Gertrude Elizabeth Blood was 22 when her mother brought her to Scotland in search of a suitable husband. One fateful September night in 1880, she caught the eye of Lord Colin Campbell, son of the Duke of Argyll.
They were at the estate of mutual friends, and Lord Colin was instantly taken. Gertrude was beautiful: tall and slender, with unfreckled pale skin and a mess of dark, shiny curls. She was also lively and sharp in a way the women in his circle of friends—monied acquaintances since birth—were not. Blood's mother, keenly aware her daughter would have no dowry, was eager to push her daughter into Lord Colin's fortuitous path. Within three days, he'd asked Gertrude to marry him.
A three-day courtship implies some degree of passion, but the marriage itself was delayed. Lord Campbell, at some point, had picked up a rather unpleasant sexually transmitted condition (based on the description of treatment, we can likely call it syphilis), which Gertrude's parents were not eager for her to catch. During this interim, Lord Campbell's father tried to put his son off the marriage, later admitting in open court that he "would have sought for his son a more ambitious alliance".
Still, Lord Campbell and Gertrude were set on each other. After an operation and six months of attention from a round-the-clock nurse, the two were married in July of 1881. But, on the advice of doctors, they kept to separate beds. The Times would later detail the matter of marital consummation in a story about the pair:
In October of 1881, after remaining in London, the parties went to Bournemouth and there, the marriage not having been then consummated, Lord Colin passed a slip of paper to his wife, purporting to contain an extract from a doctor's letter, which said that if they now occupied the same room it would be beneficial to Lord Colin. They went to Inverary later in October, and there, for the first time, intercourse took place.
As it turns out, Lord Colin was not, in fact, cured of venereal disease; within a few months of their first sleeping together she had it, too. Their London home was occupied not just by servants but by various nurses who attended to both Campbells. In 1883, Lady Campbell obtained a legal decree of separation from her husband, citing "cruelty" as the reason. An 1886 newspaper story filled in the details:
Lord Colin said he could not see his way to assent to the demand of his wife, while he added that if she persisted in removing herself from intercourse with him, she must leave his house.
So leave his house she did. The story could have ended here—Lord and Lady Colin had no children, and could easily have spent the rest of their lives avoiding each other, navigating the London social scene delicately as not to cross paths.
Lady Colin, though, wasn't interested in bowing out of society so quietly.
In 1886, she filed for divorce from Lord Colin, again citing cruelty as the reason, this time with a few counts of adultery thrown in for good measure. This was the only chance she'd get at starting over: while her separation from Lord Campbell entitled her to his money, she was under near-constant surveillance from household staff and acquaintances. Were she to give even the impression of impropriety, Lord Colin would easily be able to divorce her, leaving her with no income or other means of support.
To the surprise of nearly everyone, and for reasons that seem to be rooted primarily in revenge, Lord Colin countersued for his own divorce, accusing Lady Colin of being unfaithful and naming four separate men with whom she'd allegedly strayed. Over a period of 18 days, the witness stands filled up with Lady Colin's supposed lovers (a set of men that included the Duke of Marlborough, uncle to Winston Churchill, and the captain of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade) and the witnesses to her infidelity: the most famous of these being the butlers of 79 Cadogan Place, which was the Campbell home itself.
Albert De Roche and James O'Neill had both worked at the Campbell's home during their marriage, and each claimed to have seen Lady Colin in extremely compromising positions with several different men. At one point, O'Neill was asked point-blank by an attorney what he'd seen:
"Did you see her bust?"
"I certainly saw more than that."
O'Neill insisted he'd watched this scene through a keyhole in the parlor doorknob, and at one point during the trial the entire jury was marched to 79 Cadogan place to look through the very same keyhole and decide for themselves whether or not the butler could've caught Lady Colin as he said he did. (He apparently told the court specifically what Lady Colin and her companion had been doing, but the newspapers declined to print the story).
Soon after that, "what the butler saw" became indelibly synonymous with the peep-show machines that would soon appear in the back rooms of certain bookshops all across Britain, in which one could pay a few coins to voyeuristically watch a woman strip off her petticoats.
It's likely that Lady Colin went to bed with at least one of the men she was accused of sleeping with. In To Marry an English Lord, Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace suggest that in Victorian and Edwardian England, real fun didn't begin until after marriage. Once lords and ladies were secure in position and finances, they were free to engage in extramarital affairs of varying degrees of passion, as long as they kept it both quiet and within their social sphere (so: sleeping with a Marquess, even if he's your brother-in-law was fine; going to bed with a stable boy was not).
Lady Colin failed on both counts: the latter because she herself wasn't of the sphere she'd married into, and the former because she'd made the whole mess public. To have words like "intercourse" printed in the newspaper—let alone a full schedule of a couple's engaging in that act—was an affront to the decency the nobility was desperately clinging to. In 1886, to expose one's set to the courts, to the press, to regular people, was an act of class betrayal that could only be committed by one who didn't belong to that class in the first place.
In short, by trying to divorce her noble husband, Gertrude proved she hadn't deserved him in the first place.
The press was split in its loyalties. Lady Colin was referred to by one reporter as having "the unbridled lust of Messalina and the indelicate readiness of a common harlot," and in many accounts of the case it was her infidelities and irrepressible demeanor that were to blame for the dissolution of what should have been a perfectly happy upper-class marriage. Others pounced upon the opportunity to expose the licentiousness of Britain's titleholders. In this line of thinking, Lady Colin was "pure," a victim of her husband's inability to avoid sin.
But everyone, even those who avoided taking sides, exploited the trial's seamier details: Frank Harris, editor of the Evening News, doubled his paper's readership by printing word-for-word testimony from the witness stands and was promptly fired and then indicted for libel.
In the end, nobody won. The judge denied both divorce petitions: though the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 had made it slightly less difficult to dissolve a marriage in Britain, it still wasn't easy. He did, however, affirm Lady Colin's bad treatment at the hands of her husband, asking rhetorically, "Do you think Lord Colin Campbell's attempt to treat his wife as a common prostitute was anything short of an outrage?"
Separated from her husband and exiled from the society in which she'd grown used to living, Lady Colin (as she'd choose to remain styled for the rest of her life) had to do something to occupy her time and fill her purse. A lifelong writer, she now chose to use words to make her way, and quickly became a contributor (under her own name and various pseudonyms) to the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette. She was a beautiful, quick-witted woman who'd been at the center of the dirtiest scandal anyone could remember, so naturally, London's literary elite loved her. She became the special friend of George Bernard Shaw, who often used his own connections to get her assignments, and wrote of her in 1893,
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. The custom is for the interviewer to describe the subject of an interview as his "victim". It is not possible to express how completely the tables were turned on this occasion.
Lady Colin wasn't freed from her marriage until 1895, when Lord Colin Campbell died of syphilis. She herself died at the age of 54, likely of complications from the same disease.
Her book-world friends mourned her, and there were notices in the major papers, but the upper class of which she'd once been a member was too busy ignoring the massive changes that were about to befall them. With the first World War just three years away, and the American heiresses who'd been supporting large estates with their dowries choosing more and more to marry in their home country, dukes and duchesses would soon long for the days when the greatest question posed to them was exactly "what the butler saw"—when a scandal within their social circle was the biggest threat to to their charmed existence.
Angela Serratore is a New York-based writer and historian with a predilection for stories about women who eschew easy categorization (like those in her Master's thesis, which focused on the geography of sex work in 19th century Manhattan). She is the Deputy Web Editor at Lapham's Quarterly and an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1897.