I love royal scandals. Thus I have tremendous affection for England, a country I’ve yet to visit. Of course I’d hang out with Harry over Will and Kate. The King’s Speech should have been about Edward telling Bertie he was running away with Wallace Simpson. Faster than a Disney addict can name the Seven Dwarfs, I’ll rattle off Henry VIII’s six wives (three Kates, two Annes, and a Jane).
The weddings and funerals and christenings (of children and yachts) just don’t do it for me. Supposedly, the beauty of a monarchy is its consistency -- traditions are carried out for tradition’s sake, and arrangements can be made for a ruler a century before he or she is born. I prefer the deviants and the screw-ups, the “holy hells” to the “happily ever afters.”
First-time author Anthony Russell, 61, is only a single generation removed from a paternity scandal that titillated newspaper editors who’d gone glassy-eyed after World War I. Ten precious pages of Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, excerpted here) are set aside for the “virgin birth,” otherwise known as the story of how Anthony’s father, Geoffrey, was conceived.
“If my asthma had featured prominently in the family archives of ‘things not discussed’ the so-called Russell Baby Case was the absolute crown jewel of no comment,” Anthony Russell writes.
Three years into their allegedly unconsummated marriage, Baron-to-be John Russell learned from his wife, Christabel, that she was expecting. John sued for divorce, citing adultery, and Christabel was ready. During the second half of her pregnancy “several eminent Harley Street gynaecologists” ascertained that she was, as she said, untouched. Eventually, her son Geoffrey Russell did receive his “father’s” title.
Because of his reputation, Geoffrey Russell was always defensive. He became a bullying spouse who constantly taunted the author’s mother. The direct parties involved are now dead, and Anthony, despite having animosity toward his father, still shares his family name and flickers of filial decorum.
Even though the author knows this is the most scintillating part of his story, in the book it is a small aside. What we have is a coming-of-age story that happens to take place in a 900-year-old castle. In the words of journalists everywhere, so what? Blame Downton Abbey.
Outrageous Fortune is mainly about life with Olive, Lady Baillie, the thrice-divorced (though still less saucy) of Anthony’s two castle-owning grandmothers. Lady Baillie was the last private owner of sumptuous Leeds Castle, which opened to the public in 1976. Russell’s biggest contribution is not a stellar memoir -- it’s formulaic, cliché-city -- but he gives ignorant foreigners like myself a reason to Google “Leeds Castle.”
It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I learned about the castle’s canine ghost, shuttered aviary and role in the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay. Also, even though a ticket to tour the fortress costs an exorbitant £21 (almost $35), the price is more palatable after hearing that Leeds is home to one of the Daily Mail’s “Top ten weird museums in the world.” The menagerie features 500 years of dog collars. That explains the ghost!