstone: “Courageous in death, in life, she sought understanding, and for mankind, peace. Only the actions of the just smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.”
Russell’s enemies rejoiced at this and other family failures. Divine punishment, said Christian fanatics. Genetic retribution, said disciples of Mendel or Darwin. Normality, what could happen to any family, said his friends. His marriage to Peter didn’t last too long either, and Russell divorced and married once more. As happens with men who marry many times, it’s as if Russell had followed Yehuda Amichai’s advice for bad love: “with the love left over / from the previous one / make a new woman for yourself, / then with what is left of that woman / make again a new love, /and go on like that / until nothing remains.” To the end of her days Dora took care of her unbalanced, visionary son John, who made long speeches in the House of Lords and sent interminable, incoherent screeds to the Times of London while chain-smoking day after day.
The house in Cornwall, Carn Voel, meanwhile, was crumbling into disrepair. Dora was not rich. The roof leaked, the walls were damp, there were moths, and everything smelled of stale cigarette smoke. Dora’s housekeeper, often drunk, hid empty gin bottles in the old garden—all weeds by then. And while his son was ill and alone and mad, while Dora was getting older, indignant, bossy, and bad-tempered, covering up her inner exasperation with outward cheerfulness, Bertrand Russell, my idol, my god, was struggling to save humanity. It was a melancholy destiny, in the end: one of the pioneers of worldwide feminism spent her last years like many other women, divorced and alone, rather forgotten, while respect and universal admiration for her husband grew and grew.
In those same years, his daughter, Katharine, raised by her father as an atheist, now working at Harvard University where she had studied (well, Radcliffe, actually), converted to Christianity. And, what’s more, fell in love and married an American who became a minister of the Episcopal Church. Bertrand Russell did not take his daughter’s conversion as another family tragedy or as a personal failure. Lady Kate shows me her father’s kind replies to her letter announcing her conversion. He thought Christianity was bad but accepted that it made her happy. The couple went to Uganda to work as missionaries. In spite of his atheism, Russell helped them financially, and had an unbreakable affection for his daughter. Kate has now left her missionary zeal behind and lives her faith privately. When I ask her about this, she simply tells me that she is inclined to think that the universe is something that was created rather than the result of chance. But no more than that.
Now Lady Katharine has returned to live in Cornwall, the paradise of her childhood. She lives alone in the restored old house, where the garden is once again a garden. One of her sons lives in a separate apartment on the ground floor (though I didn’t meet him as he was away for a few days). The vigour, cheerfulness, and mental agility of the old philosopher have taken over the house again. Kate is a solitary but wise and serene woman who has an affectionate memory of her father, without a trace of resentment. She, say Russell’s biographers, is living proof that the education in freedom of which her parents dreamt can sometimes bear sublime fruit. If the base material is good, liberty blooms in an exemplary way. Kate, in this beautiful isolated house near Land’s End, is kept company by an unusual little cat, who instead of mewing makes a strange sound, like a duck trying to croak. The cat sneezes and makes odd noises, as if she has asthma or emphysema. Kate, not bothering to name her, just calls her Cat. This octogenarian, with her father’s long-lived genes (he lived to the age of ninety-eight), takes Anne and me out walking along the cliffs and down to the beaches of Cornwall, absurdly, indescribably beautiful.
And at this end of the land, in this earthly paradise where the crystal-clear water of the Atlantic crashes incessantly against rocks as tall as castles that have withstood their onslaught for millennia, in this home of seals and horses and cows, in this intense green against the blue of the sea and the grey of the sky, I feel, all of a sudden, that I’m being suffocated by reason, and by freedom. My old ideals, an intellectual inheritance from Bertrand Russell, have come into conflict with reality. I think there is such a thing as intuition, an emotional intelligence that instinctively perceives what can wound other human beings deeply. And that nothing can be planned with reason alone, but that we should always bear in mind our ancient and stubborn animal instinct, our ancient and stubborn hearts. To resist this can produce much unhappiness. With this feeling I say farewell to Cornwall, to Anne, to Lady Katharine, to my lovely memory of Bertrand Russell, my idol, my god.
View Héctor Abad’s Porthcurno album here.
Héctor Abad is a novelist, short story writer, and journalist from Medellín, Colombia. Oblivion: A Memoir will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in June 2012, and A Culinary Treatise for Sorrowful Women by the Pushkin Press in March 2012. His most recent book is Traiciones de la memoria.
Anne McLean translates Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs, and other writings by authors including Julio Cortázar, Héctor Abad, Javier Cercas, and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón. Recent publications include The All Saints’ Day Lovers, a collection of short fiction by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and two novels by Enrique Vila-Matas.