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?’ ”