Liberty and Love? Dora Black Russell and Marriage

By Gorham, Deborah | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Liberty and Love? Dora Black Russell and Marriage

Gorham, Deborah, Canadian Journal of History

On the twenty-seventh of September 1921, Dora Black and Bertrand Russell were married at Battersea Town Hall. For twenty-eight year old Dora, this was the first of two marriages. For Bertrand, who was almost fifty, it was the second of four. While Dora was still unknown, Bertrand Russell was famous, as a mathematician and philosopher, as an anti-war activist, and as an aristocrat. The Registrar knew that Russell had been married before and "wished [him] 'a happier experience'." (2)

Many years later in The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love, her first and most successful volume of autobiography, Dora Russell would write about this wedding day. We know that this bride wore black, for in her own description of the event she speaks of herself as "rather large in a black cloak." (3) She was almost nine months pregnant, and would give birth to her first child in November. She tells us that she carried a bunch of sweet peas to this Registry Office wedding. Not the traditional bridal bouquet but flowers, nonetheless. The couple's witnesses were the distinguished historian Eileen Power and Bertrand's brother Frank. Afterwards the four of them went for tea at a nearby cafe.

In this paper I offer an interpretation of this marriage, which would end fewer than fifteen years later in an acrimonious divorce at a time when divorce was still uncommon in Great Britain and not easy to obtain. I ask what each party expected of the marriage, I speculate on why it fell apart, and I comment on the intersections between the public activities and the private experience of both Russells, but especially of Dora.

I am interested in this heterosexual union for its own sake and also for what it can tell us more generally about British interwar heterosexual couples in marriage and divorce, and as parents. How do discussions of marriage, love, and sex--both contemporary discussions and more recent ones--help us situate this marriage and this couple? How does the specific experience of the Russells as a couple, and of Dora Black Russell as an individual, help us understand early twentieth-century discourse about heterosexual relationships? How does it confirm or challenge recent historiographical analyses?

Questioning and analyzing social relationships is a characteristic of modernism in Britain and elsewhere. Indeed, a distinguishing feature of modern marriage, I would suggest, is the assumption that it can and should be examined. Such scrutiny and analysis flowed directly from the rise of the disciplines of sociology and psychology, but also from debates concerning gender.

The fact that marriage was defined and analyzed during the early twentieth century does not mean that most marriages were "modern." In Britain, as elsewhere, most marriages in fact remained "traditional," especially with respect to gender relations. Male privilege, or what feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard would term in 1972 "the institutional prescription of superiority" to men, remained central. (4) Accordingly, most British couples of all social classes established marriages in which patterns of male dominance and female passivity continued to be the norm, as they had been in the nineteenth century and earlier. The work of historians like Lesley Hall, Marcus Collins, and Kate Fisher, all of whom endeavour to illuminate the personal and sexual lives of the relatively Voiceless in early twentieth-century Britain, confirms the continuation of such traditional patterns. (5)

But the marriage--if not the wedding--of Bertrand and Dora Russell was one of several notable exceptions to this rule. This was the heterosexual union of two highly educated intellectuals. The man was a towering figure. The woman was exceptional even before her marriage. They both thought of themselves as modern. Dora, in particular, defined herself as a modern feminist, as a modern mother, and as a modernist sexual pioneer.

Avant-garde intellectual unions of the early twentieth century are more accessible to the historian and literary critic than the mass of ordinary, anonymous marriages.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Liberty and Love? Dora Black Russell and Marriage


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.