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Thursday, 23 December 2010

Oldies but goodies

While it may seem very retro in the days of Web 2.0, I still subscribe to several listservs and still find them of considerable value in ways that I'm not sure all the exciting new ways of online interaction can really replicate. Though possibly these days I do a lot more skim-reading or deleting on the basis of subject line than I used to.

There was a particularly interesting (at least to me)  discussion recently, which ranged across both VICTORIA and H-Histsex, about whether society women of the 1880s would have known about syphilis, if so whether they would have talked about it, and in particular, would married women have discussed the topic in front of a younger unmarried woman.

My initial reaction was that unless they had had some involvement with the social purity movement and the campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, probably not, in an era when doctors usually did not inform married women that the underlying reason for their ill health/failure to conceive/sequence of miscarriages or stillbirths was a venereal disease given them by their husbands.

However, it subsequently dawned upon me that the long-drawn out and high-profile Campbell v Campbell divorce case*, in which Lady Colin Campbell sued for divorce on the grounds of her husband's adultery, plus cruelty in the form of communicating syphilis to her in spite of having been cautioned about his condition by doctors, took place in 1886. She had already been granted a judicial separation on the latter ground a few years previously. It seems entirely probable that this sensational case - Lord Colin Campbell had cross-petitioned claiming multiple instances of adultery on his wife's part  - was widely gossiped about. Though in its syphilis-related aspects almost certainly in whispers, and not in front of unmarried women.

*This scandalous case is set in the wider context of Lady Colin Campbell's unusual and fascinating life in a recently published biography by Ann Jordan.

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