Downton Abbey and the Campbell Divorce Case

Hugh "Shrimpy" MacClare
Hugh “Shrimpy” MacClare

Post by Mary Person and Meg Kribble

Warning: this post contains spoilers through the February 22 broadcast of Downton Abbey in the United States!

Like many of you, we at the library enjoy watching and discussing the ITV/PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey. We’re always ready for a good story involving an entail! One of the issues that captured our attention more recently is the impending divorce (gasp!) between Hugh “Shrimpy” MacClare, Marquess of Flintshire, and his thoroughly unpleasant wife Susan. As we saw last week, even the threat of a divorce by the handsome Atticus Aldridge’s mother Lady Sinderby was enough to silence the perpetually dour Lord Sinderby into allowing the marriage of his son and Lady Rose MacClare to proceed.

In Victorian and Edwardian England, divorce was a source of shame and embarrassment, even a stain on the family name itself. The scandal of divorce among aristocrats caught the attention of everyone else, and provided sources of titillating reading along with public humiliation. Even now those stories live on in books and blogs. We discovered a modern account of one scandalous 19th-century  true story of the love, marriage, adultery, and divorce of one Lord and Lady Colin Campbell in the late nineteenth century at Rejected Princesses. (You can read more about her interesting biography at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.)

Lady Colin Campbell
Lady Colin Campbell, seq. 9 from The Campbell Divorce Case

As it happens, HLSL has an 1887 copy of The Campbell divorce case. Copious report of the trial. With numerous portraits of those concerned, drawn from life. With numerous portraits of those concerned, drawn from life, part of our collection Studies in Scarlet: Marriage & Sexuality in the U.S. and U.K. 1815-1914. Take a look at the digitized version. If nothing else, we recommend reading the scathing social commentary in the single-page preface to this case, brought to our attention by our colleague John Hostage. With commentary like “the skeleton of Society is there stript of its meretricious gloss and glitter, and laid bare to the public gaze in the full horror of its festering hideousness,” you’ll understand why divorce was the last thing socially-conscious aristocratic families wanted tarnishing their good names!

Fun bonus trivia: the Campbell case is the source of the phrase “what the butler saw.” During the trial, the entire jury visited the Campbell home to evaluate whether the butler could have seen Lady Campbell and a companion through a keyhole.

Scroll to Top