Charmed! The irresistable attractions of Violet Gordon Woodhouse.
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. We don’t know how ‘intimate’ she was with her four men, though it was an agreement between Gordon and Violet that their marriage would be celibate, and there was no indication that she granted sexual favours to Max or to Dennis. Max it seems was charmed by her direct, risqué conversation and fascinated by her unattainability. It was only Bill, who might have enjoyed sexual privileges, though Violet’s skill at combining ice with fire and intimacy with distance might have encouraged an addiction without ever needing to consummate the relationship. One suspects she was more than a little fearful of intimacy. She had the flirt’s skill of focussing her attention on a person and making them feel that for that moment they mattered more than anyone else in the world.
The fact that she was a celebrity helped, of course. Violet Gordon Woodhouse was one of the greatest musicians of her generation, a virtuoso on the keyboard, who did so much to recapture the unique qualities of the harpsichord and clavichord and interpret the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Scarlatti. People would be enraptured by her musicianship. It was not only technically perfect, but she seemed to have a unique insight into the mind of the composer. Hearing her play was a rare and exquisite emotional experience. She put the whole of herself into the performance, expressing every nuance without sentimentality. But she expended the same emotional intensity to her relationships as she did to her music. Her vivacity could enthral her audience and leave them feeling they had been touched by fairy dust. Not only men but women too fell in love with her often for years.
But it wasn’t her virtuosity that attracted people. And it wasn’t her beauty either. She was as petite as a Dresden figurine and beautifully clothed, but she had a receding chin, large dark eyes and a somewhat swarthy complexion inherited from her grandmother who was a Sumatran princess (although that was a closely guarded secret). It was perhaps a certain imperiousness, a sense of personality that made people feel they were in the audience of somebody special, a presence that demanded attention, devotion and adulation. Her music was the expression of her personaility. She was a Queen.
These days we would recognize Violet as having a narcissistic personality. Although she could be kind and compassionate when it suited her, it was her needs that always took precedence. Violet did what she wanted, how she wanted and with whom she wanted. She had known that she possessed a special gift from a very young age and expected to be spoilt. She was the only one of her siblings who could charm their irascible father, and her musical gift meant, like other gifted musicians – Yehudi Menuhin comes to mind – she was set apart as the centre of attention at an early age. Violet could always get her way though willpower and childlike magnetism. Dorothy, her sister, was the sole repository of envy.
But selfishness does not come without a dark side. Violet could be autocratic and even vicious when people opposed her. She tended to encourage the submissiveness in women she had despised in her mother and if she felt she was not being given the deference she deserved, she would create such a mood of disapproval that it would reduce those around her to a state of misery. But she didn’t hold a grudge for long. She always saw the best in people and had an impulsive, bubbly nature, a, provocative gaiety that was irresistible and tended to bring out the same in others. She made people feel good – and if people feel good they tend to hang around. She needed affirmation and she was clever enough to know how to get it and keep it.
Violet never had children, and could be criticised for not giving her ‘husbands’ the freedom to have families of their own. One wonders what kind of men they were. Some have even suggested they might have been gay, though there is no indication of that. And they did not seem weak men. Bill, Max and Dennis served with great bravery and distinction in the Great War, all three attaining the rank of Lt. Colonel. No, the arrangement seemed to suit them. And once Violet had decided she wanted something, she would not give it up.
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.
As her biographer, Jessica Douglas-Home wrote, ‘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.
Violet, the biography of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, was written be her niece, Jessica Douglas Home and published in 1996. It’s a good read!