Mary Russell is a complicated subject. She was a Victorian archdeacon’s daughter, and married Lord Herbrand Russell, the second son of the 9th Duke of Bedford, in 1888 in India where he was an aide-de camp to the Viceroy. Her brother-in-law died a few years after he succeeded to the title, and so Mary, a student of Miss Beale at Cheltenham Ladies College, and a later supporter of women’s suffrage, became the Duchess of Bedford. She suffered from deafness throughout her adult life, which would have severely affected her capacity for social life and communication, and she seems to have been shunted into a social box by her suffocatingly loving husband.
Her husband, the 11th Duke, was by all accounts an absolute monster, in ways ranging from the petty (if Mary wanted to use one of the 21 cars at the Woburn estate she had to get a chit signed by the Duke to give to the chauffeur), to the grandiose (he and his parents removed Mary’s only child from her care pretty much at birth, and also removed her from participating in any aspect of the running of her home). When their son Hastings decided that he did not want to serve in the First World War in any capacity, he told his father (by then an army general and colonel of the regiment) by note, and the Duke wrote back that he never wanted to see his (only) son again. They did not speak for twenty years. The Duke seems to have been both thoughtless and selfish, and also determined to do everything he could to keep all his tenants employed, and to keep Woburn and the very rich Bedford estate in the condition in which he had inherited it.
The Duke required Mary to be a duchess, and to keep him company. To take care of the house and his son he installed a nanny / governess / housekeeper called Flora Green who was not, as Meriel Buxton, the most recent biographer of Mary Russell, takes pains to make clear, also his mistress. Meriel Buxton’s 2008 biography The High-Flying Duchess, self-published by her own Woodperry Books, is poorly edited but lavishly produced, and sticks closely to what I suppose the Bedford / Russell family wanted to be published. (Maybe they also paid for it, because it must have cost a lot.) It’s definitely a partial and flawed account (only family sources are quoted), is annoyingly repetitious, but it is astounding for the glimpses we get of a most remarkable and remarkably privileged woman.
What does a highly intelligent and active young Victorian woman do when her ducal husband pushes her out of the roles to which she might have been expected to devote her life? She does not descend into pointless embroidery, invalidism and good works, as Victorian fiction might lead us to expect. Victorian great ladies did not expect to be involved with their children’s upbringing. No, she becomes an excessively competitive over-achiever in physical sport and outdoor activities, and this is what makes Mary Russell interesting. Ju-jitsu, game shooting, ornithology (did she spot the contradiction between those two?), photography, and aviation became her special skills, and she excelled at them all. She became a self-trained nurse and radiographer, and ran four hospitals on the Woburn estate during and after the First World War. With her pilot she established several long-distance flying records in the 1930s, and aged 71 she died, presumably at sea, when her Gypsy Moth plane vanished into the unknown on a routine solo flight. Buxton spends several pages at the end of this biography speculating whether Mary killed herself. She was close to losing her pilot’s licence due to her own failing sight, the Duke was increasingly, suffocatingly, dependent on her, and her deafness may have finally become intolerable. The photographs in Buxton’s book of her in family groups in later life do not show a happy woman, whereas she is grinning all over her face when photographed as a younger woman doing the things she liked best. Her grandson described her as sad and miserable in her old age (A Silver-Plated Spoon, by John, Duke of Bedford, 1959). Or maybe she simply made a mistake with navigation and ran out of fuel. It is an extraordinary death for a 71-year old Duchess.
I found myself flabbergasted by this book, and by Mary Russell as a historical figure. There have been several books published about her already, many by or sponsored by the Bedford / Russell family, and at least two by women interested in Mary’s role as an air pioneer (Wendy Boase, The Sky’s The Limit, 1979; Lettice Curtis, Winged Odyssey, 1993). Her bird-watching diaries were published for private circulation in 1938. Her life may also have made its way into Downton Abbey. The person who read the library copy of The High-Flying Duchess before me reported that far too many events in Mary’s life correspond to plot twists in his recent study of the entire Downton Abbey oeuvre to be coincidence. Having never watched any of Downton I can’t corroborate that observation. Maybe it’s already a known fact. But if you like Downton, you will love Mary Russell’s story, in any of the biographies about her. And I would absolutely like to read an objective study of her life by a proper historian.