More On Loving Bertrand Russell

“I feel I must be honest & just say once…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.”—Alys Pearsall Smith

I thought I’d add some further detail to the heartbreaking tale of Alys Pearsall Smith’s lifelong love for Bertrand Russell.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Russell fell out of love with Alys in 1901, and finally left her in 1911. In August 1926, Russell’s Aunt Agatha – his mother’s sister – wrote the following letter to Russell, now married to Dora, after he had complained about a picture of Alys his aunt had up on her mantelpiece.

You owe her 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.

Russell’s biographer, Ray Monk, notes that while Alys remained helplessly in love with Russell, following his public activities closely, and keeping a scrapbook of cuttings about him, Russell for his part scarcely gave her a thought. As for Aunt Agatha, Dora dismissed her as a “malicious old lady”, Russell’s brother Frank labelled her an “acid old spinster” and Russell hardly noticed her at all.

  1. The Heart has its reasons that Reason knows not.

    Bertrand Russell was one of the most brilliant and creative thinkers of the 20th century.

    It is highly improbable that Alys would ever again in her life meet another human being of the same creativity, wit and power of analysis.

    On the other hand, it is not improbable that Russell would come in contact with many people of the same creative and intellectual abilities as Alys, many of them women as beautiful or more so than Alys.

    So, among those few who value creativity and critical thinking, knowing Russell must have been a unique privilege.

    The number of truly brilliant and creative people whom I have known personally in my 66 years can be counted on my fingers and none of them ranks near Bertrand Russell.

    When you think of all the people who spend their life in love with Elvis or Jim Morrison or el Che, without ever having met them or even seen them in the flesh, it is not surprising that a woman, Alys, who values the life of the mind, would spend her life in love with Bertrand Russell, after having spent years together with him.


    this song seems appropriate and it will enliven your day. at least it gets me dancing and I rarely dance.

  3. I gather that Alys was an American from a religious family in Pennsylvania (at the time a Quaker state) and that she and Russell married in a Quaker chapel. She is alos described as a Quaker herself. Is it not possible then that her enduring love was Christian in inspiration? In which case, talk of “tragedy” and being “helplessly in love” (as if the woman had no mind) is liable to be quite off the mark.

  4. @Stephen – Hmmm. I don’t think the evidence supports that interpretation. So, for example, Alys lived just around the corner from the Russell family in the 1920s. She reports that she would frequently walk to Russell’s house and gaze wistfully through the window at the family scene inside. To me, at least, that suggests romantic love rather than agape. Also, she calls her separation from Russell a “disaster” and states quite explicitly that it shattered her capacity for happiness and zest for life.

    @Amos – Yes, I’m sure there is something to that line of thought. Cool song, by the way!

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