Knock, Knock … Who’s There?

Hand_Shaped_Door_Knockers-JaffaI know, I know, virtuous readers, you’ve had it with The Sultanette’s tales of sadomasochism, dominatrix couplings, and courtesans gaming the system. So as a break from unbridled fornication and low-life’s, I’m taking you on a picnic with celebrated harpsichordist and Victorian lady, Violet Gordon Woodhouse.

It’s August, 1899. Violet has ordered a wardrobe from Lady Warwick’s for the occasion, a horse-drawn caravan to New Forest with her lady’s maid, Dulciette, husband Gordon, and his Cambridge chum, Bill Barrington. Gordon has filled the hampers with homemade tarts, early plums and gooseberries, foie gras and fromage from Fortnum & Mason, American ham, Belgian chocolates, wines from the cellar, and the cook’s cordial.

English: Holyday,1876, James Tissot,oil on canvas.

English: Holyday,1876, James Tissot,oil on canvas.

After stopping to admire Lord Leighton’s frescoes at St. Michael’s Church in Lyndhurst, the entourage spends a week amongst New Forest’s ancient oak, beech, and chestnut trees, chasing after rare butterflies, and cataloging wild flowers.

I suppose I’ll mention that Bill is madly in love with Violet. That Gordon is copacetic with this “civilized understanding” in the interest of keeping the little woman from becoming listless. That future applicants, Max and Denis, will soon be enlisted. And that these “original and cultivated men” will enthusiastically choose cohabiting in Violet’s fraternity over conventional marriages in a lifelong ménage à cinq.

I rediscovered Violet in Betsy Prioleau’s Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love but I’d been captivated by her story since reading Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse ten years ago. Back then I was still drinking the Kool-Aid of everlasting happiness with One&Only but Violet may have planted the first seeds of The Male Harem. Her great niece, Jessica Douglas-Home, had written the biography after becoming enthralled by a cache of letters, photographs, music, hats, and scarves. How is it that this woman continued to beguile from the grave?

Feathered femme, 1910.

Feathered femme, 1910.

In the seductress category, Violet was hardly the Bird of Paradise sort that feathered the boudoirs of the day. Instead, think pigeon.  Prioleau describes her as having “a small fist of a face, pinched lips, and dark circles under heavy-browed eyes.” So while you digest that notion, a look at the men that flocked to her.

Sex was not the calling card in her marriage to Gordon but in those days of contracted nuptials it seldom was. After she was presented at Court – the dating game for aristocratic matches – Violet had fought against a conventional suitor and convinced her parents that Gordon had the chops for the job, always with the intent that it would be a platonic meeting of like-minded souls.

But it would be too easy to write Gordon off as a sexually ambiguous twit content with filling picnic hampers while Violet toyed with her boys. How many bonafide heterosexual husbands remain adoring and indulgent after the passion has cooled? Or would stay in the game if disinherited of their fortunes, as Gordon was by his mother when she learned that Barrington was co-lording the manor?

While Gordon filled the role of wife, Bill of the Lords Barrington of Oxfordshire,  blue-eyed, golden-haired cricket enthusiast and handsome devil, played the hottie dumb blonde. A family anecdote about his mastery of French at a Switzerland boarding school had it that while he’d learned “oui” and “non” he’d remained befuddled over which meant “yes” and “no”.

Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Max Labouchere filled the intelligence pool and enjoyed his own wing at the compound. Descended from Dutch Huguenot merchant bankers, he was a “collector of literary and historical miscellanea.” Prioleau describes him as “wolfishly handsome with a whip crack repartee” and Violet credits him for “educating her in everything but music.”

And what ménage à cinq is worth its salt without a boy toy? Rounding out the reality show is seventeen-year-old cavalry officer, Denis Tollemache. Violet the cougar? Consider that Denis fell in love with her at the age of eight while watching her perform at a harpsichord recital. When penis caught up with pre-pubescent infatuation, he packed his tooth brush and joined the party.

Sussex Country Cricket Club, Cricketer Harry Butt, 1896.

Sussex Country Cricket Club, Cricketer Harry Butt, 1896.

The boys played together well. When Violet held court with the eclectic composers that populated her musical world, Max, Denis and Bill hightailed it to Sussex to watch Oxford and Cambridge vie for the county cricket championship. When Violet assigned the gardening to Bill, Gordon maintained the herbaceous borders.

And Violet gave as good as she got. Prioleau writes that she “reserved time alone with each devotee, distributed customized keepsakes, composed florid love notes, played off lovers, and feigned illnesses in emergencies.” Yet attentions aside (and The Sultanette can vouch that male harem maintenance is back-breaking) what was it about this “little dark magician” that held them?

Venus Anadyomene, circa 1850, oil on canvas, Ingres, Louvre.

Venus Anadyomene, circa 1850, oil on canvas, Ingres, Louvre.

We could ascribe to her a goddess-like allure. Assume that her privileged upbringing granted her immunity to the encumbrances of mundane obligation. Pass her off as not being one of us.

But Violet’s father had at once championed and abandoned her. Her precocious musical talent lead her to grow up feeling both exceptional and isolated. The free spirit that drives an artist to break through barriers was in constant war with her compulsion for control. OMG. She was mortal.

The world seduces us into believing that we must polish up to fulfilled lives by becoming capable, self-assured, sensitive, shatterproof, ambitious, unselfish, consistent. Yet Violet was insatiable, self-seeking, icy, vulnerable, ostentatious, unconventional, erratic. “Her intermittent coldness,” Douglas-Home writes, “was a weapon that she used to deadly effect.” Yet the ménage found her “fragile appearance, quicksilver movements, provocative gaiety, and changes of moods completely irresistible.” Was Violet’s intoxicating charm that she dared to be unassailably herself?

And before you relegate her to male-obsessed enchantress consider how she dealt with her world unravelling. “During World War I” Prioleau writes, “the bell jar paradise temporarily shattered.” Max died in battle, Bill and Denis returned shell-shocked, most of Gordon’s assets were lost. And Violet went to work. She made a name on the international concert circuit. Signed a three-year contract with Gramophone to produce the first harpsichord recordings of Bach, Scarlatti and Couperin. Played for the Queen. Got fan mail from Pablo Casals. Continued to master the works of Scarlatti into her sixties, encouraged by a lover twenty years her junior, Sachie Sitwell, brother of Edith and Osbert. In her music and her men, she stayed vital and purposeful. But mostly she stayed her inimitable self.

Chorus of Orestes, 408 BC, Euripides, papyrus 200BC, Austrian National Library.

Chorus of Orestes, 408 BC, Euripides, papyrus 200BC, Austrian National Library.

Violet’s younger sister, Dorothy, who never married, kept a forty-year diary that weaves throughout the biography. Like a Greek chorus, it tsk’s in dogged rhythm over her older sibling’s impolite life. Upon learning of Violet’s living arrangement in 1901, Dorothy writes, “It is no good fretting now, we must grasp it and look it in the face! … I am very sorry!!”

After the war, Gordon, Bill, Dennis and Violet settled into their Gloucestershire estate. When Denis died in 1942, Violet mourned “this beautiful friendship & love for 50 years ever since he was a little boy and he has never failed me.” Bill and Gordon were with her when she died at seventy-seven in 1948. The Times wrote in her obituary, “No one who ever heard her can ever forget her playing.”

Who in life ever asks us to be fully ourselves? Not family or friends, lovers or work. No matter how populated our ménage that permission can only be granted by one.

Knock-knock.  Who’s there?