In his preface to this well-researched and witty retelling of the famous Ampthill Succession case, Bevis Hillier recalls how he chose his subject after researching a proposed Oxford Book of Fleet Street. He went to a dealer of vintage newspapers in Covent Garden and came away with a sheaf of old tabloids, one of which had on its cover the headline “Mrs Christabel Russell Wins in the House of Lords,” below which were photographs of the lady herself, her son, and her estranged husband, John Hugo Russell, third Baron Ampthill (1896-1973). Wondering “what all of that was about,” Hillier read the story and was immediately drawn into the fascinating tale of family history and courtroom drama that constitutes the marrow of The Virgin’s Baby.
The facts of the Ampthill Succession case can be readily set out, though “fact” is not, perhaps, the most apposite word to describe a case riddled with oddities. On October 18, 1918, Russell married Christabel Hulme (1895-1976), second daughter of Lt. Col. John Hart of the Leinster Regiment and his wife, Blanche Anstruther Erskine of Sussex. The Russells had one son, Geoffrey Denis Erskine, born on October 15, 1921. A year after the boy’s birth, Russell sued his wife for divorce on the grounds of adultery, claiming that the boy was not his own but that of one of two corespondents.
The jury acquitted the two co-respondents (both erstwhile friends of Russell and his wife) and granted the petitioner a decree nisi. After Christabel’s appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, which found that Christabel was guilty of adultery with “an unknown man,” she scraped together all she could from her Mayfair dress shop and appealed to the House of Lords, which, by a majority of three-to-one, found in her favor on the grounds that the evidence her husband had submitted to the lower court was inadmissible.
Among the lords were Winston Churchill’s boon companion, the Earl of Birkenhead (F. E. Smith), and Baron Carson (Sir Edward Carson), whose cross-examining skills sent Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol. The case established the principle (overturned in 1949) that no evidence could be given by a husband or wife in legal proceedings if the result were to declare illegitimate a child born in wedlock. It also led to an act of Parliament limiting the publication of divorce proceedings in England and Wales.
What made the case so sensational was that, by their own account, Russell and his wife had never consummated their marriage. The gynecologists to whom Christabel had gone after she found out that she was pregnant all confirmed that she was virgo intacta. When called upon to testify whether it was possible for a man and wife to conceive a child under such circumstances, the gynecological experts all testified that it was, indeed, possible—if “barely possible.” Christabel, an unconventional, droll, impulsive woman, who was as mad about horses as she was repelled by sex, had forbidden her husband any connubial relations, short of the odd uncontrollable emission.
As readers will appreciate, giving these travails precise expression is not easy. At the appeal trial, Lord Dunedin fared no better, referring to the likely circumstances in which the child was conceived as fecundatio ab extra. Nonetheless, it was a puzzle: Had baby Geoffrey been sired by Russell inadvertently, or did Christabel give birth to him as the result of some adulterous encounter with an “unknown” man?
Russell resolutely refused to entertain the possibility that he had had sexual relations with his wife sufficient to account for the birth of a child, even though, in the course of the gladiatorial courtroom trial, it was at one point suggested by Christabel’s counsel that this might have occurred when he was sleepwalking. Instead, Russell and his family went to their graves denying that he was the boy’s father; they even contested Geoffrey’s right to the peerage after losing their appeal in the House of Lords. When Geoffrey’s contested right to assume the fourth baronage of Ampthill came before the Lords in 1973, they gave Christabel her crowning victory by upholding her son’s claim. One great virtue of Bevis Hillier’s account is that he has had the good sense not to paraphrase the contemporary eyewitness record, which, as his generous quotation shows, is inimitably amusing. Anyone fond of courtroom drama will find this book an absolute delight. One exchange exemplifies the flavor of the testimony. When Russell’s barrister, the future foreign secretary Sir John Simon, asked Christabel “whether it wasn’t ‘unusual’ for a young married woman to use a bachelor’s bathtub, she replied at once: ‘Well, Sir John, isn’t it better to be indiscreet than to be dirty?’ ”
Hillier also enriches the narrative with contemporary newspaper reactions to the courtroom drama. Lloyd’s Sunday News, for example, spoke of the impact that the case had on the Law Courts:
Not within living memory have those sombre buildings where so many skeletons are dragged from the family cupboard, and where human wits are strained to the uttermost on the rack of cross-examinations, furnished a parallel to the questioning of this gently-nurtured society woman pitting herself against the trained intellect and forensic arts of one of the keenest intellects of the modern Bar.
Outrageous Fortune by Anthony Russell, one of Geoffrey’s sons, is a charming memoir of growing up in Leeds Castle, Kent. About Christabel, whom he calls “Granny A,” he is affectionately vivid.
In keeping with her whirlwind character, Granny A was always a dashing dresser, and the day she took me, aged six, to my very first film at a cinema on Oxford Street, was no exception. She wore a hat, veil, scarf, jacket, flowing skirt, and high boots, all flung together with a superlative eye for cut and colour. Everything she did seemed to be done at breakneck speed; her thinking, riding, talking, driving, cooking, arranging . . .
One had to work hard to keep pace with her or “be prepared to be left trailing in her formidable wake.” This is certainly the impression that Hillier gives of this volatile, imperious woman, whom Angelica Huston came to know and love when she was a child in Ireland. Indeed, in the film version of A Handful of Dust (1988), she based her character Mrs. Rafferty on Christabel.
In one of the most evocative scenes in Russell’s memoir, Christabel takes her young grandson to the London Odeon in 1964 to see the Beatles perform their Christmas show—intent, as he says, to see “what all the fuss was about.” No sooner did the Fab Four take to the stage than “triple pandemonium” broke out. As Russell attests, “Every teenage girl . . . gave the distinct impression of having gone stark staring mad.” And when they launched into their rollicking finale, “Long Tall Sally,” the pandemonium became more hysterical still. After the show was over, however, and the house lights came up, Anthony noticed how “Granny A gave the girl in the front of us a gentle prod with her umbrella and spoke to her in an angelic tone of voice: ‘You know, my dear, only the plain girls scream.’ ”
After that memorable evening, Russell vowed to become a rock star himself, though he never managed it, despite befriending Mick Jagger, who told the hapless aspirant that privilege and rock ’n’ roll were ill-suited. Still, Russell is a winning memoirist with a discerning eye for social history:
My parents were so far apart in their likes and dislikes, habits and personalities, that sometimes their charm, good looks, and fondness for a stiff drink seemed to be all that they had in common. Smoking and drinking were pleasures their World War II generation indulged in, and they, along with practically everyone I saw around them, enjoyed both vices to the fullest.
Many readers will, no doubt, recall that now-superannuated conviviality in their own family histories, before bottled water and fitness locked up the drinks cabinet for good.
These entertaining volumes should be read in tandem, though it is only a question of time before some film studio descends on Christabel and the Ampthill Succession case. If there is any justice in the world, the producers will commission Bevis Hillier to write the lucrative screenplay. In the meantime, it would be nice to see Oxford University Press publish his Ox-ford Book of Fleet Street.
Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Newman and His Family.