Bertrand Russell: Love Rat?

Nemo Outis on the perils of 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

In the autumn of 1901, some seven years after he had married Alys Pearsal Smith, his first love, Bertrand Russell, philosopher and humanist luminary, 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."

Regrettably, this situation changed in March 1911, after Russell had a sexual encounter with Lady Ottoline Morrell, wife of Philip Morrell, and decided then and there that his marriage was over. Alys was informed, the couple separated and eventually divorced in 1921.

Russell set about expunging all traces of Alys from his life. A few years later, now married to Dora, his second wife, he wrote to his Aunt Agatha, complaining that his aunt still had a picture of Alys on her mantlepiece. This provoked an excoriating response from the admirable Agatha:

You owe her [Alys] everything since the separation. But for her, Dora would be Miss Black, and your children illegitimate – the slightest spark of gratitude in you would acknowledge what you owe to her since you left her, in so many ways that I cannot write of. Her conduct has been noble since the separation – I am very far from being the only one who thinks this.

It would have been more manly and chivalrous of you to write me not to withdraw friendship from the woman you brought into the family, the woman you once loved and had forsaken, though her love was unchanged… You now in these later times always speak of “pain to me”, “giving me pain”, etc. - Do you ever think of Alys’s suffering - from her love for you… Yet she always speaks beautifully of you, wishing only for your happiness. Do not imagine for a moment that I ever forget, and did not feel most acutely, your own unhappiness… but to those who truly loved you, it is heart-breaking that you have not grown nobler, stronger, more loving and tender through suffering, but in every way the reverse.

Alys for her part remained helplessly in love with Russell, following his public activities closely, and keeping a scrapbook of cuttings about him. Fifty years after Russell dropped the bombshell that he no longer loved her, Alys wrote this panegyric 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.


Bertrand Russell, Russell: Autobiography
Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness

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