Lady Worsley's Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce
By Hallie Rubenhold (Chatto & Windus 308pp £25)
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Crim con is one of those great eighteenth-century terms. Jaunty and crisp, it sounds like it must be a lot of fun, whatever it means. The unabbreviated phrase, criminal conversation, is a euphemism for what was otherwise known as 'debauching, deflowering, laying with, and carnally knowing'. Lady Worsley's Whim is about the crim-con trial that took place in a chilly corner of Westminster Hall on 21 February 1782, between Sir Richard Worsley, Governor of the Isle of Wight, and George Bisset, an officer in the Hampshire militia and one of Worsley's neighbours. When his wife ran off with Bisset, Worsley claimed £20,000 damages, and I'll wager that no one outside the offices of Mishcon de Reya has come across anything on the scale of what happened next. Worsley v Bisset makes the fall-out from the Wales or McCartney unions look like a shower of confetti.
More interested in artefacts than women, Worsley was not at all the man for Seymour Dorothy Fleming, the future Lady Worsley, but he seemed a nice enough chap. As for Seymour and her sister, Jane, who each brought with them £70,000 (equivalent to around £66 million today), it was said that while neither 'possessed one personal attraction', they 'had at least seventy thousand charms which every fortune hunter contemplated with inexpressible admiration'. Before winning the purse of the seventeen-year-old Seymour, whom he married in 1775, Worsley had set his cap at Jane. That he saw the sisters as exchangeable commodities anticipates what was to come.
Sir Richard gave her, Seymour said, 'the miserable pleasure of keeping my virginity three months after marriage'. Twelve months after, she had produced the required heir, Robert Edwin, at which point their marital bed, 'like the weather, had grown perfectly cool'. Worsley was never around and Seymour was not the type to sit and sew. On one occasion she and two of her friends went on a three-day rampage, which began with setting fire to a room in an inn occupied by the militia. 'How do you think they quenched the flame?' asked an astonished witness. They 'fairly pissed it out'. They then pissed on the heads of the passers-by.
Seymour and Bisset stole away on the night of 19 November 1781, ending up in room 14 of the Royal Hotel on Piccadilly, where they remained in hiding for weeks. The staff grew suspicious about the identity of their new guests because 'there appeared a greater fondness between them than is generally seen between husband and wife'. The fact that they rarely got out of bed was as much to do with Lady Worsley's lack of clothes as the couple's grand amour. She had with her only what she was wearing on the night she absconded and, despite her requests, Worsley would not send so much as a change of stockings. Lady Worsley seemed more concerned for her wardrobe than her son, not to mention the baby daughter she had also left behind, whose father was Bisset. Sir Richard, meanwhile, when the reality of what had happened dawned on him, was incapacitated by grief:
Worsley's entire personal philosophy, one that he had hewn out of the solid precepts of honour, duty and place, had been overturned. A wife destroyed the sanctity of marriage, a trusted friend the inviolability of a fraternal bond, an officer the sacrosanct code of respect and deference.'
Except that it wasn't this simple, because Worsley's boundaries had always been pretty permeable.
When Worsley met Bisset, so the jury heard, he fairly lassoed him into his marriage. Aware of the growing relationship between the officer and his wife, Worsley invited him into his home as a lodger and at one point encouraged Bisset, during an afternoon of swimming, to stand on his shoulders so that he could peep through a crack in the wall at the naked Seymour getting dressed. 'Seymour! Seymour!', her husband called. 'Bisset is going to get up and look at you!' This was to be, as Hallie Rubenhold puts it in her gloriously galloping prose, 'the most regrettable day of his life'. Worsley, it seems, liked to have three people in his marriage; he was a voyeur who encouraged the attentions his wife received. At Seymour's request three further men were called to the witness box to confess that they too had pleased the whim of Lady - and it seems also Sir Richard - Worsley. And there were rumoured to be twenty-four more.
Not permitted to speak in her own defence (as Rubenhold puts it, 'no one asked a horse how it felt to be stolen or enquired of a statue why it was broken'), and knowing she had nothing left to lose, Lady Worsley asked that her former lovers protect her present one. She set out to prove that she was not worth the £20,000 her husband claimed in damages. As a possession, she showed the world that she was utterly without value, and that her husband had known it all along. The jury awarded him damages of one shilling. Worsley was branded a cuckold, a pervert, and a laughing stock. His wife and her lover had triumphed, in their fashion. To the amusement of all, the Worsleys continued to squabble, this time in the public press, where they hurled words at each other like rotten vegetables. Before long Bisset left Seymour and found himself a wife with some honour to her name, and Seymour found herself in Paris during the French Revolution. Worsley left the country and became immersed in pictures and more artefacts. Seymour gave birth to a daughter, whom she handed over to another family at birth; her son by Worsley and her daughter by Bisset had both died. Worsley found himself a decent mistress and died in his fifties, after which Lady Worsley could drop her loathed name and reclaim her initial £70,000.
Because the market is saturated with eighteenth-century bodice biographies, most indistinguishable from the next, Lady Worsley's Whim should come with a warning: nothing else in the genre is close to being this good. As a historian and a storyteller, Hallie Rubenhold is in a league of her own. She keeps you glued to the very last page when, exhausted, exasperated and elated, you can at last put the book down and get yourself some sleep.