Suppose you made a mistake – a monumental mistake. Suppose you married a young lady after a short acquaintance only to find she was not what you’d expected. Suppose, to compound matters, she thought the same about you; that while you found her to be as spoilt as she was beautiful, as frivolous and unpredictable as she was spirited, she thought you obstinate, exacting, parsimonious and domineering. Suppose after only three months she declared she could live with you no longer. So what? Neither of you liked each other much. It would cost you in pride and purse and there would be the inevitable distasteful involvement of solicitors, but the situation was not irrevocable. Or was it? What if the year was 1890; what if you were a 25-year-old earl and the young lady you had just made your countess was the 21-year-old daughter of a widow infamous in society as ‘something of an adventuress’?

Frank Russell
Frank, 2nd Earl Russell. (Bertrand's Brother, Amberley Publishing)

This describes exactly the situation of Frank, 2nd Earl Russell – grandson and heir of former British Prime Minister Lord John Russell and older brother to philosopher Bertrand – when he married Mabel Edith Scott, descendant of the founders of the Scott & Scott bank of Cavendish Square in February 1890. Mabel had been principally raised by her mother, Lady Lina Scott – a lady who had survived on her wits since her own husband absconded with Lady Pelham Clinton some dozen years earlier. Lina’s ‘wits’ included the hunting down and securing of eligible bachelors for her two daughters with means enough to keep them all in the manner to which they had become accustomed. Her elder daughter had married a stockbroker. Bagging an earl for Mabel was something of a coup. But if Mabel could not live with him, the best Lina could do was ensure that Frank continued to support them, by any and all means possible.

She tried begging and pleading, using all her womanly wiles to entice him to reconcile with Mabel, but Frank was not to be so cajoled. She sent Mabel to plead with the male members of Frank’s family to use their influence on him, but none of them ultimately felt up to the task or considered it their responsibility. So, Lina resorted to lightly veiled threats of public exposure: if pushed, she would be forced to tell all she knew of Frank’s questionable past. Surely, she wrote, Frank must remember how one morning at breakfast she had said if he did not stop ‘bear fighting’ late at night with his old university friend Roberts in the bedroom above hers she would be forced to change rooms. Surely, too, he remembered (and no doubt regretted) telling her how five years previously he had been ‘sent down’ from Oxford for having supposedly written a romantic letter to another male undergraduate. The implication was clear: if Frank would not comply, he was to be publicly branded a degenerate, addicted to ‘unnatural crimes’.

Mabel Edith, Countess Russell, as she appeared in The Sketch, 28 February 1900. (Bertrand's Brother, Amberley Publishing)

Given that sodomy was then reviled, illegal and punishable by up to ten years’ penal servitude if proved, the stakes were high. The Cleveland Street scandal was still very recent news; the infamous Oscar Wilde story just about to break. So, did Frank concede? Turn tail and run for cover behind the protection of solicitors prepared to barter for his reputation? Not a bit of it.

Frank was in no way your average aristocrat. His parents had been radicals and agnostics and Frank had been raised to be independent and to think for himself. By the time he reached maturity he had rejected Christian morality, despised polite society, and thought nothing of the opinions of the press. Despite the fact that in 1890 to secure a divorce one had to appear before judge (and, in this case, jury) at the palatial Royal Courts of Justice in London for a full public trial of one’s marital misdemeanours, which were reported verbatim in daily papers across the country (and, in this case, across the globe), Frank did not cower. He braved the crowds that waited for him outside the court mewing and crying, ‘Oh, the dirty man’ and trusted in the law to exonerate him.

Earl Russell tried by his peers for bigamy in the House of Lords, 18 July 1901, centrefold from Illustrated London News, 27 July 1901. (Bertrand's Brother, Amberley Publishing)

Unfortunately, the law then was strict and, despite its name suggesting otherwise, the divorce court handed out decrees most reluctantly. After nearly ten years, three trials and an appeal court hearing that was referred to the House of Lords, Frank gave up the unequal struggle and took matters into his own hands. In the summer of 1899 he absconded with one Mollie Somerville to Nevada where he secured possibly the first celebrity Reno Divorce. The following year he returned home to face the music – married in the eyes of American law; not so in the eyes of the English. Frank’s actions saw him tried for bigamy with all due pomp and ceremony in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster before a jury of his peers on 18 July 1901. The story of this remarkable event, the saga of his disastrous first marriage and the manner in which he triumphed over adversity to become a thorn in the side of the House of Lords as a radical campaigner and self-appointed spokesman for the underdog for the next thirty years is told through extensive use of private family papers, many used for the first time, in my recently published biography of Frank, Bertrand’s Brother: The Marriages, Morals and Misdemeanours of Frank, 2nd Earl Russell. Read and enjoy and wonder how it is you’d probably never heard of this colourful character before.

Ruth Derham's new book Bertrand's Brother: The Marriages, Morals and Misdemeanours of Frank, 2nd Earl Russell is available for purchase now.