Women's History

A Very British Scrapbooking Scandal

At the end of last year, the BBC aired A Very British Scandal, a drama based on the scandalous life of the Duchess of Argyll and her high-profile divorce from the Duke of Argyll in 1963. Though the series pushes the boundaries of the period drama genre, a reoccurring theme throughout the three episodes is legacy-making, as the Duchess views to secure her position.

Amongst scenes of erotic acts, clockwork penises, and domestic violence, the Duchess of Argyll is seen doing something seemingly ordinary – making a scrapbook. We can see the Duchess’ real-life scrapbooking endeavours as a vital way for her to take her legacy quite literally into her own hands.

A scene from the BBC’s A Very British Scandal, showing Margaret Campbell, played by Claire Foy, scrapbooking. Credit: A Very British Scandal, Episode 1.

This new 3-part BBC series charts how the Duchess of Argyll, Margaret Campbell (1912-1993), navigated a high-profile divorce case (Argyll v Argyll) in Britain in 1963, after her husband, Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll (1903-1973), discovered a series of erotic photographs of her performing oral sex on a ‘headless man’. The Duke also produced a list of over 88 men, which led the judge to brandish her a ‘completely promiscuous woman’, who had a ‘wholly immoral’ approach to marriage.

Sitting on the floor of her richly furnished dressing room, Margaret, played by Claire Foy, uses a paintbrush to cover the back of a newspaper article with an even layer of glue. The article proclaims Campbell the ‘Best Dressed in London’ and includes a photograph of her looking straight at the camera. We see Margaret sticking this neatly cut article onto the empty corner of a page of her scrapbook. In doing so, she physically protects what for many would have been a disposable newspaper article  between the covers of her book.

This scrapbooking scene takes place at a critical time; she goes on to call Ian Campbell, her soon-to-be third husband, following his father’s death. The drama of the twists, turns, and ultimate downfall of their relationship unfolds from this critical moment.

This scene of Margaret’s scrapbooking isn’t purely fictional. Margaret’s biographer, Charles Castle, tells us how she used her scrapbooks as reference books when describing key moments of her life to him. She afforded her scrapbooking endeavours great respect; each volume was a bright red leather book carrying an ‘M’ embossed on the front cover in gold, topped with a crown. She sourced newspaper cuttings from newspapers around the world, using these to selectively chart and chronicle her life in minute detail.

Given her starring role in one of the country’s most infamous divorce scandals, it should come as no surprise that Margaret was highly selective in what she included in her scrapbooks. She excluded articles proclaiming how she had to fund her own court injunction, justifying these exclusions ‘because I’ve got to think of the grandchildren’. Margaret devoted a great deal of time to creating these 40 volumes, cataloguing articles on various aspects of her life with neat captions and labels.

A photograph of Margaret Campbell by Allan Warren. Credit: Wikipedia.

She made so many scrapbooks that she devoted an entire cupboard to housing them –  a cupboard that she sat in front of when she was interviewed for her biography. Her proximity to this cupboard spoke volumes, guarding the legacy she had crafted in her books. In an interview sixteen years after her divorce case, she gestured towards her scrapbooks when lamenting the continued critical press coverage leveraged against her. Her scrapbooks were not purely celebratory, egotistical vessels of compliments, but symbolised the emotional burden of the incessant press coverage.

Campbell was not a solo scrapbooker amongst the British aristocracy. Lords, ladies, Duchesses and even supposedly members of the Royal Family kept scrapbooks on an array of topics. The Aberdeen Journal gleefully reported in 1947 how Queen Mary similarly collated volumes of press clippings charting her public occasions. In 1963, Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, Princess Alexandra reportedly also scoured newspapers for reports on which she was the subject, passing them onto members of staff to record her duties. Even our current Queen is reported to have kept a scrapbook when she was a child, scrapbooking on other royal children.

Despite scrapbooking functioning as an enduring way of recording women’s lives, these sources tend to be overlooked, seen as little more than the products of women’s frivolous past-times. The name ‘scrapbook’ suggests these books are filled with little more than worthless, discarded material, further underestimating their value as sources. A tendency to ignore scrapbooks is also more broadly symptomatic of how historians tend to privilege written sources over visual ones, owing to the difficulties of reading meaning from their pages. Thankfully, a growing group of scholars have reversed this trend, re-evaluating the usefulness and value of scrapbooks as sources in uncovering the lives of women.

Though we may wrongly think of scrapbooking as nothing more than a rainy-day activity for children, it was clearly popular amongst the nation’s elite. Though these women’s illustrious backgrounds would secure their place in the nation’s history for posterity regardless of their scrapbooking habits, the act of scrapbooking allowed them to control part of that record, crafting their paper persona from the words of the popular press. As Ellen Gruber Garvey notes, ‘writing with scissors’ has historically been a powerful way women from a range of backgrounds to write their first version of history.

Margaret was neither alone amongst the hundreds of thousands of women who used scrapbooking to write themselves into history. Florence Horsbrugh, one of the leading Conservative politicians of her age, turned to the cheaply available Whopper Scrapbook to mark her legacy. She included her responses to negative press criticism and incorporated candid photos of herself smoking with other female delegates at International conferences – a rare occurrence for members of her sex. The pages of her scrapbook chart her ascendancy on local, national, and international stages and survive now as part of rare collection of personal material in Churchill Archives Centre.

Conservative politician Florence Horsbrugh used The Whopper scrapbook like the one above, to record her early days as a politician. Credit: Author’s collection

Even though, the lives of the aristocracy, royalty, and politicians would not be lost to history, scrapbooking functioned as a powerful material act. For Campbell, maybe it was a way to exert a level of control in denotating her legacy. As the actress Claire Foy quipped, the real-life Margaret would both have hated and relished the new BBC series; ‘she would have cut out everything to do with Claire Foy and put it in a special scrapbook’.

We might readily dismiss the scrapbooking scene as nothing more than a filler, amongst other far more sensationalist scenes. Yet, the seemingly vanilla act of scrapbooking was a powerful act, enabling Margaret to write herself into history on her own terms.

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