On Loving Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell married his first love, Alys Pearsall Smith, on 13 December 1894. In the autumn of 1901, he 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 justifies his change of feelings by levelling a number of criticisms against Alys:

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.

Russell and Alys finally separated in 1911, and divorced in 1921.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Fifty years after Russell’s revelation, Alys wrote the following description of 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

Heartbreaking.

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17 Comments.

  1. I have some ex-girl friends who still hate me and gossip about me negatively over 40 years later, but no one still loves or longs for me.

    I wonder if she would have loved Russell for all those years so faithfully if Russell had not become famous.

  2. Nobody’s perfect. The complaints that BR raises against his wife seem petty to me. They don’t seem like sufficient reason to want to dissolve a marriage. But falling out of love, that sounds like a good reason. However, I bet BR didn’t see AP’s faults back when they were still in love. So if he really wanted to stay in the marriage, he would have tried to fall back in love with her, rather than complain about her or try to change her. I’m not saying that he didn’t try doing this. I just assume that it is possible to fall back in love with someone, and that being in love hides any flaws the person may have. So BR either failed to do this, or didn’t even try.

  3. Russell, a fascinating man, great philosopher, but take care in relationships with him, especially if you are a female. cf excerpt from Ray Monk’s book “The Ghost of Madness” http://www.nationalobserver.net/2001_winter_br1.htm

  4. Don, a lot of that link was pretty witty and generally interesting.

    Still, I can’t help but tune out when I come across passages like this: “Communist societies never countenanced Russell’s blend of erotomania and physical cowardice (the latter condition dignified by him as “pacifism”).” I realize that the author claims elsewhere that he wants to talk only about the last half-century of Russell’s life, but comments like this one are so lacking in qualifiers that it can’t help but indicate an interest in smearing Russell’s life as a whole. And that’s too bad, since this is the guy whose pacifism famously led him into a jail cell during WW1 — which ain’t physical cowardice!

  5. The article seems a bit biased against Russell.

    Why I am not a Christian may not evince perfect knowledge of Christianity, but it was the text that turned semi-agnostics of my generation into atheists by its arguments against the existence of God.

    His History of Western Philosophy introduced me to that discipline as did his short and witty
    The Problems of Philosophy.

    One of his essays on ageing, read many many years ago, prepared me for getting old.

    Let’s give Russell credit for being one of the first Western intellectuals on the left who saw through the Soviet Union, while maintaining a commitment to democratic leftism.

    In fact, the biographies of most people, if examined closely enough, are full of enough sins, either of commission or of omission (because a safe bourgeois, middleclass life contains all so many sins of omission, of challenges avoided, of injustices overlooked)
    that the life of Russell shines in comparison.

    A question: why, although I click the boxes, do I no longer receive email follow-ups?

    Thanks.

  6. That’s really depressing but a good reminder to always be wise enough and courageous enough to prevent any disaster from shattering your capacity for happiness and your zest for life.

  7. Re BLS Nelson Oct 9th: swallerstein October 9,

    Yes I agree with what you say. In fact I wanted to check in Prof Monk’s book on what was written. I have it somewhere but cannot currently lay hands on it. I think his varied sexual life ranged from the passionate to the downright cruel. He is reported as saying to his adulterous mistress Lady Ottoline Morrell “My God Ott you look old” or words to that effect. He was at that time suffering from extreme halitosis so there was an obvious reply to that comment. I think this was mentioned somewhere in Michael Holroyd’s “Lytton Strachey” For all his sins if such they be, his intellectual output is astounding. His “The Problems of Philosophy” first published in 1912 is still readily available 100 years later, and still worth reading. He claimed his “Principia Mathematica” written in conjunction with Alfred North Whitehead took the edge off his mental acumen from which he never completely recovered. An overstatement I suspect; but what might he have written fully recovered?
    I too find when I click the boxes, I no longer receive email follow-ups?

  8. Don:

    Russell’s comments to his lover seem cruel, but I believe that he had the principle of always being frank.

    The first quote from Russell above says “I believed in those days that in intimate relations one should speak the truth”.

    Apparently, he learned to be more diplomatic from experience, as I did too.

    It seems strange now but there was a time when many people (Sartre also) said that one should always be honest and frank in personal relationships.

    It is hard for younger people to understand today the huge influence that Russell had on people like me, growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s, as a model of a free thinker.

  9. Don — I’m not that interested in the bad breath of philosophers! Just bad arguments.

    Still: “He claimed his “Principia Mathematica” written in conjunction with Alfred North Whitehead took the edge off his mental acumen from which he never completely recovered. An overstatement I suspect; but what might he have written fully recovered?”

    It’s a great question. The next volume, IIRC, was supposed to be the logicist’s treatment of geometry. But there were other he was never satisfied with his theory of types, and was taken aback by Godel’s theorem. So there was a lot to recover from.

  10. Re Ben Nelson “I’m not that interested in the bad breath of philosophers! Just bad arguments.”
    Just the bad arguments, what about the good ones, surely those too? Additionally surely one is interested in the philosopher as a person and character in his/her own right. Do we not understand a person better if we know something behind the face they present to the World. Some years ago when I studied English Literature it was the practice to teach Poetry as something which stood alone and was judged solely on that. The life of the poet was to be regarded as not essential. It became rapidly obvious to me that this was very bad advice. For instance once I found out details of the life of W B Yeats his poetry became far more meaningful and accordingly easier to understand. Again extreme personalities Like Neitzsche and Wittgenstein, are fascinating and knowledge of their background can shed some light and understanding of their philosophy. As I remember from a biography of Nietzsche he suffered often alone for long periods with very bad health and depression. Is it not of interest to consider how that might have affected his vigorous philosophical output? Yes dental hygiene may be a triviality or it could have some connection with something of more importance. I must admit I find myself at times more attracted to the life of a philosopher than to what he wrote. Maybe I am just a Nosey Parker.

  11. Russell himself made quite a big deal of his bad breath in his autobiography. It seems to have messed up his relationship with Lady Ott.

  12. 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.

    Is it just me, or does that read exactly like what it claims to expose?

  13. I could swear I left a respectful comment here a day or two ago and now it’s gone – ? Could someone please tell me why?

  14. @Roy – You left a comment on a different thread a day or two ago. Not on this thread. No comments from you have been deleted.

  15. You’re right! Talk about a good paranoic way to wear out your welcome, that was it.

  16. @Swallerstein (October 8) – A quote attributed to Russell is that “morality in sexual relations, when it is free from superstition, consists essentially in respect for the other person, and unwillingness to use that person solely as a means for personal gratification, without regard to his or her desires.” Perhaps Alys was more in love with the fame of Russell than Russell himself, and if Russell recognized that then he was merely acting in a manner that is consistent with this quote by being frank with her, and separating/divorcing her.

  17. More On Loving Bertrand Russell | Talking Philosophy - pingback on October 17, 2012 at 11:15 pm

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