Lucy's Childhood

Lucy’s ancestors were esteemed, but her childhood was difficult. By the time of her birth in July 1948, her parents’ relationship had already begun to deteriorate, and when she was four years old, her parents left her and her sisters, Anne and Sarah, in the care of Bertrand Russell and his fourth wife, Edith Russell (neé Finch). She would never live with her parents again; John and Susan divorced in 1955 and both experienced serious mental health crises which left them unable to look after their children. The years after Lucy’s parents’ departure were marked by a bitter family custody dispute which would leave the two sides of her family—Bertrand Russell and Edith against John Russell and Dora—permanently divided.

Lucy was five years old when the custody dispute began. Bertrand and Edith Russell, with whom the children still lived, initially desired to have the girls made wards of the court on the basis of parental neglect, an initiative which was strongly opposed by Dora Russell (née Black), their grandmother (Monk 356). By 1954, Lucy’s parents had separated, and John, her father, had been hospitalized following a schizophrenic breakdown (Monk 359-360). Subsequently, John Russell moved into his mother Dora’s home, Carn Voel, in Cornwall, where he lived for the rest of his life. Susan Russell, Lucy’s mother, lived the remainder of her life in North Wales. She commenced a new relationship with another writer, Christopher Wordsworth, and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals, always living in poverty (Monk 391).

When John and Susan divorced in 1955, John Russell retained custody of his children, though they did not live with him. In 1960, Bertrand and Edith Russell sought to further secure the girls’ situation by seeking full custody of them (Monk 394). A protracted legal dispute ensued, and in the end, Bertrand and Edith won full custody (1961), with John Russell retaining visitation rights (Monk 400).

Lucy and her sisters received a traditional education for children of the British upper class; they attended private boarding schools, including Kingsmuir School in Sussex, Moreton Hall in Shropshire, and Dartington Hall in Dartington. They spent their summer holidays with Bertrand and Edith at Plas Penrhyn, Russell’s home in North Wales. Lucy excelled in her primary school studies, demonstrating an interest in mathematics, like her grandfather, and a strong aptitude for languages. Her papers, held at the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University Library, reveal her interest in literature and art as well.

Lucy Russell’s archive contains letters sent to Lucy and her sisters from their relatives about the custody dispute, as well as letters they sent one another in an attempt to make sense of the situations around them. Lucy and her sisters remained, for a time, in a tight information loop, and often struck a defiant note in their recounting of the narratives their adult caretakers had told them. “We are not going to carry on the sordid traditions of our ancestors,” Anne wrote to her younger sisters in 1962 upon learning of her mother’s remarriage.


Letter from Lucy Russell to Anne Russell

Lucy’s summary of her parents’ marital breakdown and the issues in her family.


Letter from Anne Russell to Lucy and Sarah Russell

Anne writes to her sisters upon learning of her mother’s remarriage in 1962.


Letter from Dora Russell (neé Black) to Anne, Sarah, and Lucy Russell

Dora Russell writes to her grandchildren in the spring of 1964, a time when Bertrand and Edith Russell were attempting to revisit the terms of their 1961 custody agreement to prevent John Russell, Dora’s son, from seeing his children. Russell and Edith made this move following receipt of a series of packages from John containing obscene language (Monk 488). Lucy became heavily involved in the family conflict which followed, and in the same year began to experience difficulties at school (Monk 492).


Incomplete short story written by Lucy

The first page of a seven-page incomplete fairy tale written by Lucy. The story, about three princesses in the custody of a King, bears similarity to the circumstances of Lucy’s upbringing. The three princesses are, she notes, ‘very lonely.'


Journal entry written by Lucy

Lucy kept diaries and recorded personal notes about her life on looseleaf papers which were often intermingled with her school notebooks. In this entry, Lucy recounts her anxiety about accepting a book from Ralph Schoenman, Russell’s private secretary and an employee of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. She also records Russell correcting her word choices, giving her advice about her interest in writing, and discussing the possible existence of God. Despite all this advice and tutelage, Lucy feels claustrophobic and browbeaten. She includes an apt quotation from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about the fearsome mariner monologuing.


Drawing of the Russell family

This child’s drawing of the Russell family—likely created by Lucy, though unsigned—depicts Bertrand Russell at the heart of a conflict, with various family members arguing around him.


Letter from Lucy to Sarah Russell

In this letter to her sister, Lucy describes being broke in London in her young adulthood. She and her boyfriend, Ahmed, “raided” Russell’s flat at Hasker Street, which they found to be a good source of tinned peas, soap, apricots, and Plas Penrhyn letterhead paper. At the time, Lucy was studying to pass her Oxford and Cambridge entrance examinations. Ahmed, who Lucy had met while travelling in Morocco in 1965, was waiting for a UK work permit. In May 1966, two months before Lucy’s eighteenth birthday, Bertrand Russell informed his solicitors of his intent to relinquish all legal and financial responsibility for Lucy (Monk 495-496).

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