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How can there be two alternative versions of the truth?

How can there be two alternative versions of the truth?

This was a question I wanted to explore in my second novel The Lodger, and was inspired by a notorious divorce case I came across when researching the background to my debut, The Deception of Harriet Fleet.

It was a warm day in July in 1886, when twenty-three year old Virginia Crawford turned to face the Jury at the Probate and Divorce Division of the High Court of Justice. She paused for only a moment before calmly swearing under oath that she had committed adultery with Sir Charles Dilke, a prominent Liberal politician.

It was a confession that destroyed her own reputation and his. Both their lives would be haunted by the evidence she gave to the court. And he denied her claims until the day he died.

Under questioning from Henry Matthews, QC, she listed multiple sexual liaisons that had taken place at his house in Chelsea and at other places of assignation. Virginia, or Ginnie as she was known, alleged that he had taught her ‘every French vice’ and even forced her to take part in a threesome with Fanny Grey, a young servant girl.

It was a scandal that rocked Victorian England and was seized upon by the newspapers, who gleefully reported every shocking detail. Virginia Crawford wasn’t from the underbelly of society, she was part of its elite. Her husband was a Liberal MP, as was her father Eustace Smith, who was also a wealthy Tyneside shipbuilder, with a fine eighteenth century mansion in Gosforth and a London townhouse in Kensington. Why would she tell a lie that would mean she would be forever ostracised?

As for Sir Charles Dilke, he was a man on the rise; energetic, ambitious, radical, and ahead of his time. Before the divorce case, he was spoken of as a probable successor to William Gladstone – a 1995 biography of him by David Nicholls is even entitled ‘The Lost Prime Minister’ and Roy Jenkins described it as ‘A Victorian Tragedy’.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 23rd, the Jury deliberated for all of fifteen minutes, before finding Dilke guilty of adultery and granting Mr Crawford the divorce he craved. Sir Charles’s case hadn’t been helped by the revelation that he had had an affair with Ginnie’s mother several years before. Society turned its back on him, and he never served in Cabinet again.

However, for the rest of his life Sir Charles (and his wife) denied that he had ever had an adulterous relationship with Ginnie. They moved in similar social circles but were no more than passing acquaintances. He spent a large part of his fortune on proving that she had lied under oath and the evidence that has been subsequently unearthed seems to back him up in this.

Yet, she never retracted her accusations. She too went to her death adamant that what she said in court was true.

The irony was that they were both worthy people – good people even. Although he never found political glory again, he later became the MP for the Forest of Dean and campaigned tirelessly for the miners of his constituency, even being honoured by the erection of a hospital in his name. She converted to Catholicism and devoted her life to social, political and literary work. She ran a home for unmarried women. She joined the Labour Party and served as a Councillor for Marylebone. Ginnie Crawford died in 1948, outliving all the other players in the scandal, but she never withdrew what she said on that July afternoon.

I came across this story when researching my first novel ‘The Deception of Harriet Fleet’. What intrigued me most was that one of them must have been lying. How could there be two alternative versions of such different truths? That was the question that intrigued me and led to a storyline in The Lodger.

The characters and events have been massively transformed. The dates have been changed. It is murder not divorce that is at the centre of the court case. But I’ve tried to imagine a narrative that might explain what really happened and how two conflicting versions of the truth can exist.

The Lodger by Helen Scarlett is published by Quercus on 23 March 2023

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