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.

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