Campbell Versus Campbell, in the Divorce of the Century

Gertrude Elizabeth Blood was born in May 1857, the child of a wealthy landowner named Edmund Maghlin Blood and his wife Mary. The Bloods were old-school plantation grandees, with the Irish branch founded by Captain Edmund Blood. He came over in the 16th century settlements under Queen Elizabeth, and wound up taking lands to the north-east of Limerick City, in what is now the southern edge of County Clare. The Bloods held on to those lands through the tumultuous centuries that followed.

Gertrude Blood as a child -
Gertrude as a child.

Gertrude was thus raised as the daughter of landed gentry. She was the youngest of three children, having an older sister named Mary Beatrice and an older brother with the memorable name of Neptune William. It was an old family name, going back to a son of Captain Edmund Blood who had been born at sea in 1599. She spent most of her childhood in Italy, where she had many adventures that provided the fodder for her writing later. Reportedly she learnt to speak Italian and French before she learnt English. Like many of the landed gentry, it was a fond ambition (especially for her mother) to break through into the ranks of the “true” aristocracy. In 1880, when the 23 year old Gertrude became engaged to Lord Colin Campbell after a whirlwind romance, it must have seemed like a dream come true.

Caricature of Coin Campbell -
A caricature of Colin from coverage of his election in 1878, showing him in his military uniform.

Lord Colin was a son of the Duke of Argyll, though he was the Duke’s fifth son. He had been born in 1853, making him four years older than Gertrude. He had gone to what, even then, were all the right schools – Eton and Cambridge. At the age of 22 he had been commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 2nd Argyll Rifle Volunteers, though it’s unlikely he ever actually saw combat. By 1878 he had left the army and had been elected as an MP – doubtless through shenanigans, as he was incredibly unpopular with his constituents. Colin’s eldest brother John was married to Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. The Duke himself was a great friend of Prince Albert, and served in the Cabinet in several roles. The idea of her daughter marrying into such a lofty family pleased Mary Blood greatly, and she did her best to encourage the match. [1] Edmund, however, was not so sure. He was aware of some less savoury rumours surrounding young Colin. When Lord Colin was forced to delay the marriage, Edmund worried that the rumours were true and outright asked Colin to confirm if he was suffering from a “loathsome disease”, by which he meant something venereal. Colin denied this, claiming it was a urethral fistula. [2] Colin, however, was lying.

Whatever Colin truly suffered from (syphilis is the best guess, though gonorrhoea is a possibility) it was something beyond the ability of Victorian medical science to cure. A month after he and Gertrude became engaged he underwent an operation, and for several years he would be under constant medical supervision. The marriage between them was constantly delayed, but finally took place in July of 1881. It was three months until they consummated it, and then only when Colin gave Gertrude a letter from his doctor claiming that he had been cured, and that “sharing a room” would help speed his recovery. Of course all this resulted in was Gertrude becoming infected too, and when she suffered an attack of internal inflammation that completely incapacitated her she had no idea what was happening to her. With the doctors that swarmed the house at the time firmly in Colin’s pocket, she was forced to go to stay with her mother and sister for a while in order to try to get a proper diagnosis of what was wrong with her.

79 Cadogan Place -
Image: 79 Cadogan Place, the stately townhouse where the Campbells lived in London. Source

Unsurprisingly this cut down on conjugal relations between Gertrude and Colin. Colin was severely displeased with this, and even less pleased that his wife began looking for any excuse to get out of the house. Her charm, intelligence and beauty meant that she soon made many friends in London – including quite a few male friends, to her husband’s displeasure. In his eyes his wife should have placed him at the top of her priority list, and leaving the side of his sickbed in order to live a life of her own was unacceptable. He tried to forbid her from seeing them, but she just ignored him. At some point in 1882 she fell sick again, and the jealous Colin accused her of procuring an abortion. Not only was this a serious accusation in and of itself, it also amounted to an accusation of adultery as she had not slept with her husband in some time. To make matters worse, it seems that now was when her doctors figured out exactly what was wrong with her. At that point the marriage was, for all intents and purposes, over. Colin, of course, refused to accept that. His constant demands that she “perform her wifely duties” escalated to threats of divorce, and eventually she had enough. In 1883 she filed for a judicial separation, on the grounds of “extreme cruelty”. The cruelty was Colin having deliberately exposed her to the venereal disease, and it was accepted by the court, though the proceedings were kept private. Gertrude left Colin behind, and moved to Paris with her mother.

Colin was furious, and tried several times to have the judicial order lifted. He also sent Gertrude letters, warning her that he would do his utmost to see to it that if she refused to return she would be left without a penny. He sent agents to watch her for any evidence that she was sleeping with other men, as that would have enabled him to divorce her and cut her off completely. Of course, she was well aware of these agents and gave them nothing to bring back to their master. It was clear that Colin had no intention of letting her live her life in peace, and so later that year she filed for a divorce. Colin, not to be outdone, filed a divorce motion of his own. The stage was set for one of the most infamous court battles of the 19th century.

Gertrude Campbell -
A photo of Gertrude from around the time of the separation.

The dice were loaded against Gertrude from the start. She was a woman looking for a divorce – inherently scandalous to Victorian society. Her husband was an aristocrat, the son of a duke and the brother-in-law of the Queen’s daughter. To her advantage however, Gertrude’s case was the first one heard. When her lawyer, Sir Charles Russell, gave his opening speech then his revelation of Colin’s syphilis prompted his father to leave the courtroom, and was so shocking that no newspaper dared actually print it, except one. [3] Since the earlier judicial separation had been handled privately, no word of this scandal had previously been heard. Sir Charles also revealed that while Gertrude had been living in Paris her husband had tried to have her arrested for adultery, a move which had been foiled when the gendarmes learned of their judicial separation. The primary witness on Gertrude’s behalf was her cousin and friend Lady Frances Miles, a noted beauty. [4] She gave a great deal of testimony on Colin’s cruel treatment of Gertrude and frequent specious accusations of infidelity, but the most legally significant part was her account of catching Colin in a compromising position with one of the housemaids in 1882. Colin’s lawyer did his best to shake her in cross examination, but Lady Miles proved to be an excellent witness.

Colin’s lawyer was one Mr Finlay, and his case was very much pitched around portraying Gertrude as a socially ambitious shrew, who had married above her station and then found the life of high society too refined for her tastes. Colin’s syphilis he cast no such thing but rather as an injury, the result of a youthful indiscretion. He challenged the verdict of cruelty that had led to the separation as blaming Colin for something he had not done. The judge corrected him, to point out that the cruelty was not for the disease but rather for having deliberately infected Gertrude with it. Moreover he declared that the jury would have to take the earlier judgement as an immutable fact, something which may have proved pivotal (and something which Colin’s lawyer would constantly try to undermine).

The newspapers ate the trial up, and the whole thing became a public sensation with papers reporting such tidbits as the scandalous fact that Colin had originally wished to include the Prince of Wales as a co-respondent but had lacked enough evidence. Newspapers were rushed out, and their stories were often chock-full of inaccuracies – describing Gertrude’s recently deceased elder sister as part of her party at the trial, for example, or mistaking people’s names. In general, the tone at this stage seems to have been strongly in Gertrude’s favour, something Finlay knew he would have to overcome. This was long before the era of jury sequestration, and they were sure to be influenced by this. The charge of Colin’s adultery he disputed with medical experts who claimed that the housemaid in question was still a virgin, though only two of the three doctors that had examined her testified (a clear sign that the third had disagreed). Further evidence showing that Lady Miles had communicated with him much earlier suggesting that she should give this evidence in order to allow him a swift divorce from Gertrude meant that the charge of adultery against Colin was dead in the water.

The Duke Of Marlborough -
The Duke of Marlborough, the most famous of the co-respondents. There were rumours that Colin had planned to cite the Prince of Wales, but was dissuaded by his lawyers.

With that threat disposed of, Finlay moved on to establish his own case. His parade of witnesses were in stark contrast to the single witness called by Sir Charles, and he tried to paint a portrait of a woman who ignored her sick husband in order to live a life devoted to her own pleasure. 35 witnesses in all were called, mostly servants. This proved to be a tactical error, as the judge accused them of wasting the court’s time by calling witnesses to establish facts that were not in dispute. Moreover it made their case seem over constructed and false. In a similar style, Colin’s choice to include four co-respondents had been designed to trash Gertrude’s reputation, and in fact originally he had wanted to include more. But by seeing things through his own jealousy-tinged perspective, he weakened his case considerably. It was clear in court that his accusations against Doctor Bird, the physician who had treated both him and Gertrude, were based more on paranoia than on fact. Another co-respondent, Sir William Butler, simply refused to appear or testify at the trial – possibly the wisest course in the end up, as the evidence against him must have been flimsy enough that this didn’t seem damning. That left two supposed cuckolders, and so the case turned to the vexed question of What The Butler Saw.

Or butlers, rather, for there were two of them who formed the lynchpin of Finlay’s case. The first was Albert de Roche, who testified to the frequent calls made to the house by Lord Blandford, aka George Spencer-Churchill, a noted society rake who had by the time of the trial become Duke of Marlborough, and Captain Eyre Shaw, the first chief of the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Finlay made much of the fact that Gertrude had ordered de Roche to show both men up without telling her husband they had arrived at the house. De Roche claimed to have found Gertrude and George on a sofa with “his arm around her waist and her dress disordered”. The same accusation was repeated by de Roche’s successor, James O’Neill. It was O’Neill’s second piece of evidence that was the most sensational however, as he claimed to have looked through a keyhole and seen Gertrude and Captain Shaw “lying down on the carpet together.”

A mutuscope -
Image: It was the early moving picture machines known as “mutoscopes” which made “What The Butler Saw” a byword for sleaze. Source

“Did you see her bust?”
“I certainly saw more than that.”

This story, of a servant catching sight of the antics of his betters, seized the public imagination. O’Neill’s testimony in court was reputedly quite graphic, and none of the papers (not even the Evening News) dared print it in full. This lack of details only made it seem more salacious, and the phrase “What The Butler Saw” soon came to be synonymous with voyeurism. The importance of this testimony was exaggerated by the press after Neptune Blood, Gertrude’s elder brother, claimed that from his examination it would be impossible to see what O’Neill claimed to have seen through the keyhole. The jury were transported from the courtroom to the former Campbell house at Cadogan Place in order to inspect the door and keyhole for themselves. The result was not good for Gertrude, as they decided that O’Neill’s account was in fact definitely plausible.

That isn’t to say that they believed it, though. In the end the jury decided that Gertrude was not guilty of any of the charges of adultery that her husband levelled at her. Captain Shaw was far her senior, and in fact his daughter had been a bridesmaid at the wedding of the Campbells. Moreover he was a deeply respected public figure, beloved for having transformed the old London Fire Engine Establishment into a fully modern firefighting force, saving a great deal of lives in the process. And if they discounted that then they must also discount the charge of adultery with Lord Blandford – ironic, as it seems he’s the one that it’s most likely that Gertrude really did sleep with. In fact, if Colin had confined himself to that single charge he might have won the day. As it was, the court ruled that neither side had proven any adultery, and so neither petition for divorce was granted.

Colin Campbell -
Colin in 1890.

With the verdict delivered, the case now fell into a far more important jurisdiction – the court of public opinion. Some of the papers were outraged by Gertrude’s conduct, and one famously commented that she had:

“…the unbridled lust of a Messalina and the indelicate readiness of a common harlot.”

In general, however, public opinion seems to have been largely on her side. Of course, this was in marked contrast to the reaction of high society. The aristocracy closed ranks against her, and she was definitely no longer considered Respectable. Colin fared even worse, of course. Ostracised by both society and the general public he fled abroad to Bombay (modern-day Mumbai). There he settled down and became almost respectable, getting a commission in the Bombay Volunteer Rifles. In 1894 he returned to England, though this proved to be only a short visit. In 1895 he died at the age of 42. An obituary in London described him as living “neither wisely nor well”, though in India it was recorded that “his noble bearing and amiable disposition made him a universal favourite”.

Portrait of Lady Campbell by Percy Anderson -
One of the many paintings of Gertrude, this one is by Percy Anderson.

Gertrude, in contrast, rebuilt her new life directly upon the ruins of her old one. She had been a writer before her marriage, writing an article for Cassell’s Family Magazine in 1874 about a family holiday in Egypt. Her first book, based on her own childhood in Italy, had been published in 1878 under the pen-name of “G E Brunefille”. It was called Topo (her nickname as a child) and it remains in print to this day. After her separation she had picked up her pen once more, submitting an article to the Saturday Review. So impressed were they that she became one of their staff writers, writing up to three articles a week. Her skill with languages (due to her multilingual upbringing) meant that she could review books written in French, Spanish, Italian and German. In fact, her explanation in the court case for her friendship with Lord Blandford had been that he had helped her obtain these foreign publications. In 1886, the year after the case, she published a collection of her columns for the Saturday Review under her married name of Lady Colin Campbell – a clear statement of intent. [5] Her most famous column was an occasional series for The World, where she became art editor under the name of Vera Tsaritsyn. These were her “Walks”, where she detailed a walk she had taken through interesting places, using that as a framing device to help paint a picture of the town or district. They were unique, and they became her signature.

Gertrude became a darling of the London artistic scene, a beautiful and intelligent woman who had clearly show her independence and free spirit. Famously she posed for Whistler in 1886, but the painting was never finished and his sketches have been lost. She was especially good friends with George Bernard Shaw, a friendship cemented when he helped the Independent Theatre Society bring a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts to London. The ITS had been founded by a Dutch critic named Jacob Grein as a way of bringing works of literary merit to London that had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Since the plays were shown only to subscribing members of the Society, they were not “public” and therefore not subject to the law. Ghosts had been banned due to its subject matter, which included the effect on a family when a husband infected his wife with syphilis and she passed it on to her son. Needless to say, Gertrude was a fan. She wrote an extensive and glowing review of it for The World, and cunningly had it submitted and published when the somewhat puritanical head editor, Edmund Yates, was out of town. Though she signed the review VT (the initials of her pseudonym at The World, Vera Tsaritsyn), Shaw was well aware of the real authorship. His gratitude laid the bedrock for a lifelong friendship. [6] In an interview after she wrote a play in 1893, Shaw wrote:

“Lady Colin Campbell” by Giovanni Boldini -
“Lady Colin Campbell” by Giovanni Boldini, painted in 1897.

“Imagine a lady with a lightning wit, a merciless sense of humour, a skill in journalism surpassing that of any interviewer, a humiliatingly obvious power of reckoning you up at a glance, and probably not thinking much of you, a superb bearing that brings out all the abjectness in your nature, and a beauty the mere fame of which makes you fall into an attitude of amateurishly gallant homage that fulfils the measure of your sneaking confusion.”

Throughout the rest of the 1880s Gertrude continued to flourish, publishing a novel in 1889. She continued her relationship with Lord Blandford, now the Duke of Marlborough, and it seems clear that even if they had not been sleeping together before the court case they definitely had an affair after it. This was cut tragically short in 1892 by his sudden death of a heart attack. He left Gertrude £20,000 in his will, causing many mutterings. The death of her father around the same time was also a blow, and she seems to have channelled her grief into motivation for her writing. In 1893 she published a revised and edited version of an older book called Etiquette and Good Society. This elucidation of the “unwritten code” they used to expose outsiders (such as she had been) may well have been a rebuke to those who had turned their backs on her. Her title (however tarnished) being attached to it helped to make it a big success. She also wrote a section for The Gentlewoman’s Book of Sport, a notable book that helped to promote the acceptability of women exercising. Gertrude’s section was on fencing, a sport that she had always enjoyed. By the time she was writing it ill health had forced her to retire from active participation but she remained an enthusiastic viewer of matches. The inclusion of fencing (and cycling) annoyed many critics, especially when more “ladylike” pursuits like croquet had been left out. One suspects that was rather the point.

Gertrude Campbell -
A photo of Gertrude as her health began to fail – note the retention of fluid in her face.

Gertrude continued to write and edit into the twentieth century. He health remained precarious due to the syphilis. An attempt to establish a magazine of her own failed due to her falling ill just after it had been launched, with dire consequences for her finances. Still she managed to keep up at least one column a week until 1905, and in 1903 published a compilation of her Walks under the title A Woman Walks In The World. By 1906 her failing health meant that she took her final Walk. Over the next few years she went into a rapid decline, and was soon confined to a wheelchair and unable to walk. In November of 1911 she died, aged only 54 years old. She left a portrait that had been made of her by her friend, the artist Boldini, to the National Portrait Gallery. Sadly the controversy over displaying the portrait of such a “notorious” woman meant that it was ten years before it went on display. The same controversy tainted her legacy as a writer and a critic, ensuring the main thing she was remembered for was her divorce. But her portrait still hangs there now, a reminder of a woman who was played a bad hand by life but played it as best she could, and who was, while she could be, magnificent.

I would like to acknowledge the book Love Well The Hour, by Anne Jordan, which was a great help in writing this article. Images via it or wikimedia except where stated.

[1] Unsurprisingly Colin’s father the Duke was opposed to the match, seeing Gertrude as being below Colin’s station. In this he would turn out to be exactly incorrect.

[2] I would strongly suggest that you not google this. Especially not at work.

[3] The Evening News, which was then sued by the National Vigilance Association (established by famed journalist and moral crusader William T Stead) for obscene libel. It still came out on top overall – its circulation doubled due to its coverage of the trial.

[4] Lady Miles’ husband, Sir Philip Miles, is notable for trying to have an amendment to a bill passed in 1884 that would have extended votes to women.

[5] In an odd coincidence the modern day writer Lady Colin Campbell also gained the name through a marriage that ended in divorce. Her husband was a descendant of “our” Colin’s elder brother.

[6] This was in marked contrast to her relationship to another literary icon of the time, Oscar Wilde. The two despised each other, and Gertrude referred to him as “the great white centipede”.