In July 1930, a ‘Great Hermaphrodite’-themed party was held at Knole, the Kent estate belonging to the Sackville-West family. The evening, Bloomsbury chronicler Frances Partridge recorded in her diary, was somewhat disconcerting: the men had ‘loaded themselves with pearls, powder and paint’, and she felt out-of-place in her yellow silk dress when other women were wearing tuxedos. The atmosphere, she wrote, ‘was stifling and the noise so deafening that even the music from a vast gramophone horn was inaudible’. Partridge felt alienated by the ‘continuous passionate dancing’, which left her feeling ‘like a jelly that had only partly set’; she concluded that the party – hosted by Eddy Sackville-West and Nancy Morris – had been a failure.
Morris, who died in 1988, would probably be surprised – and perhaps amused – to learn that her lasting legacy is a disappointed report of one evening in her company. But historical memory is arbitrary and fickle. Which anecdotes and judgements survive depends, so often, on the whims of people like Partridge who kept assiduous records and who moved in circles deemed retrospectively interesting; writers tend to be over-represented in the archives for the simple reason that they leave tangible traces, often deliberately contrived. Virginia Woolf consciously crafted her diaries with an eye to posterity and spent a great deal of time pondering which of her friends would be of most interest to future historians, eager to ensure that her caustic pen-portraits would shape their reception. Other members of the Bloomsbury group and its offshoots wrote carefully diplomatic autobiographies (Leonard Woolf), left reams of correspondence (Lytton Strachey), or wrote each other as characters in their lightly fictionalized novels (Anthony Powell). Yet, often, I find myself wishing we had more record of voices like Morris’s – of lives lived on the peripheries of well-chronicled social circles, who could offer a fresh and valuable rejoinder to the established narratives.
I first came across the name of Nancy Morris when researching my book Square Haunting (2020), a group biography of several women who lived, between the wars, in Mecklenburgh Square, on the eastern edge of Bloomsbury. Having discovered that the square had been Virginia Woolf’s last home in the city and that the modernist poet H. D. and the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers had lived two years apart in the very same flat at number 44, I began to search for traces of other former residents, wondering what had drawn so many fascinating women, determined to live bold and independent lives, to this corner of London. As I searched Google and prowled the library shelves, I found a 1929 letter from the New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins to her friend Lucy Wertheim, headed with the address ‘Basement Flat, 44 Mecklenburgh Square’, reporting that she had borrowed this spacious accommodation from one Nancy Morris. I wondered who Nancy was, and how she had come to know Hodgkins – was she an artist herself, or a fellow emigre? My imagination was further piqued when I came across a reference, again in Partridge’s diaries, to another party Nancy had hosted, possibly in the square itself: ‘about a hundred people stood close together in a stuffy basement, shouting, bellowing rather, into each other’s open mouths, and sometimes twining their arms vaguely about one or two necks at once [...] A crowd of truculent Lesbians stood by the fireplace, occasionally trying their biceps or carrying each other round the room.’ Here, I thought, was a woman with stories to tell.
Pursuing Nancy further, however, turned up only dead ends. She had no children and seems to have left no writing or artwork of her own. Very few letters or photographs survive: in those that do (held at the Tate), she’s usually laughing or smoking, mockingly waltzing with a semi-naked man or staring lovingly at a dog, and dressed in Fair Isle jumpers or tweed suits – the cast-offs of the famed restaurateur Marcel Boulestin, who left her his wardrobe in his will. Her long life – she died in 1988, aged 95 – has dissolved into random, tantalizing fragments that have survived through others’ eyes. Born in Wales, Nancy was the younger sister of the painter and gardener Cedric Morris, known for the art school at Benton End, in East Anglia, which he ran for decades with his partner, Arthur Lett Haines and counted Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling among its students. She seems to have followed Cedric to the art worlds of Cornwall, Paris and London (where his studio parties were attended by all the Bloomsbury set, evenings usually ending in a performance of the Charleston). The artist Gluck painted Nancy swathed in an orange scarf; the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer captured her androgynous profile, while Cedric immortalized her beloved bull terrier Swirl in an elegant portrait titled Belle of Bloomsbury (1948). Hambling remembers Nancy as ‘an old-style dyke with a collar and tie and an Eton crop’: she told me a story of Nancy in Paris in the 1920s, storming out of a salon to the astonishment of several gentlemen hairdressers. She had asked for ‘un coup d’homme’ – a men’s haircut or, to them, slang for ‘a fuck’.
Nancy Morris lived as an out lesbian at a time when female sexuality was widely seen as a threat to the status quo. In the early 20th century, sexologists, psychoanalysts and lawyers scrutinized ‘Sapphist’ tendencies in women with some suspicion; by 1921, parliament considered the subject of sufficient risk to debate making lesbianism a criminal offence like male homosexuality, but the question was shelved on the basis that it would be better not to give women ideas. In 1928, the year Woolf published Orlando, her coded tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was the subject of an obscenity trial, condemned for its open depiction of same-sex desire. Nancy seems to have flitted between passionate relationships with married women who left her adrift when they ultimately chose the security of a more conventional domestic set-up. She had a long affair with Alix Strachey, who was married to Lytton Strachey’s cousin James: Alix was one of the first psychoanalysts to practise in England and, along with her husband, Sigmund Freud’s first English translator. In 1928, Nancy wrote to Cedric to complain about a woman named Honey, who had strung her along through a heterosexual engagement and was now indignant that Nancy had found someone else: ‘While she was making up her mind about Maurice and marriage, I was seeing a great deal of Alix […] I knew some time or other she might marry and leave me so having found Alix I don’t see why I should give her up.’ Two years later, Alix also committed to her marriage: she told Eddy Sackville-West that, when she had refused Nancy’s ultimatum that she desert James, Nancy had ‘suddenly flown off with an entirely extraneous female who has offered her her hand & heart & all her worldly goods + 2 grown-up children!’
At this point, I lost track of Nancy and the ‘extraneous female’. I pursued her a little longer until my leads dried up, but this portrait remains far from exhaustive: it’s certainly not impossible that some long-forgotten library might turn up a stash of photographs or the unpublished memoir of an ex-lover. But I found her again, finally, in the letters of the playwright John Mortimer, who had lived in the 1940s in Turville Heath, near Henley-on-Thames. There, suddenly, large as life, was a middle-aged Nancy, running a bookshop with her present lover, content to entertain customers with stories of life on the Left Bank, of partying with Marlene Dietrich and taking opium with Jean Cocteau. ‘My spare time I spend with the Lesbians,’ Mortimer wrote to the poet Michael Hamburger. ‘They are very rich and give me champagne. Their house is full of Marie Laurencins […] They wear death’s head sunglasses which give, even on the greyest days, an impression of heat. When they give parties they wear black silk men’s evening dress […] I lie on their sofa and purr.’ We can’t all expect to be immortalized in doorstop biographies, but to be remembered in glancing impressions of parties, champagne and sunglasses might not be such a bad legacy after all.