In 1915 John Hugo Russell (the son and heir of the second Lord Ampthill) met Christabel Hart, a beautiful and very glamorous young woman, who was so used to men falling in love with and proposing to her that it took until 1918 for her to accept John Hugo's proposal of marriage. However, Christabel's outward personality was deceptive, for although she may have enjoyed flirting and dancing with her many admirers, she was, in fact, revolted by the idea of sex and her acceptance of John Hugo's proposal came with a condition - that John Hugo would not attempt to consummate the marriage. Besotted by Christabel, John Hugo, a somewhat naive young man (and a rather unusual one, who enjoyed attending parties dressed in women's clothes) agreed to her condition, perhaps thinking that after the marriage she might change her mind. Christabel, however, was a woman with a very independent mind and she had no intention of changing the proviso under which she had agreed to marriage, and although she occasionally allowed John Hugo access to certain outside areas of her body, he was not allowed penetration. In 1921, when Christabel visited a psychic, she was told that she was five months pregnant and, very surprised by this news, Christabel went to see her doctor who confirmed that she was expecting a baby even though she was technically still a virgin. When the Russell family were informed of the news, they accused Christabel of adultery and John Hugo Russell, influenced heavily by his mother, sued for divorce, citing two named co-respondents and an unnamed man. The case, in which very intimate details of the couple's marriage were revealed (which so upset one of the women jurors that she asked to be excused) was tried, retried, appealed against and finally referred to the House of Lords.
Bevis Hillier's 'The Virgin's Baby' tells the story of the Russells' marriage, of the court cases which followed, of Christabel's life after the battle of the Ampthill succession and beginning with a chapter entitled 'Whatever Happened to Baby Geoffrey?' we are informed of what happened to Christabel's baby after his birth and up until his death in 2011 at the age of eighty nine. Although Bevis Hillier is fair in his presentation of both sides of the case, his admiration for the dauntless Christabel, whom he describes as "beautiful, brave, and clever" is evident, as is his regard for Geoffrey Russell, and even though the author has included all of the intimate details of the Russell marriage which were revealed in the court cases, this is not a deliberately salacious account. 'The Virgin's Baby' is a well-researched and very detailed book, with large sections of the text taken up with court transcripts and legal procedures - so if you enjoy courtroom dramas (as I do) you should find this an entertaining, rather compelling and very interesting read.
Note: For fans of Elizabeth Jane Howard's 'The Cazalet Chronicles' you might be interested to know that EJH was so impressed by Christabel (who was a friend of Elizabeth Jane Howard's parents) that she made her a character in her books. She appears as Hermoine, Lady Knebworth, a divorcee with one son, who (like Christabel) has a dress shop in Curzon Street.
As one would expect from Bevis Hillier (author of the three-decker Betjeman bio), no stone (or even sponge) has been left unturned in this once-scandalous, but still engrossing and extraordinary tale, which rests on whether the mother of a lord (not THE Lord) was a virgin or not, and whether a stray sponge with stray emission, so as to speak, played a part in all this. Inheritance, reputation and red faces all depend on the answer. You may not find a definitive one, although there was a legal decision. Read on.......
How would you feel if your wife told you that she was still a virgin and pregnant?
Lord Ampthill was extremely unimpressed - thus began a scintillating, salacious and sexy divorce court case that was to enthrall the British nation and the whole world in the early 1920s, and continue to resonate up until 1976 when the House of Lords decided on the inherited title of the virgin's son.
This brilliantly researched and beautifully written book shows again that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
This is a gripping tale told by a consummate author who brings the drama and glamour of the 1920s to life, whilst taking the reader through the subsequent story of the Russell baby who became Lord Ampthill after a legal battle....absolutely unputdownable!