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Literary Locations #64: Welbeck Abbey

John Baird
Fri 26 Jun, 2020

Welbeck Abbey has been the home to some fascinating characters that have inspired classic fiction.

Originally a 12th century monastery, Welbeck Abbey in north Notts has been a Cavalier residence and an *army training college but it’s best known for being home to the Dukes of Portland and their families.

Welbeck Abbey's the 5th Duke of Portland and Lady Ottoline Morrell are figures of great literary inspiration.

The Underground Man

It was in 1854 that William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinct (1800-1879), the Marquis of Titchfield, became the 5th Duke of Portland. The title gave him a seat in the House of Lords and he was later made Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire.

The eccentric aristocrat commissioned a vast building programme that included the construction of a labyrinth of tunnels. A lonely, self-isolated man, the 5th Duke employed 1500 people to fulfil his designs for a mysterious underground system that enabled him to move around in privacy and access the local railway without being seen.

Ranging from a grand ballroom to a pigsty the many subterranean spaces were ingeniously ventilated and lighted by either gas or natural skylight. The Duke also built the world’s second largest riding school with tunnels specifically designed for his 100 horses to exercise.

It was via a trap-door that the Duke would usually access his underground living areas denying his staff knowledge of his whereabouts. He could then appear when they least expected, his tall silk hat with its broad brim, popping up as he checked on his workforce. The Duke wore a long brown cape and walked around with an umbrella, making him stand out, and yet he remained virtually withdrawn from observation. This inadvertently encouraged visiting onlookers who would try to catch sight of him as if he was a rare bird. So opposed to company he would write down his orders so as not to see anyone. He’d then ring a bell for a servant to come and read his demands. His food arrived warm on a miniature railway track that came direct from the underground kitchens.

His Grace was a committed reader taking all the national and provincial daily issues and weekly journals. These were filed away making up the largest private collection outside the British Museum. Among the interesting artefacts in the library/gallery at Welbeck Abbey is an autographed letter from Mary Queen of Scots, signed “Your very good friend” and the large pearl drop earrings worn by Charles I throughout his life including on the morning of his execution.

The 5th Duke of Portland died in 1879 but our enigmatic aristocrat continues to intrigue. Mick Jackson’s 1997 debut novel ‘The Underground Man’ is a fictionalised diary based on the life of the 5th Duke. In the book his Grace has finished his network of tunnels and is in reflective mood. It’s a bittersweet, darkly comic character study that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

I have heard me described as a wiry man, which I interpret as meaning ‘held together by wires’ and seems altogether quite fitting and fair.

from The Underground Man

Lady Ottoline Morrel (1873-1938) – a Lady of Literature

If six-year-old Ottoline Cavendish-Bentinck's father had expected to succeed his cousin, the 5th Duke of Portland, he was to be disappointed. Instead, it was to be Ottoline’s half-brother William that took over the Dukedom, with Ottoline still given the title ‘Lady’. Her family immediately moved into Welbeck Abbey where she grew up and later wrote of riding through Welbeck’s “great oaks and grass rides”.

Lady Ottoline grew to six feet tall and with her flamboyant style and long red hair she cut a striking figure. She initially left Welbeck Abbey as a teenager and, in 1902, married the Liberal MP Philip Morrell, an open marriage that Lady Ottoline took advantage of, having many lovers (male and female) including a long and at times passionate affair with Bertrand Russell with whom she exchanged around 3,000 letters.

Most of her lovers were from her circle of friends that included many authors, artists, sculptors and poets. Lady Ottoline regularly played host to members of the Bloomsbury Group including Virginia Woolf, and she entertained writers such as W B Yeats and T S Eliot. She was also a good friend of D H Lawrence who depicted her as the fearsome Hermione Roddice in ‘Women in Love’.

This is how Lawrence introduces her:

One of them she knew, a tall, slow, reluctant woman with a weight of fair hair and a pale, long face. This was Hermione Roddice, a friend of the Criches. Now she came along, with her head held up, balancing an enormous flat hat of pale yellow velvet, on which were streaks of ostrich feathers, natural and grey. She drifted forward as if scarcely conscious, her long blanched face lifted up, not to see the world. She was rich. She wore a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow colour, and she carried a lot of small rose-coloured cyclamens. Her shoes and stockings were of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat, her hair was heavy, she drifted along with a peculiar fixity of the hips, a strange unwilling motion. She was impressive, in her lovely pale-yellow and brownish-rose, yet macabre, something repulsive. People were silent when she passed, impressed, roused, wanting to jeer, yet for some reason silenced. Her long, pale face, that she carried lifted up, somewhat in the Rossetti fashion, seemed almost drugged, as if a strange mass of thoughts coiled in the darkness within her, and she was never allowed to escape.

Ursula watched her with fascination. She knew her a little. She was the most remarkable woman in the Midlands.

We know from Lady Ottoline’s two volumes of memoirs and her journals that she had read Lawrence’s ‘The Prussian Officer’, ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘The White Peacock’ among others, describing them as “very remarkable books” with “scenes of which were laid in Nottinghamshire, and they had stirred up my early memories, which had lain dry and curled up”.

After being “excited and moved” by Lawrence’s books, Ottoline wanted to get to know him and did so through their mutual friend, the writer Gilbert Cannan. On a further visit to Sussex, to see Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Ottoline was “extraordinarily happy and at ease”, adding “we at once went back to our memories of Nottinghamshire. We talked of the lovely wild commons, of Sherwood Forest, of the dark pit villages, of the lives of the colliers and their wives” She appreciated the fact that Lawrence spoke to her in the Nottinghamshire dialect.

For three decades Lady Ottoline was London's leading literary hostess and, despite some snide comments from members of the Bloomsbury Group, she leaves an impressive literary legacy. Her influence came in many forms as she was a lover, confidante, advisor, critic and mother figure to the writers she inspired.

A young Aldous Huxley described Lady Ottoline as having given him “a complete mental re-orientation” and he based his character Mrs Bidlake - from ‘Point Counter Point’ - on her. She is said to have been the inspiration for Lady Caroline Bury in Graham Greene's ‘It's a Battlefield’, and for Lady Sybilline Quarrell in Alan Bennett's ‘Forty Years On’.

After her mother died, Lady Ottoline returned to Welbeck Abbey. Taking her ponies out on the “dark dreary roads with their black hedges.” She described how she would “feel excited and even a little nervous” when meeting groups of colliers returning from the pit, adding: “These men, tall, black and mysterious, appeared rather fierce yet full of laughter and fun, joking together as they hurried pell-mell along the dark roads to tea, the grey winter light, a gleam of setting yellow sun behind them.”

‘Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale’ is a 1992 biography by Notts author Miranda Seymour. The book benefits from Seymour’s access to family papers which include Lady Ottoline’s lost correspondence with Lytton Strachey and the revealing private records she kept from her marriage until her death.

Lady Ottoline Morrell is buried in Notts near Welbeck Abbey, at St. Winifred Churchyard in Holbeck.

* Bill Bryson describes his visit to the Welbeck Abbey, during its time under the Ministry of Defence, in his popular travel book ‘Notes from a Small Island’ (1995 – chapter 15).

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