Mary Jean Corbett, “On Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke, 1886″


Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke was among the first Victorian divorce cases to involve a well-known English politician. It achieved scandalous status in its own time for both its lurid sexual details and its high-profile cast of characters. Focusing less on the chief male actors than its female participants, including Maye Dilke and Virginia Crawford, I consider the response by contemporary feminists to Sir Charles Dilke’s fall from power, as a consequence of his perceived transgressions, and some implications of the scandal for feminist politics in the 1880s and 1890s.

In the first act of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, the blackmailing Mrs. Cheveley turns up, uninvited, at a London party hosted by Robert and Gertrude Chiltern. Once a cabinet minister’s private secretary, who made his fortune by selling a state secret, Sir Robert is now on the verge of attaining a cabinet post of his own. Threatening him with exposure, Mrs. Cheveley tells this not-so-innocent victim that in these times, even a whiff of scandal would end his political career:

Remember to what a point your Puritanism in England has brought you. . . . Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues—and what is the result?  You all go over like ninepins—one after the other. Not a year passes in England without somebody disappearing. Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man—now they crush him. And yours is a very nasty scandal (196; act I).[1]

With its opening-night performance in January 1895 at the map iconHaymarket Theatre “[a]ttended by leading members of the political class” (Dellamora, Friendship’s Bonds 183), the play represents the possession of “power over other men, power over the world” as “the one thing worth having” (210; act II), of which Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail threatens to deprive Sir Robert. At least some of the prominent men in the theatre that night—the Prince of Wales, the Radical politician Joseph Chamberlain—had been touched by threats comparable to the one that the play invokes, but finally neutralizes. Like some of his offstage contemporaries, Sir Robert manages to keep his secret, his wealth, and his wife, while also gaining his cabinet seat. Flaunting the open secret of male malfeasance in high places, the play nonetheless protects its politician with a past against the tenor of the times, in which the very effort to keep such a secret from public view could either avert or court scandal.[2]

Photo of Dilke

Figure 1: Photo of Sir Charles Dilke from an Ogdens Cigarette card

If we place the sexual subtext of the play in the foreground, as many critics do, Mrs. Cheveley’s words surely anticipate Wilde’s own imminent disappearance from public life, brought down by the “very nasty scandal” created by the Marquess of Queensbury’s infamous claim of “posing.”[3] But Mrs. Cheveley’s “prescient” words, as the historian Kali Israel discerns, were also “retrospective” (198). They recall the fate of other fallen “ninepins” decidedly not in attendance that evening; men such as Sir Charles Dilke, the Radical M.P. who had been a prime candidate to succeed William Gladstone as leader of the Liberal party until he was named as a co-respondent in the high-profile divorce case I consider here. Then as now, the exposure of public men’s sexual behavior could have political consequences: accusations “of sexual impropriety against highly placed individuals became entangled with the politics of social class and moral purity” (Kaplan 167) in the 1880s and 1890s, just around the time when “middle-class nonconformity had become an essential ally of the Liberal party” (Jenkins 216). From the criminal allegations of sodomy aimed at map iconDublin Castle officials in 1884 by William O’Brien’s United Ireland and at English noblemen in the map iconCleveland Street affair of 1889-90, to the reports of “French vice” that emerged from Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke (1886) and of long-term adultery in the case of O’Shea v. O’Shea and Parnell (1890), the “modern mania for morality” in sexual matters had upended the Liberal commonplace that “public and private life are different things,” as Sir Robert puts it, “and move on different lines” (203; act II).

The opposition to that commonplace within An Ideal Husband—as within the fin-de-siècle feminist counter-public—emerges primarily from an idealistic wife, “a woman of the very highest principles” (198-99; act I) and a leading member of the Women’s Liberal Association. At the outset, Gertrude Chiltern stands with the purveyors of the “modern mania” to which Mrs. Cheveley sardonically refers, including those relatively new “[w]omen’s party political organizations, as well as other feminist groups,” that advocated Home Rule for map iconIreland, economic justice for the working classes, votes for women, and temperance for all, even as they aimed “to enforce higher sexual standards on the men whose political careers they supported” (Israel 211). Refuting Mrs. Cheveley’s cynical, knowing stance—which casts all public performance as “merely poses” (184; act I)—and demonstrating what George Bernard Shaw called her “mechanical idealism” (qtd. in Ellmann 429), Gertrude contests her husband’s conventional split between “public and private life” and insists on their “indissolubility” (Israel 219). “I see no difference between them” (203; act I), she declares. As Richard Dellamora has argued, the social-purity movement, with which Gertrude’s rhetoric aligns her, forwarded “the erosion of separate spheres” ideology, and so “deprived Wilde,” like Sir Robert, “of the sorts of protection that upper- and upper-middle-class men customarily enjoyed” (“Oscar” 120). But Gertrude’s position arguably changes once she learns the facts of Sir Robert’s volatile secret and thereafter becomes entangled in a potentially scandalous situation of her own making. Over the course of the play, that is, she moves from the innocence of idealism—the very condition of true womanhood—to the experience of realpolitik that we might associate with one branch of New Womanhood.

By contrast, the cosmopolitan Mrs. Cheveley, who claims that “politics are my only pleasure” (185; act I), derives her agency as a blackmailer from her sexual mobility and prowess. She strategically uses her sexuality to access the private lives of others, which promotes her capacity to turn secret information to her advantage. Her knowledge of Sir Robert’s past threatens to scandalize Gertrude not only in her private function as wife, but also in her public role as a member of a women’s political auxiliary. For in the age of mediatized scandal—signified by the “leading article” and “the public placard” with which Mrs. Cheveley threatens Sir Robert (197; act I)—there is no longer an appreciable difference between privacy and publicity; as the New Journalist T. P. O’Connor wrote in 1889, “No one’s life is now private; the private dinner party, the intimate conversation, all are told” (429).[4] For her part, the political wife must both accept her husband’s misconduct and face the prospect of a scandal of her own making: at its dénouement, Wilde’s play presents this twin experience as part of the necessary re-education of the Liberal wife.

Thus while An Ideal Husband exposes a man’s pursuit of “power over other men,” it also establishes subject positions for those women who—in seeking some share of power—either challenge or exploit the ideology of separate and unequal gendered spheres, as Lady Gertrude and Mrs. Cheveley do. Yet the play anatomizes only some of the stances that women might take up within those causes célèbres in which the sexual privilege of male elites was increasingly contested from a variety of overlapping ideological perspectives.[5] It admits the potential for traffic between those stances, but without fully exploring it: these two female characters, as Dellamora puts it, are “subject to the same limitation that attends other women in the play, all of whom achieve their goals only through their roles as wives or mistresses” (“Oscar” 129). But their “mechanical” quality gestures towards the messier matter and consequences of real-life scandal, as in the two hearings that constituted the legal case of Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke.

Because what follows focuses less on the chief male actors in this media spectacle than on its female players, let me say at the outset that the political fallout of the case was considerable. The outcome of the second hearing foreclosed Dilke’s aspirations to higher office, just as the M.P. William O’Shea’s divorce suit would, less than five years later, virtually end the career of Charles Stewart Parnell, parliamentary leader of the Irish Home Rule campaign. Some historians and contemporary observers have further argued that Dilke’s fall from power indeed made Parnell’s success in the campaign for Irish Home Rule all the less likely, in that Dilke had, just before the scandal broke, reportedly been on the verge of publicly committing himself to support Irish nationalist aspirations for independence from England.[6] One dominant strand in the historiography of the scandal suggests that, had Dilke become Prime Minister in the 1890s, the whole course of the next two decades might have been very different for the Irish people. It is much less widely remarked, however, within that narrative of “the lost prime minster,” as David Nicholls entitled his biography, that Dilke had also been among the earliest parliamentary supporters of women’s suffrage, seconding Jacob Bright’s bill in the House of Commons in 1870 (Holton 73; Gwynn and Tuckwell 1: 99). Few historians have considered the possibility that a Dilke premiership might also have dramatically shifted the political landscape for women’s suffrage. Leaving aside these speculations, I want to focus instead on the implications of the divorce case for the feminist politics of the time and for some of its primary female agents, giving special attention to the positions afforded to the women who featured so prominently within this scandal and its long afterlife: as Liberal wives, mistresses, or activists; innocent victims or worldly adventuresses; or some perhaps unlikely combination thereof. For among these political women, private acts and relationships also had demonstrable public effects.


The summer of 1885 saw the publication of W. T. Stead’s “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” which ran in the Pall Mall Gazette from July 6-10. It engendered controversy not only for the tales of “white slavery” to which Stead’s own (criminal) behavior lent credence, but also for reporting sexually explicit (some said obscene) material in the daily press.[7] In detailing the “innumerable crimes which spring from vice,” the crusading New Journalist did not hesitate to point the finger at those in high places: “These crimes flourish on every side, unnoticed and unchecked—if, indeed, they are not absolutely encouraged by the law, as they are certainly practiced by some legislators and winked at by many administrators of the law” (“Maiden Tribute”). Borne along on the tide of protest that the exposé created and with some of its members anxious to refute Stead’s claim of official complicity, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act on 14 August 14 1885, the very last day of the session. The act both raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 and added to the statutes, via Henry Labouchère’s infamous amendment, “the new offence of ‘gross indecency’” of which Wilde would be convicted ten years later (Cocks 30). Taken together, these events aimed to articulate a single standard for heterosexual conduct and to repudiate sodomy as an unnatural practice that would no longer be tacitly tolerated within the (homosocial) public sphere.

In the heightened atmosphere of that same summer, on 19 July 19 1885, Dilke learned that he would be named as a co-respondent—that is, a partner in the adultery alleged by the petitioner—in a divorce suit about to be filed by the M.P. Donald Crawford against his wife, Virginia. Dilke’s advance informant was Christina Stewart Rogerson, an erstwhile neighbor, his reputed ex-lover, and the case’s most shadowy female participant, one who might be construed as an adventuress along the lines of Wilde’s Mrs. Cheveley, albeit without evincing the pleasure that character takes in politics.[8] Having dedicated the novel Kirsteen (1890) to Rogerson, the novelist Margaret Oliphant devoted several manuscript pages of her Autobiography to describing this “most varied, complex, bewildering character, yet the most simple and transparent, full of wiles, intrigues, plots and conspiracies” (188). Less generous than Oliphant, Nicholls calls Rogerson “an unpredictable, neurotic and wickedly clever woman,” building on Henry James’ remark that, “had she been beautiful and sane, she would have been one of the world’s great wicked women” (qtd. in Tambling 124). Rogerson thus figures in many accounts of the scandal, including Dilke’s own, as an archetype of the scorned and vengeful woman. In one of the first letters he wrote to his future wife after learning of the impending suit, Dilke alluded to Rogerson not only as “a woman who wanted me to marry her,” but also as “one of two women” involved in “the conspiracy” against him (qtd. in Jenkins 220). That she was both a friend of Virginia Crawford and a sister of Donald Crawford’s divorce counsel perhaps lends some credence to Dilke’s conspiracy theory.

Rogerson’s personal ties to both Dilke and the Crawfords only begin to suggest the very high degree of familiarity among the key players in the scandal. No stranger to Sir Charles, Donald Crawford would soon be elected a Liberal M.P., even as his father-in-law, Thomas Eustace Smith, was about to retire from the Liberal seat he had held in the House of Commons for more than 15 years (Jenkins 214). Dilke’s fiancée, Emilia Pattison,[9] also had prior connections to the Crawfords through her first husband, Mark, rector of Lincoln College at Oxford, where Donald had been a Fellow. And Virginia Crawford was close to Meta Bradley, Mark Pattison’s most intimate friend at the time of his death and a persistent antagonist of the future Lady Dilke (Nicholls 206-7). Even these homosocial ties of party and privilege and their accompanying heterosexual relations and rivalries, moreover, do not exhaust the full range of relationships among those involved in the suit. For when Dilke confronted Virginia Crawford about the confession she had made to her husband, in which she named Dilke as her partner in adultery, he did so at the home of her sister Maye, Dilke’s brother Ashton’s widow, who was “active in Liberal feminist and suffrage political circles” (Israel 201). From the outset, then, the preexisting political, sexual, and familial relationships among the players made for a volatile mix of personal and political loyalties and antagonisms.

Given other contemporary developments, one of Dilke’s few immediate consolations as news of the suit began to circulate was the withdrawal of the suggestion that he would be branded as not only an adulterer but also a sodomite, who had engaged in “‘unnatural relations’” with one of Virginia and Maye’s brothers (Israel 206; cf. Nicholls 340n2). What Donald Crawford did say in court, however, was perhaps almost as damaging. At the initial divorce hearing on 12 February 12 1886, he related his wife’s confession of adultery, made in July of the previous year, after he had confronted her with the last in a series of anonymous letters to him that alleged her infidelity.[10] Virginia told Donald, and Donald told the court in her absence, that Dilke had involved her in a ménage-à-trois with a servant bearing the salacious name of Fanny, and had “taught [her] every French vice” (qtd. in Israel 207 and Jenkins 219). This widely disseminated detail, perhaps more than any other, inflamed contemporary opinion against the Member for map iconChelsea, by combining a rakish threat to honorable matrimony with the depraved seduction of a servant-class girl in a single, unforgettable image.

Because Virginia Crawford’s claim of adultery with Dilke was unsworn and uncorroborated, albeit sensational, it could not be used to prove his guilt; Betty Askwith notes that “[a]s English law stood, . . . a wife’s confession to her husband is evidence of her guilt but [did] not carry the corollary that the co-respondent whom she accuses is also guilty” (149). On the advice of his legal counsel, then, Dilke did not take the stand at the first hearing to refute the allegation. With the charge of adultery unproven against him, the judge “dismiss[ed] the case against Dilke and . . . order[ed Crawford] to pay his costs,” even as he granted Crawford his divorce (Jenkins 238). The legally correct but nonetheless politically disastrous judgment infamously made it appear—in a paradox that might have amused Wilde—“that Mrs. Crawford had committed adultery with Dilke, but that he had not done so with her” (Jenkins 239). Since the divorce would not be final for six months and he had assured the public that he would clear his name, Dilke proceeded to “induc[e] the Queen’s Proctor . . . to show that the divorce had been given upon the basis of an adultery which had never taken place” (Jenkins 248), and this second inquiry commenced on 16 July 1886.  At this hearing, however, Dilke was forced to admit a compromising fact that his counsel’s decision not to put him on the witness stand for the first hearing had enabled him temporarily to conceal from public view: namely, his much earlier adulterous relationship with Martha Mary Smith, Virginia and Maye’s mother (Jenkins 236-7).

In the interim between hearings, Dilke learned that, having been dismissed from the case in February, he could appear only as a witness in July. Also as a result, his solicitors had no standing in the case, and thus could not cross-examine Virginia Crawford, who indeed was enabled to sit in the courtroom while Dilke gave his testimony before she delivered her own (Jenkins 262). Christina Rogerson, also absent from the first trial, testified that Virginia Crawford had both confessed her adultery with Dilke and conducted another adulterous relationship with Captain Henry Forster, sometimes meeting him at Rogerson’s home. Under oath, Virginia Crawford confirmed her friend’s evidence—and also informed the court that Dilke had told her that Rogerson was another of his ex-mistresses (Nichols 307). Among the women called to testify was Maye Dilke, who, according to a juror interviewed years later by Stead, provided “damning” testimony of Dilke’s guilt (“Sin” 331). Dilke’s own poor performance as a witness, combined with these three women’s very good ones, effectively insured the verdict—to uphold the decree nisi—on July 23, 1886. The jury had deliberated for just fifteen minutes.


Political allies such as Chamberlain and Rosebery have been considered as possible agents of a concerted plot to stem Dilke’s rise to power, providing fodder over the years for critics, historians, playwrights, and filmmakers who have aimed to identify traces of subterfuge at work amidst the explosion of moral outrage fomented by the English press.[11] The case also attracted the attention of the most eminent novelists of the day: although he never fictionalized Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke, the magistrate Thomas Hardy attended some portion of the second hearing (Davis 154-5); Henry James, friend to both Rogerson and her mother, Harriet Duncan Stewart, also avidly followed the case. Reporting what he took to be the truth of the matter, James wrote to Grace Norton of Dilke’s “long, double liaison” with Emilia Pattison and Christina Rogerson, whose first husbands died in the same year, and claimed that Dilke had been “meanwhile ‘going on’ with poor little Mrs Crawford, who is a kind of infant”: “the whole thing is a theme for the novelist—or at least for a novelist”—but not at that time for James himself (James 99). Perhaps taking his cue from James, Dilke’s most recent biographer concludes that “[d]espite the grand political conspiracies that have been advanced to explain Dilke’s downfall, the genesis of the scandal appears to have been entirely domestic” (Nicholls 208).

Yet as Wilde had surely noticed, because the chief male figures in both the Crawford and the O’Shea divorce suits were all M.P.s, the proceedings took on particular cultural weight. As Lord Goring tells Sir Robert when the latter weighs his options in An Ideal Husband, “if you did make a clean breast of the whole affair, you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician” (212; act II). The lurid details of the alleged cross-class ménage-à-trois; Dilke’s admission at the second hearing that he had indeed committed adultery in the 1860s and 70s, after his first wife’s death, with Virginia and Maye’s mother, whom Stead subsequently referred to as “Mrs Potiphar” (“Character Sketch” 131); and the rumored affair with Christina Rogerson, who had also purportedly been the mistress of Dilke’s great-uncle (Askwith 141), all made his fitness for higher office permanently suspect to those who, like the fictive Gertrude Chiltern, would make “no difference” between a man’s public and private lives. As Israel rightly concludes, “numerous late Victorian social reformers, especially women involved in the social purity and suffrage movements, understood the outcome of the trials as having been the conviction of Charles Dilke as guilty and the establishment of Virginia Crawford as his victim” (209).

Whether Dilke was guilty or innocent of adultery with Virginia Crawford is not possible to determine now with any confidence, although most commentators in our time incline to the latter judgment. But some contemporaries had no doubt at all, persistently challenging Dilke’s efforts to resume his political career by impugning his morality. Feminists played key roles in the long effort to keep him out of office. Dilke was returned to his seat as the Member for Chelsea in the 1885 general election, but defeated in June 1886, before the second hearing, in a Conservative landslide. A subsequent proposal to nominate him as a London County Council alderman in 1889 foundered, owing in part to a “women’s protest” that was published in The Methodist Times, established in 1885 by the nonconformist Reverend Hugh Price Hughes, reported in the pages of the Women’s Penny Paper (Howarth 99), and signed by many feminist leaders, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Elizabeth Blackwell, Frances Buss, Annie Besant, Eva McLaren, and Laura Ormiston Chant (“The Women’s Protest”). Dilke was ultimately returned to the House as the Radical Liberal member for the Forest of Dean in 1892, albeit over the strenuous objections of Stead and others, including the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, whose late husband, Henry, had been one of Dilke’s two tutors at map iconTrinity Hall, Cambridge (the other being Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf), and the temperance reformer Lady Henry Somerset, sister-in-law to Lord Arthur Somerset, the chief figure in the Cleveland Street scandal.[12] Although he never again achieved a cabinet post, let alone the office of Prime Minister, Dilke served in the House until his death in 1911, maintaining his Radical Liberal politics to the end.

Perhaps the sense that Dilke, guilty or not, had been entirely on their side when it came to granting women the vote heightened the outrage of contemporary suffragists at his alleged behavior: as mentioned above, a strong advocate not only for Home Rule but also for woman’s suffrage at the head of a Liberal government might have made all the difference in the political contests of the 1890s and beyond. But as the Women’s Penny Paper wrote in 1889, those Liberal “ladies whose social position renders it impossible for them to recognize, or even in a distant way countenance, a man in Sir Charles Dilke’s position” as well as “those working women who form the backbone and mainstay of England’s Purity, and who speak with English frankness on questions of Public Morality,” could not tolerate an ally’s indiscretions: for “French vices do not find favour with the women of England” (“The Friends”).

In a later issue of the Women’s Penny Paper, edited in its early years by Henrietta Müller, sister of the suffragist Eva McLaren, those “women of England” who continued to support men tainted by sexual transgression were specifically targeted as traitors to the cause. Alluding to the recent outcome of O’Shea v. O’Shea and Parnell and perhaps, more obliquely, to the Cleveland Street scandal earlier that year, one editorial argued that maintaining solidarity among women was the highest end:

If a man, filling a position, is convicted of some crime against other men, he is hounded out of society as a felon, but when he is convicted of a crime which only touches the fair fame or security of a woman, it is we women, and we alone, who can stand by each other and cry, ‘You are dangerous to us and to the State, and we do not admit you.’ Crimes against chastity may be popularly defined as the man’s privilege and the woman’s wrong, and she is no true woman who echoes that shameful cry (“Chastity” 104; emphasis in original).

The call to true womanhood arguably mobilized many Liberal women to renounce Dilke, as they did Parnell. We may find here another analogue for Gertrude Chiltern’s stance on the ideal, shaped by the demand for a single standard of conduct to which both men and women would conform.

Conflicts like these made life difficult for Dilke’s feminist wife and sister-in-law in the years after the legal case ended, and also prevented any personal détente between these putative political allies. Whatever Maye Dilke knew about what had or hadn’t happened between her brother-in-law and her sister, she remained loyal to the latter, in an instance of familial, even feminist, solidarity. When Emilia Dilke asked her new sister-in-law before the first hearing to persuade Virginia Crawford to change her story, and so to save “an innocent man,” Maye Dilke declined, with a riposte worthy of Wilde’s Mrs. Cheveley: “Innocent people can take care of themselves” (qtd. in Askwith 155). Emilia Dilke asked Maye Dilke to leave her house and reportedly cut her when they next met. In the broader context of an emergent feminist public culture, both the familial cohesion that bound Maye to Virginia and the conflict that divided her from Emilia were echoed and extended: as Sandra Stanley Holton has documented, “[l]oyalty to, or rejection of, Charles Dilke as he attempted [to] re-build his political career provided . . . grounds for discord among Radical suffragists” (74). For example, a brief item from early 1889 in the Women’s Penny Paper, unmistakable in tone, states simply, “We regret to learn that Lady Dilke has been elected President of the map iconFulham Women’s Liberal Association” (“English News”), implying that she, too, ought to retire from public life—which she decidedly did not.[13]

Within this context, Maye Dilke’s continuing involvement in suffrage politics also became a bone of contention among Liberal women. Author of a short book, published in 1885, that countered the major arguments against extending the vote to women, she was one of two prominent feminists—the other was Fawcett—to rebut the “Appeal Against Female Suffrage,” the handiwork of Louise Creighton and Mary Augusta Ward, in full-length articles published in The Nineteenth Century in the summer of 1889. She had herself been elected to the West Lambeth School Board the previous year, holding one of the few public offices to which women could be elected at that time, and was a well-known feminist orator who continued her political activities (though not her public speaking) after her remarriage in 1891 to William Russell Cooke. Yet even though her testimony had been detrimental to her brother-in-law’s side, her recruitment by Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a British delegate to the first meeting of the International Council of Women, held in map iconWashington, DC in 1888, “so outraged Helen Taylor,” the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, “that she made it the grounds for her own withdrawal from participation in the international conference,” ostensibly owing to the “speculation and gossip” that surrounded Maye Dilke’s private life before her remarriage (Holton 74). Their other differences aside, both Dilke women were forced to navigate the changed and charged terrain of feminist politics in the aftermath of the scandal.

Some contemporaries always doubted Dilke’s guilt, and so, too, did (and does) Virginia Crawford’s status as “victim” remain in dispute. Her purported participation in “French vices”—which “no woman of right feeling would even mention, much less condone” (Cheetham)—as well as other unreported details of her private life belied the cool, collected, and ladylike behavior she evinced at the second hearing. Although she both came across in court and was represented by others as an innocent young Society woman along the lines of Wilde’s Mabel Chiltern, the testimony in the case, as well as the inquiry commissioned by the Dilkes in the years afterwards, certainly called that innocence into question. Did she (or her mother, or perhaps Rogerson) write a series of anonymous letters to Dilke, threatening to expose him? Or was she responsible only for the final self-incriminating letter to her husband, as a handwriting expert testified at the second hearing (Nicholls 185)? Did she name Dilke in order to shield her actual lover, Captain Forster, from exposure? Had she been involved in another, earlier ménage-à-trois that included Forster and her married sister Helen Harrison, with whom she purportedly frequented hospitals to meet young male medical students? Was Helen indeed infected with syphilis, as Rogerson apparently told Dilke, and, if so, did she transmit it to Virginia via their common partner (Jenkins 349-50)?  At a minimum, the degree of sexual experience and knowledge displayed by and attributed to the daughters of Martha Mary Smith demonstrated a major cultural shift from “the old system,” as Wilde’s Lady Markby calls it, in which “the amount of things” young women “were taught not to understand was quite extraordinary. But modern women,” in the decided contrast offered by a new system, “understand”—and presumably undertake—“everything” (224; act II).  Indeed, women’s very possession of such knowingness challenged the idea that it was men who victimized them rather than, as Dilke would have it, the other way around.

Crawford’s afterlife shows, however, just how far behind she left both Society and her putative “victim” status, for it interestingly includes a substantial component of feminist political activism. Even before the scandal broke, “possessed of a strong social conscience,” Virginia Crawford “had worked in the poor settlements of London’s map iconEast End” (Nicholls 187): although this was a standard amusement for some elite women, she appears to have taken that work seriously. Introduced by Maye after the hearings to Stead (Bywater 546), who gave her a job for a while on the Pall Mall Gazette, she subsequently converted to Roman Catholicism and briefly entertained the idea of becoming a nun. Instead, she joined and subsequently chaired St. Joan’s Social and Political Alliance (formerly the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society), “[seeking] a greater influence for women in politics,” as well as becoming the head of the St. Joseph’s Home for Girl Mothers and “one of the founders of the Catholic Social Guild” (Jenkins 331). “Extremely active politically,” she “served for fourteen years after the First World War as Labour councillor for map iconMarylebone” (Nicholls 187) and as a “member of her local Board of Guardians for thirty years” (Jenkins 331). She wrote and published on a wide range of political and social topics (she was an early opponent of Italian Fascism), as well as on art and literature.[14] Outliving everyone else associated with the scandal, she maintained a studied silence about it for the rest of her long life.

I offer these biographical details in closing to suggest that, like Maye or Emilia Dilke, Virginia Crawford also contested the narrow range of possibilities afforded to the elite Liberal wives of her time. All three women engaged the party politics that both structured their opportunities and fractured potential alliances among feminists. But in her movement from being cast as either victim or victimizer to making a varied public career for herself, with a range of political and social commitments, as a divorced woman, Virginia Crawford exceeded the prescribed roles of contemporary scripts—including Wilde’s.  Neither a Mrs. Cheveley nor a Lady Gertrude, she survived the scandal and carved out another plot for herself, one that included a public life as both author and activist.

published January 2013

Mary Jean Corbett is the John W. Steube Professor of English and an Affiliate of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University in Oxford, map iconOhio.  She is the author of Representing Femininity: Middle-Class Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Autobiographies (Oxford UP, 1992), Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870: History, Politics, and the Family from Edgeworth to Arnold (Cambridge UP, 2000), and Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Cornell UP, 2008). She is now at work on a new project, tentatively entitled “Behind the Times? Virginia Woolf in Late-Victorian Contexts.”


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Kelly Hager, “Chipping Away at Coverture: The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857″


[1] The play ostensibly derived its donnée from a well-known incident of 1875, in which Disraeli borrowed money from Lord Rothschild on the government’s behalf to purchase a sizable interest in the map iconSuez Canal. According to Frank Harris, who shared this anecdote with Wilde, Rothschild sought to make up some part of a bad loan to the Khedive of map iconEgypt and so “added his previous debt to the commission” (Dellamora, Friendship’s Bonds 183). One has to wonder if Wilde knew that Disraeli had modeled the hero of his final completed novel, Endymion (1880), on Dilke himself (Blake 736).

[2] Hence the attempt on the part of government officials to avoid the full glare of public prosecution when Lord Arthur Somerset was implicated in the Cleveland Street scandal, in which he and other aristocrats were accused of trading money for sex with young men who worked for the Post Office; a warrant was belatedly “issued against [him] for gross indecency on 12 November [1889]” (Cocks 145). Somerset was the third son of the Duke of Beaufort, equerry to the Prince of Wales, and a good friend of Prince Arthur Victor, heir presumptive to the throne. Both Somerset’s alleged activities and timely departure from England, which sent him into permanent European exile, raised concerns about a cover-up at the highest levels, articulated by Henry Labouchère in his weekly journal, Truth, and in the House of Commons debate that he initiated on 28 February 1890. For more details on the Cleveland Street scandal, see Hyde; and Simpson, Chester, and Leitch.

[3] For more on Wilde’s trials, see Elfenbein.

[4] For a provocative reading of how the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment problematized what she calls the “overlap between old and new definitions of public and private” (49), with specific reference to the Cleveland Street Affair, see Thomas 39-69.

[5] For a reading of the play that argues for a more direct correlation between its characters and feminist activists of the time, such as those of Lady Dilke and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, see Denney 211-40.

[6] For more on O’Shea v. O’Shea and Parnell, see Kee. Nicholls summarizes the impact of the scandal on “the course of the debate over Irish Home Rule”: “[Dilke] was perhaps the only politician who could have brought about an accommodation within the reforming wing of the Liberal Party—capable, as he would have been, of mediating between Gladstone and Chamberlain, had his influence not been diminished” (xxvii). Stead claimed that the waning influence of Dilke on his once-closest ally also had a major effect on Liberal policy: “Every one is familiar with the consequences of Mr Parnell’s weakness, but it is not so generally recognized that but for the scandal which prostrated Sir Charles Dilke Mr. Chamberlain would have probably committed himself irretrievably to . . . Home Rule” (“Character Sketch” 135).

[7] The definitive account of “The Maiden Tribute” and its cultural implications is Walkowitz 81-134.

[8] While the lives and afterlives of the other major female figures in the scandal—Virginia Crawford, Maye Dilke, Emilia Dilke—are well documented, Rogerson (1838-1911) remains a bit of an enigma. Her first husband, purportedly an alcoholic, died in 1884 (Nicholls 185). Younger than her by almost thirty years, Rogerson’s second husband, G. W. Steevens (1869-1900), journalist and war correspondent, died while covering the Second Boer War. Her grief at his death is the central topic of two very gossipy but intriguing letters from Henry James to their mutual friend, the writer Lucy Clifford (Demoor and Chisholm 32-4). For more analysis of the misogyny that shapes accounts of Rogerson’s role in the scandal, see Israel 215-18.

[9] Rumored to be the model for both George Eliot’s Dorothea and Rhoda Broughton’s Belinda, and a well-known art critic who spent many years in women’s trades-union advocacy, Emilia Dilke is the Gertrude Chiltern of the piece, albeit slightly older and more experienced than Gertrude because already once married. As her fascinating career has been exhaustively studied by Israel, I comment only briefly here on her position.

[10] The authorship of these letters, like those Dilke had also been receiving for some time, was subsequently attributed to various parties, including Christina Rogerson; Virginia and Maye’s mother, Martha Mary Smith; and Virginia Crawford herself.

[11] A representative sample includes the novel by Betty Askwith, A Tangled Web (1960), the British television movie On Trial: The Dilke Case (1961; dir. Cliff Owen), a Broadway play entitled The Right Honourable Gentleman (1965; dir. Frith Banbury), and the British television mini-series The Member for Chelsea (1981; dir. John Gorrie). Israel briefly analyzes these and other fictionalized representations of the case, 198-200.

[12] For more on Lady Henry Somerset’s continuing opposition to Dilke’s efforts to return to political life, see Niessen 102-3.

[13] For details on Lady Dilke’s career in women’s trades-union work, see Israel 225-32.

[14] Crawford’s art and literary criticism includes monographs on the Italian masters Raphael and Fra Angelico, and Studies in Foreign Literature (1899), which introduced such contemporary European writers as Maeterlinck and D’Annunzio to a wider English reading audience. Until his death, she also worked as a literary researcher for the Irish novelist George Moore, for whom her Catholic credentials were a valuable resource. Of a missing story ostensibly based on Crawford’s experiences, entitled “Christina Harford and her Divorce,” Moore wrote to Lady Cunard in 1929, “There is no scene in court, no evidence is given, merely a statement that after the case Christina finds herself a castaway” (Gerber 730).