Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff and the Prieuré (1922–1927)

Ethel Merston


t was late summer of 1922 when I went over to Paris to ask Gurdjieff to take me as a pupil, more exactly, as a guinea-pig, for that was really what we were for him in those days of his learning to know the western mentality. I remember sitting with him on a bench on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, he absolutely silent and I, realizing that I was being tested, equally silent. I felt a tense atmosphere, perhaps he was weighing whether to take me or not. At the end of half an hour or so, he rose and said, “Come,” and we went to his flat for lunch.

He accepted me and sent me down at once to the Prieuré near Avon in the Forest of Fontainebleau. He had rented the property, a large one including a stretch of forest... The property had originally been a monastic Priory of which only a few stones were left in the grounds. The Chateau had been built in Louis the XV’s time and there every Sunday Mme. de Maintenon went to Mass. It ceased to be a monastery at the time of the French Revolution but kept its name. When I went down there, the Chateau was still occupied by tenants and the six of us there: Mme. Ostrowski (Gurdjieff’s wife), Mme. Ouspensky, another Russian woman, an Armenian woman, a Mr. Barker, and myself all lived in the little gardener’s cottage on the grounds.

Mr. Gurdjieff would come down on Sundays bringing various visitors, only one of whom I remember for the prank played on her credulity. This was Lady Rothermere who, in the early days when Ouspensky was in London, had the group meetings in her house. That Sunday of her visit, we had fish for lunch grilled over the wood fire in the dining room and served while Mr. Gurdjieff expiated to her on the wonders of this fish, a special trout caught in our own pond stocked with them. She swallowed it, trout and all, but so far as I was concerned, I knew a good herring when I tasted one. That was my first awakener to Mr. Gurdjieff’s practical method of teaching.

The first day that Mr. Gurdjieff came down from Paris, he asked me what work I would like to do, housework or gardens? He did not need to ask twice or wait an hour for the answer. I hate housework and adore gardening. So, he made me head of the gardens...

After some two weeks at the cottage, the Chateau was vacated by its tenants and we moved in. At once two other Englishwomen came, Gordon and Potter, both in their early forties. The house was in a filthy condition, especially the servants’ quarters allotted to us English, and the first job given to us was to clean them up.

After a few weeks, English and Russians began to come in shoals: Barbara Craster, Mary Huddart, Dr. Mary Bell, and her friend Eleanor Crowdy. A little later, Dr. Maurice Nicoll with his wife, baby and nurse; Dr. Young, A.E. Orage with his friend Katherine Mansfield very ill with TB, Mr. Pinder with his French wife and little girl, and the two Metz brothers. These were the permanent residents, but in the summer of 1923, we had many additions, the chief amongst them a Mrs. Finch, ex-theosophist, mother of the Everest climber, who amused us by going about in flowing white robes à la Mrs. Besant and would take my cows for walks in the garden tying blue ribbons to their tails

The Russians far outnumbered the English and were all old pupils from St. Petersburg, Moscow or Tiflis days; many of them had escaped with Gurdjieff in 1917 and been with him in Constantinople and Berlin: Mme. Ostrowski, Gurdjieff’s wife, a lovely woman with inner poise; Mr. Ouspensky’s wife, Thomas de Hartmann, a musician and composer of first rank, with his wife Olga who acted as Mr. Gurdjieff’s secretary and who with her knowledge of French, English, German and Russian, was very useful to Gurdjieff who knew no western language aside from his very little pidgin English; M. de Salzmann, a Georgian and fine painter, with his French-Swiss wife Jeanne who had been a Dalcroze teacher in Moscow where she had met Mr. Gurdjieff and thrown in her lot with him—a lovely woman, physically and spiritually; Dr. Tchernval and his wife from Finland with their little girl; Olga Ivanovna, who later married the celebrated American architect Lloyd Wright, with her little boy by a first marriage...

Almost at once, Mr. Gurdjieff began erecting a Study House for our evening work, exercises and movements—one could scarcely call them dances though some were folk dances from the Middle East. All other manual labor was then subordinated to the building work and when extra hands were needed, we had to down tools to help, all but the kitchen people. Kitchen work was sacrosanct. Mr. Gurdjieff supervised everything; nothing escaped his eye.

The first call on me was when the huge iron girders of a hangar he had bought to erect as the Study House arrived. We met the girders being unloaded from the lorry and, eager as usual to be in the vanguard, I went forward to help, only to receive a violent kick on the shins from Mr. Gurdjieff which stopped me just in time to avoid receiving the girder on top of me. The girders were then carried down to the lawn by the lorry men, where some ten of us to each girder were deliberately spaced around, and at a given signal we lifted and carried it to the site. It was light as a feather, Mr. Gurdjieff having known exactly how to space us according to the varied width, thickness, or thinness of the girder.

Our grounds consisted of a large Versailles type flower garden, formal beds full of geraniums, calceolarias, lobelias, and pink mesembryanthemum. Beyond the formal garden was an avenue of trees leading to the bank overlooking the kitchen garden. Another small garden was evidently used in monastic days as an herb garden, and yet another kitchen garden was up in the forest. It was a huge place to keep going and Mr. Gurdjieff always insisted on perfection. In the little herb garden, we found a lot of frames, and the first thing Gordon and I did that late autumn was to transplant into them our geraniums for the next year’s bedding. We had them all nicely planted at last before the frosts, when on going to water them next morning, I found to my horror not one glass lid on the frames and heard that Mr. Gurdjieff had taken the lot to be used for the new Study House windows. I was wild and went and asked him how he expected me to grow flowers without frames. He looked at me, smiled very sweetly and said, “Anyone grow flower with frame, you grow flower without frame.” How could one do anything but laugh. Moreover, he was right, it put me on my mettle and the next summer our garden was the show place for miles around. Mr. Gurdjieff knew how to handle people...

Inside the Study House [1]

In addition to the garden, I was given the two cows to milk and look after, knowing nothing about cows up till then, except as beasts to be run away from in a field. Alexei showed me how to milk and clean the stables the first day, then left me to it. I found the milking easy, at least with one of the cows; the other was too impatient and temperamental and would dance and put her hoof into the bucket of milk or overturn it, until I learned to snatch away the bucket swiftly as she moved. She was impatient, too, over her feed; at the beginning when I came in with my arms full of hay, she would rush at me and bury her muzzle into it, knocking it down and me almost with it. After two or three such experiences, I took to going into the stall backwards until I reached the manger and could tip the hay in. She was puzzled at first but in two days realized my object and thereafter, the moment she saw me in the doorway with her feed, she would turn away her head, and dancing on her toes with excitement, would wait until the hay was in the manger. She was a sweet beast.

The cows meant rising at 5 a.m. and by the time they were done, it was 7 o’clock and breakfast served. Directly after breakfast everyone’s job began; few people had time even to make their beds, I certainly hadn’t, let alone gather fuel for a fire in one’s room on a cold raw winter’s day. We worked till noon, then lunch and a half an hour in our rooms when we would have been glad of a fire, and for the rest of the afternoon worked at our jobs until 7 o’clock dinner. The evenings were spent in the early days in the salon doing exercises of various kinds, mental and emotional and learning the Movements, the Obligatories. After a time, as the Study House advanced, we spent part of each evening painting the calico cloth for the ceiling with a series of aphorisms in a script unknown to us and which we later learned. The calico was spread out, piece by piece on the floor; M. de Salzmann had drawn the characters in outline, and we had to paint them in with black paint. Salon work began at 10 p.m.; what the rest of them did between supper and then I don’t know, but my time was always filled with the cows and odd gardening jobs left over...

Mr. Gurdjieff liked people to experiment for themselves and not to obey blindly, and to teach them independence of thought, he would tell them to do some foolish thing to see whether they would do it. If they did, then next time he would tell them to do something even more foolish and so on, until they really saw for themselves how silly they were. He tried out the same thing on me in the garden; meeting me one autumn day, he told me, “You grow rice.” I looked at him in amazement, for who had ever heard of rice-growing in our climate. I replied that it would not grow. He said I was a fool, I knew nothing, of course it would grow. I replied, “Mr. Gurdjieff, rice will not grow here.” He stormed at me as usual, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “If you really want me to sow rice, I don’t care, I’ll sow it, but it will just be a waste of money, for it won’t come up.” He went into fits of laughter and I heard no more about rice-growing. The same later with some little annuals which he told me to sow in the forest. I told him that it was too shady for them, they would not flower, he said no more to me, trusting me by that time, but he told some of the others to prepare a ground in the forest to sow the seeds, which they did; since he said so. Of course, they didn’t grow...

The Study House was ready in January 1923 in time for the Russian Christmas festivities. Mr. Gurdjieff loved festivals and every excuse for a feast. Every Saturday night after the Russian bath we had one.

The Russian bath building was begun directly after the Study House was finished. They dug a cave in the bank on the edge of the forest, propping up the roof with a huge beam. They made three rooms plus a large recess for the boiler. The entrance room was for undressing in and resting after the bath; the second was a large oval, supported by a central pillar, with benches all around the walls for massage and wash-basins, and was warmer than the entrance room; the third, a small room with shelves on which we lay, was the hot room in which we sweated.

We had our bath once a week on Saturday, the women in the afternoon, the men in the evening before a late, 10 o’clock dinner. It was rather hard on us women, for no sooner had we had our bath than we had to go in and prepare the evening’s feast, which we partook of all together with Mr. Gurdjieff and his guests...

All that winter we worked hard at the Movements, for Mr. Gurdjieff was going to give a demonstration in Paris before going to America to raise funds and start groups there. In the Spring of 1923, the demonstration was held at the Champs Elysees Theatre, a memorable evening. All those who did not perform—I among them—sold programs and attended to the patrons in the foyer. There, in the foyer, Mr. Gurdjieff had the brilliant idea of installing an electrically run fountain showering, not water, but wine, into a six-foot-wide basin. From it we served the patrons goblets of wine. Where he got his ideas, he alone knew; it seemed like a tale out of the 1001 Nights transported to Paris.

The demonstration itself had a mixed reception; the impersonality of the performers and movements seemed to frighten some people while others loved them just because of their impersonal beauty.

Then Mr. Gurdjieff went off to America with a large party including Gordon and Orage, the latter of whom was to start groups in America. I was very disappointed at not being chosen to go with them, but he was right as usual, both for me and for the Prieuré, for we were a very small company left to carry on and I was perhaps the most responsible.

Apart from the group to go to America, many of the English had left. In fact, the only ones left were Potter and myself. On Mr. Gurdjieff’s return, I felt I should tell him that I was ready to go if he wanted. After a long silence he said, “If I useful to you, stay, if I not useful, go.” He was indeed useful, so I stayed. Gordon came back with him from America and stayed too.

That summer, crowds of Americans returned with Mr. Gurdjieff, all interesting and unusual people: Georgette Leblanc who had for years been Maeterlinck’s mistress/wife and her girlfriends, aged about 60: Jane Heap who ran the magazine which had first published James Joyce’s Ulysses and her American friend Margaret Anderson, also a writer, and Miss Robinson, a very fine concert pianist. We had J.G. Bennett for a couple of weeks who later started an institute of his own in London; Bishop Wedgewood in his long purple robe, the head of the Theosophical Liberal Catholic Church; Algernon Blackwood, the author, a friend of Orage and a very charming man; Alistair Crowley, the reverse, and the only person I ever saw Mr. Gurdjieff turn out after only a couple of days’ stay.

Then, while the summer was at its height, the blow descended—Mr. Gurdjieff had his motor accident. It is thought that for some reason the car swerved and crashed into a tree, for the car was pretty well demolished. He was found unconscious and taken to a nearby hospital where, the Prieuré’s address being found on him, we were notified, and Dr. Tchernval with Mme. de Hartmann went immediately and brought him home. He was very badly concussed and remained unconscious for some days. Even on recovering consciousness he had no memory of anything that had happened or that he had done for months before the accident.

An interesting speculation over this accident was the fact that he invariably took Mme. de Hartmann with him in the car; yet, this time, as they were preparing to leave Paris, he sent her off on an errand and told her to return by train. Did he have a premonition, or know about the accident?

As soon as he could get up and walk a little, he had bonfires laid all over the grounds and as they were lit, we went from one to the other standing silently watching them. It was obviously some sort of ritual, though what, we never knew.

Very shortly after regaining consciousness and while still in bed, Mr. Gurdjieff began dictating a book. It was the story of Beelzebub now published under the title of All and Everything. The first two or three weeks of dictation of it were in his childhood Armenian-Russian...

After the first taking down, the pages were handed to Mr. de Hartmann to translate into his poor English and then handed on to Orage for a good English. Mr. Gurdjieff asked me to work on it with Mr. de Hartmann, but feeling that I could not leave the garden, upon which we depended so largely for our food, I refused—more fool I. But when Orage went finally to America, there was no one else, so I left the garden and filled the gap. I realized then why Mr. Gurdjieff had wanted me from the start, for Mr. de Hartmann’s English was poor, Orage’s French nil, and the only possible solution was to work at the translation through the medium of French. So, we began again at the beginning and whenever a sentence of the translation did not seem right, we thrashed out the meaning in French, after which I put it into English. It worked well like that, and we worked at it day and night. The pages translated were at once typed out by Potter or myself and we even did one stretch of 24 hours typing to get the pages ready to read to Mr. Gurdjieff in the salon. We would all assemble in the salon in the evening, Mr. Gurdjieff on the sofa, his legs curled under him, I would read even when Orage was the translator, and Mr. Gurdjieff would stop me at intervals to refuse a certain word used. I learned a great deal about the English language and words in that way; if the sentence was an active one, then the endings and prepositions used had to be active and I learned which were active words and endings, which passive and which neutral. And this though Mr. Gurdjieff knew practically no English. But he could doubtless tell from the different vibrations of each word. Occasionally we even had to coin a word to satisfy him.

Mr. Gurdjieff’s Sofa at the Prieuré [2]

That winter of 1924–25, the Americans mostly gone, we were only about forty people in the house, so housework was not arduous. After his recovery, Mr. Gurdjieff spent a good deal of time writing at the Café de la Paix in Paris where, with his Astrakhan toque-hat, he became a well-known figure, many people visiting him there...

All the following summer and winter, Mr. Gurdjieff toured a good deal, mostly in the south of France. He would take with him a party of four in the little car, with masses of luggage, always including the book. To arrange everything for his comfort, Mme. de Hartmann was always one of the four. Gordon often went, and I went once, but being nervous in cars, I was never happy driving with Mr. Gurdjieff at the wheel. That time I was with the party returning from the Riviera, he drove like the wind; his sight had remained bad since his accident and I was literally in terror. But usually, if you said anything to Mr. Gurdjieff, he would do the opposite, and I was afraid to ask him to slow down lest he only drive the faster. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I did ask him to slow down. To my surprise and relief, he at once did so, and luckily, for a few minutes later we came to a right hand turn across a level crossing and beyond that, open fields with no bordering trees. He took the turning as he always did, on two wheels without slowing, for with his bad sight he never saw turnings until right on top of them. About a hundred yards further on, we suddenly slewed right across the road and plunged into a field, having lost one wheel. Had this happened when we were doing 60 miles an hour on that banked road, we would have turned turtle and crashed down the bank or into a tree...

In 1927, Orage came over from America, where he was running very successful groups, and, with Gurdjieff, went to Nancy to see about printing the book. But nothing came of it, and I think the trip was for the benefit of the Americans who were eager for the publication. But Mr. Gurdjieff had no intention of publishing it yet. There was still enough work to be done on it, he was always adding chapters, and I took up the translation work again, though still managing some time in the garden with Gordon...

By the summer of 1927, I began to feel myself in a cul-de-sac and that I had for the time being, at least, got all I could digest out of Mr. Gurdjieff. When I told him so, he did not demur, and early that summer I left the Prieuré. □

Ethel Merston (1882–1967) met Gurdjieff in 1922 through Maurice Nicoll and P.D. Ouspensky. She was one of Gurdjieff’s first students at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. After she left the Prieuré in 1927, Merston traveled extensively while meeting and working with many other spiritual teachers of the mid-20th century including Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma. This text is taken from Chapter 10 of her unpublished memoir.

More information about Ethel Merston can be found in Mary Ellen Korman’s well researched biography, A Woman’s Work: The Spiritual Life Journey of Ethel Merston (2009) Fairfax, California: Arete Communications. The photo of Ethel Merston is from this book and used here with the kind permission of the author and Arete Communications.

[1] This photo is from the archives of Luba Gurdjieff, Mr. Gurdjieff’s niece.

[2] Ibid.


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Featured: Fall 2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (2)
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