Magazine article The Spectator

The Baby and the Bathwater

Magazine article The Spectator

The Baby and the Bathwater

Article excerpt

The Virgin's Baby:

The Battle of the Ampthill Succession by Bevis Hillier Hopcyn Press, �25, pp. 282, ISBN 9780939297760 Spectator Bookshop, �21.50 Mrs Christabel Russell, the heroine of Bevis Hillier's sparkling book, was a very modern young woman. She had short blonde hair which she wore in two large curls on the side of her head, she was wildly social and she was a fearless horsewoman. In 1920 she set up a fashionable dress shop, Christabel Russell Ltd, at 1 Curzon Street.

At the end of the first world war she had married John Russell, known as 'Stilts' (he was 6'5" tall), the heir to Lord Ampthill, a cousin of the Duke of Bedford. His snobbish and crusty parents disapproved furiously of the marriage. The young couple spent little time together. Christabel, who adored dancing, went out night after night with one of her many admirers. Stilts was amiable but weak, and he sometimes appeared at parties dressed as a woman.

One day in the summer of 1921 Christabel visited a clairvoyant. To Christabel's amazement, the fortune-teller told her that she was five months pregnant. Her doctors confirmed the pregnancy, but they also reported that she was a virgin. Instead of rejoicing at the news, the Russell family declared war on Christabel. John Russell sued for divorce, citing two named correspondents and 'an unknown man'.

In court, both John and Christabel testified that their marriage had not been consummated. But Christabel denied the charge of adultery. She confessed to a horror of sex: though she admitted that 20 men had proposed to her, she hadn't slept with any them. On the very rare occasions when she and John had shared a bed, and he had attempted what she called 'Hunnish scenes', she had pushed him away. The doctors, however, gave their opinion that it was medically possible for a woman whose hymen was intact to conceive through 'incomplete intercourse'.

The details revealed in court about the Russells' sex - or rather non-sex - life were so lurid that George V let it be known that he was 'disgusted', and the law was changed to prevent divorce cases being reported in the press. The Russell baby was nicknamed the Sponge Baby because some thought he was conceived as a result of Christabel washing with a sponge which had been impregnated by her husband.

People joshed about Hunnish practices, and schoolgirls whispered that no girl should ever take a bath in water used by a man for fear of becoming pregnant. …

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