Bertrand Russell’s Prison Letters Are Now Digitized & Put Online (1918 — 1961)

Boethius, Hen­ry David Thore­au, Anto­nio Gram­sci, Mar­tin Luther King, Jr…. It’s pos­si­ble, if one tried, to draw oth­er com­par­isons between these dis­parate fig­ures, but read­ers famil­iar with the work of all four will imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize their most obvi­ous lit­er­ary com­mon­al­i­ty: all wrote some of their most impas­sioned and per­sua­sive work while unjust­ly con­fined to a cell.

In the case of Bertrand Rus­sell, how­ev­er, per­haps one of the most famous fig­ures in 20th cen­tu­ry phi­los­o­phy and intel­lec­tu­al life more gen­er­al­ly, peri­ods of incar­cer­a­tion in Brix­ton prison in 1918 and, forty-three years lat­er, in 1961, play a min­i­mal role in the larg­er dra­ma of his writ­ing life, despite the fact that he did a good deal of writ­ing, includ­ing some sig­nif­i­cant philo­soph­i­cal work, behind bars.

Even schol­ars well-read in Russell’s work may have lit­tle knowl­edge of his prison writ­ing, and for good rea­son: most of it has been inac­ces­si­ble. “Now, for the first time,” writes Eri­ca Balch at McMas­ter University’s Brighter World blog, “Russell’s prison letters—part of McMaster’s Bertrand Rus­sell Archives—are being made avail­able online through a new dig­i­ti­za­tion project devel­oped by the Bertrand Rus­sell Research Cen­tre. Com­plete with detailed anno­ta­tions and ful­ly search­able text, the project is pro­vid­ing schol­ars from around the world with access to these rarely seen mate­ri­als.”

The con­tents of the let­ters reveal oth­er rea­sons that Russell’s prison writ­ing isn’t bet­ter known. He did plen­ty of impas­sioned and per­sua­sive writ­ing for the pub­lic out­side of a prison cell—publishing fiery books, essays, and lec­tures against war and pro­pa­gan­da and in defense of free thought through­out his life. Behind bars, how­ev­er, Russell’s writ­ing turned almost sole­ly pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al, in let­ters addressed pri­mar­i­ly to “his then lover Lady Con­stance Malle­son (known as ‘Colette’) and his for­mer lover, aris­to­crat and socialite Lady Otto­line Mor­rell.”

The 105 let­ters “reveal the pri­vate thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most pub­lic fig­ures and pro­vide an inter­est­ing win­dow on Russell’s inner life,” says Andrew Bone, Senior Research Asso­ciate at McMaster’s Bertrand Rus­sell Research Cen­tre.  Most of the let­ters “were writ­ten in secret,” Balch notes, “and smug­gled out of Brix­ton by Russell’s friends, con­cealed between the uncut pages of books.” Rus­sell was only allowed one let­ter per week; offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned cor­re­spon­dence is writ­ten on prison sta­tion­ary and bears the Brix­ton governor’s ini­tials.

A life­long paci­fist, Rus­sell was first jailed for six months in 1918 for a speech oppos­ing U.S. entry into World War I. “I found prison in many ways quite agree­able,” he lat­er wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy. “I had no engage­ments, no dif­fi­cult deci­sions to make, no fear of callers, no inter­rup­tions to my work. I read enor­mous­ly; I wrote a book, ‘Intro­duc­tion to Math­e­mat­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy’… and began the work for ‘Analy­sis of Mind,’” a project that nev­er reached fruition. In 1961, at age 89, he was jailed for sev­en days for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Lon­don anti-nuclear demon­stra­tion.

Dur­ing his first stay as a pris­on­er of Brixton’s “first divi­sion,” Rus­sell was “allowed to fur­nish his cell, wear civil­ian clothes, pur­chase catered food, and most impor­tant­ly, be exempt­ed from prison work while he pur­sued his pro­fes­sion as an author,” as the Bertrand Rus­sell Research Cen­tre points out. It’s lit­tle won­der he looked for­ward to the expe­ri­ence as a “hol­i­day from respon­si­bil­i­ty,” he wrote in a let­ter to his broth­er, Frank, four days after he began his sen­tence.

Rus­sell may not have suffered—or acquired a height­ened sense of polit­i­cal urgency—while behind bars (at one point he was heard laugh­ing out loud and had to be remind­ed by the war­den that “prison is a place of pun­ish­ment”). But his prison let­ters offer sig­nif­i­cant insight into not only the deeply emo­tion­al rela­tion­ships he had with Malle­son and Mor­rell, but also his rela­tion­ship with oth­er mem­bers of the famous Blooms­bury group and “lit­er­ary celebri­ties such as D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot,” writes Balch, “many of whom are ref­er­enced in the let­ters.”

The 104 let­ters from 1918, includ­ing Russell’s cor­re­spon­dence with his broth­er, his pub­lish­er, The Nation mag­a­zine and oth­ers, are all avail­able in orig­i­nal scans with tran­scrip­tions and anno­ta­tions at the McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Bertrand Rus­sell Research Cen­tre site. The final let­ter, num­ber 105, the sole piece of cor­re­spon­dence from Russell’s week­long stay in Brix­ton in 1961, is addressed to his wife Edith.

My Dar­ling,

The lawyer’s nice young man brought me cheer­ing news of you and told me I could write to you, which I had not known. Every one here treats me kind­ly and the only thing I mind is being away from you. At all odd min­utes I have the illu­sion that you are there, and for­get that if I sneeze it won’t dis­turb you. I am enjoy­ing Madame de Staël immense­ly, hav­ing at last got round to read­ing her. At odd moments I argue the­ol­o­gy with the chap­lain and med­i­cine with the Doc­tor, and so the time pass­es eas­i­ly. But sep­a­ra­tion from you is quite hor­rid, Dear­est Love, it will be heav­en­ly when we are togeth­er again. Take care of your­self, Beloved.


As in most of the ear­li­er let­ters, Rus­sell avoids pol­i­tics and keeps things per­son­al. But as in near­ly all of his writ­ing, the prose is live­ly, evoca­tive, and poignant, reveal­ing much about the per­son­al­i­ty behind it. While these let­ters may nev­er achieve the sta­tus of great lit­er­a­ture, by virtue of their pri­vate nature and their minor role in Russell’s major canon, that does not mean they aren’t a joy to read, for stu­dents of Bertrand Rus­sell and any­one else who appre­ci­ates the work­ings of a bril­liant philo­soph­i­cal and eth­i­cal mind. Enter the Brix­ton Let­ter archive here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Inter­ests Grad­u­al­ly Wider and More Imper­son­al”

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Bertrand Rus­sell Author­i­ty and the Indi­vid­ual (1948) 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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