Friday, February 24, 2012

Violet Gordon Woodhouse (and Her Men)

by Kristina Wright

I've been following the GOP debates lately with increasing shock and disbelief. Sometimes the things politicians say sound like satire. I know they're just pandering to their most vocal supporters, but their posturing sounds more like a Saturday Night Live skit than a debate among potential candidates for the highest office in the United States. Who are these men who think they deserve to be president? And who supports them and votes for them? They scare me, frankly. And not just them as individuals. Rich, narrow minded men with over inflated egos and enough money to buy their way into politics will always exist. No, what really scares me is the fact they've gotten as far as they have in the political arena, supported by people who agree with their increasingly narrow minded platforms.

I've noticed all political debates seem to devolve into discussions of morality, specifically women's morals. There's a lot of talk lately about birth control and abortion and putting an aspirin between one's knees to prevent pregnancy, ha ha. But it's not just in politics that we hear about how women today are bad, bad girls. There are warnings on the news about teenage girls "sexting" with boys and sending naked pictures of themselves through Facebook, which then get shared with everyone at school. There are the SlutWalks to protest the comments made by a Toronto police officer who said if college girls don't want to get assaulted they shouldn't dress like sluts. There are teen mom shows highlighting the worst of the over-dramatic worst. There are the sex-loving, dirty talking feminists speaking on college campuses and indoctrinating the next generation into their sex-fueled club of debauchery. There are the teachers and executive assistants getting caught making porn in the their free time and losing their jobs. And the list goes on... The message is that women today are wicked. Wicked!

The current crop of politicians and all of the news outlets (and probably your mother and grandmother) would have you believe that 2012 is the Year of the Slut. Or was it 2011? Or 2010? The good girl disappeared sometime in the past decade right? It's all gone to hell in a hand basket since the feminists took over in the 60s. Or was it when women got the right to vote in 1920? Whenever it started, it's only gotten worse and it's finally hit critical mass! And it's up to the GOP to get these bad girls under control. Now! Before it's too late for your daughter or granddaughter. (Cue the ominous music.)

Just when did women stop being quiet, submissive good girls and turn into outspoken, demanding sluts? Maybe someone can tweet that question during the next GOP debate. I'm sure they will be happy to support legislation to get women back in the home. After all, childless career women are responsible for the breakdown of the family and the downfall of our society. (And here I thought it was all Eve's fault.) Let's start by taking away their reproductive rights, shall we? Keeping them barefoot and pregnant should help keep them quiet. Sigh.

Speaking of childless career women, I don't know when Violet Gordon Woodhouse came on my radar, but I often think about her when I listen to politicians get up in arms about women's morals or women's reproductive rights or women's roles in society. I might have picked up a book about radical women at the bookstore and found Violet there. I seem to recall reading about her along with the likes of Mata Hari and Amelia Earhart. In any case, I had never heard of her until a few years ago. Have you?

[ETA: I found the book that introduced me to Violet. It's Seductress: Women Who Ravish the World and Their Lost Art of Love]

Violet Gordon Woodhouse was born in 1872 and died in 1948. She was an acclaimed British musician, proficient in the harpsichord and clavichord and she was considered to be a musical genius of her time. This is one reviewer's impression of her, based on the 1986 biography Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse:

"Violet Gordon Woodhouse was an expert. She knew how to get her needs met without compromising herself. She had the brass neck to lead her life as she wished but still avoid the condemnation of society. She had an imperiousness that would brook no opposition. But as long as she got her own way, there was little malice in Violet and she gave more than she received. She was one of these rare charismatic personalities who bring joy into people’s lives and leave the world a better place than they found it. "
(Dr. Nick Read)

She sounds like a feminist to me.

Jessica Douglas-Home, her grandniece as well as her biographer, said this about her adventurous aunt:

Life enhancing people are rarely perfect--their flaws are part of their vitality and their fascination. Violet possessed an exquisite selfishness, but despite her well-deserved reputation for generosity, friendship and warmth, she could also be cold and critical. But those who loved her forgave her everything.

Besides her music and a certain charming, generous autocratic personality, Violet is known for something else. Something simply scandalous. She lived with four men.

Yes, this rich, talented woman had four "husbands." There is much speculation over how much (and what kind) of sex was had and who filled what roles and the fact that she apparently had a celibate relationship with her legal husband and how he might have felt about her other relationships and the fact that Violet was equally desired by women. Her personal life overshadows her professional musical accomplishments because Violet was a very bad girl before bad girls became so common. And boy howdy, that must have pissed off the men back in her day. (Well, all but the four men who lived with her.)

People didn't know what to make of Violet back at the turn of the twentieth century and they still wouldn't know what to make of her:

"Some women just have it, that magic; the ability to evoke adoration in others. Violet did. How else could she make four men fall in love with her so deeply that they devoted their lives to her. First there was Gordon, whom she married, then Bill, the love of her life and then Max and finally Dennis. With interruptions, they all lived together in a ménage a cinq until separated by death. Apparently, they didn’t seem unhappy with the ‘arrangement’, which for a time scandalised the sensitivities of others. It seems that they got on famously and each in their unique way serviced Violet’s needs. Gordon expressed fidelity, Bill romance, Max intellect and Dennis courage."
(Dr. Nick Read)

Even contemporary writers who have lived to see the rise of feminism and birth control and Roe v. Wade and Madonna-- seem to sneer a bit when writing about Violet. She was "magic"-- how else could she make four men fall in love with her and be willing to share her? That only happens in dirty books written by wicked women!

Magic, my ass.

Violet had a progressive attitude toward marriage and relationships and she was able to find four equally open-minded men with whom to share her life. There was no magic, no mind control, no unwilling partners. The writer above wants to categorize each man, suggesting that none of them was more than a one-dimensional play toy, taking turns "servicing" Violet's particular needs at a particular time. Ridiculous. The men were successful and accomplished in their own right, complex individuals who chose to be in a complex relationship with a clearly complex woman. And guess what? They were happy. Or at least as happy as anyone anywhere in any kind of relationship can be happy.

In her New York Times review of Violet, Angeline Goreau wrote:

For years, I took it on faith that Tolstoy knew what he was talking about when he told us, ''All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'' But on the accumulating evidence of recent memoirs, I've come around to the view that unhappy families may be more alike than we've given them credit for. (It also occurs to me to wonder exactly which happy families Tolstoy had in mind. Perhaps they crowded the landscape in 19th-century Russia, but I wouldn't bet on it.)

We suffer still, I think, from the reigning idea that family happiness implies a certain lack of imagination. To this notion the life of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, told for the first time at length in ''Violet,'' a biography by her grandniece, Jessica Douglas-Home, offers a useful, if deeply quirky, corrective. Violet, who was officially known as Mrs. Gordon Woodhouse, lived with four ''husbands'' (only one of whom was her legal spouse, though the others unquestionably regarded themselves as married to Violet) in a household that was, oddly enough, at heart a happy one

Violet's ménage a cinq was scandalous a hundred years ago-- and it's still scandalous in a society that blames the length of a woman's skirt for her sexual assault and argues against allowing women in combat zones because they're too emotional/fragile/weak. A society that freaks out over two men kissing on a television show but doesn't bat an eye when dismembered bodies are shown on the six o'clock news. A society that condemns politicians for their affairs, real or virtual, but devours every dirty detail that's fed to them by the news outlets.

Can you imagine what the GOP would make of a woman like Violet? They freak out over the idea of two men getting married-- what would they say about a woman who wanted to marry four men? Slut! Whore! That's just sick, right? A woman with four men! Who thinks this stuff is okay? Politicians--and those who enjoy the likes of Jerry Springeresque talk shows-- just love to wallow around in the (often fictional) salacious details of a story and decide what's moral and immoral, don't they? And then they like to inflict those beliefs on the rest of us.

We don't know what Violet was up to behind closed doors and we don't need to know anymore than we need to know what our neighbors are doing in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Everybody gets so hung up on the sex in an open marriage or polyamorous relationship and we rarely have a clue what is really going on-- and the truth is, it's not really about sex at all. It's about connections. It's about creating bonds and building nontraditional families. It's about love. It's about happiness. (Okay, it might be a little bit about the sex.) What we do know about Violet is that she loved four men enough to want to live them with them all and that she was generous in sharing her love and affection. Her choice. Their choice. And they were all happy with their choice. It didn't need to be debated or legislated or judged by men who buy the silence of their mistresses or cast aside one wife in favor of a younger model or hide their homosexual affairs, all while railing against immorality.

Violet Gordon Woodhouse had the money, success and prestige to be able to thumb her nose at society and live the life she chose--something many women can't do even now for fear of penalties ranging from losing their jobs to losing custody of their children to losing their lives. And it's all just so much hypocrisy in a society that is more comfortable with portrayals of violence than sex, that prefers to hide and deny their indiscretions, and feels righteous about voting for people who would attempt to legislate morality.

Politics should never be about social issues and politicians should not get to decide what is moral, and therefore legal. And brave, passionate women like Violet Gordon Woodhouse should be able to do whatever they damn well please without somebody somewhere calling them sluts and trying to legislate their rights away. The fact that there are people in the United States without homes, without jobs, without education and without health insurance while politicians are yammering away on television about birth control pills and immorality is not only ridiculous, it's offensive.

I have a feeling Violet could have taught our current crop of politicians a thing or two about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


  1. Hello, Kristina,

    Fabulous post! I've never hear of Violet Gordon Woodhouse but she sounds like a woman after my own heart... ;^)

    I think she did have a kind of magic - the magical ability to ignore the censorious opinions of her contemporaries in order to seek her own path to happiness.

    Makes me wonder about her parents, too. She must have had an unusual upbringing to have grown to be such an independent woman.

  2. I definately share your politics.

    Like many men I';ve had this fantasy of living with several women at once, each with a different "strong" point and sexual talent, and I think most men imagine that from time to time. For many men this is a reality. But if a woman does this same thing, and it seems to work, it becomes a huge scandal. There's definately a double scandal. I am curious about this woman. You can;t bully men into loving you. She must have had a powerful personality.


  3. Thanks for your comments!

    From what I've read, Lisabet, Violet's father was pretty old-fashioned and traditional. I'm not sure where she got her spirit. I haven't read her biography, but I'd like to.

  4. Awesome, awesome post, Kris. Thank you so much!

    And no, I hadn't heard of her—but I'm glad I have now. :)

  5. Great post Kristina. I think I'll have to get that biography. I particularly liked your treatise on the current state of GOP politics in this country and relating it all to a woman born in the late 1800s. I'm off to see if you've posted this anywhere I can send facebook friends. I feel the need to have lots and lots of people read it--lots and lots.

  6. Thank you, Emerald and D.L., for your kind words! I am so, so happy that you enjoyed my piece about Violet. I have a bit of a thing about scandalous semi-obscure historical figures.

    I was actually nervous about this piece because the theme was historical figures and I felt like it ended up more a political piece than a historical sketch. But maybe it worked after all!

  7. Kristina - I'm so glad you wrote about her. Sure, it's political, but just being female right now in the US feels like a political act.

  8. Thank you, Kathleen. I also think you're right.

  9. Thanks, Kristina. What a fascinatng post. I, also, had never heard of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, but she's definitely a woman after my own heart, although three-part harmony is enough for me, rather than a quintet. (I guested here with a column, entitled Three Part Harmony, a couple of years ago, in which I discussed my polyfidelic lifestyle, where everyone gets along just fine.) It is a pleasant surprise to read about a woman such as Violet Gordon Woodhouse and the men who were, obviously, as open-minded and forward-thinking as she.

    Your observations about the current crop of presidential candidates et al are spot on. Saturday Night Live indeed.


  10. Thanks for your comments, Rose. I have been intrigued by Violet since I first read about her and I love hearing how other people have created happy, nontraditional relationships. Now I need to read your Three Part Harmony!

  11. Excellent post and a much-needed antidote to the idiotic pandering that is driving the current political campaigns. There is a real universality to blaming the loose woman--it's popular in Japanese history as well, in spite of the fact they have no Christian tradition to bolster the arguments. I'm going to be checking out Violet Gordon Woodhouse as well, and I so appreciate your pointing out the way the one biographer needed to compartmentalize and thus simplify the arrangement. I'm sure Violet did not see these men as single characteristics!

  12. An excellent and thought-provoking post. Violet Gordon Woodhouse was also a hell of a musician, as the surviving recordings demonstrate. A representative sample can be heard on YouTube:

    I believe our society will be truly enlightened when we are able to take more interest in a person's achievements than in the details of his/her personal life.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.