Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold

This book was recommended to me by a fellow Janeite and it is wonderful if you love history, scandal, and thinking about how the choices we make matter.  Seymour Dorothy Worsley (nee Fleming) was married at 17 to Sir Richard Worsley in 1775. In the decades preceding the beginning of the eighteenth century, life among the gentry was, shall we say, permissive.  As long as no one was hurt and everybody played by the rules, which were that one did not embarrass one’s husband by indiscretion, or at least not publicly. Apparently, the Lords and Ladies mostly had what could be termed open marriages, at least according to Rubenhold, but I did verify this with other sources (see the Duchess of Devonshire and Grace Dalrymple Elliott). Although it appears that mostly it was the men who could sleep around and the women who had to be discreet.  It is perhaps this “role reversal” which makes Lady Worsley’s Whim so entertaining.

Seymour had several affairs, but eloped with George Maurice Bisset, a friend of Sir Richard’s in 1781.  The two lovers holed up in a London hotel and waited to see what Sir Richard would do. Unfortunately, he decided to sue Bisset in court for Criminal Conversation, seeking damages in the amount of £20,000. Sir Richard further decided to go for a “separation of bed and board,” which meant that though the married couple would be legally separated, neither would be eligible to remarry, effectively thwarting any hopes Seymour had of marrying Bisset.

The book goes into glorious detail about the Criminal Conversation trial, one of the most famous of its time, and further follows Sir Richard and Lady Worsley to their deaths. The Criminal Conversation suit was widely covered in the press and lampooned at the time. Though Sir Richard expected to win huge damages (legally, a wife was a husband’s property, and by besmirching her honor adulterous lovers owed the husband damages to his rightful property) Yep, that’s right women as chattel, even wealthy heiresses. When their fathers declined to settle the fortunes on them, A daughter’s marriage settlement belonged to the husband and could only be reclaimed by wives if they survived to widowhood. Still, the Worsley/Bisset case was unusual.  Sir Richard had secrets he should have been more concerned about, mainly that he essentially pimped his wife out. At the very least, he knew about her numerous affairs and at worst he approved and possibly watched. Speculation aside, what is known is that he invited Bisset to view Seymour as she dressed after visiting a bathhouse; the gentlemen having already finished dressing. The jury found in Sir Richard’s favor, but awarded him 1 shilling, or 1/20 of 1£.

Further humiliation soon followed, as Seymour aired their dirty laundry throughout the trial and afterward in the press. She managed to save Bisset from financial ruin, but since she would not be free to marry, the lovers split in 1783, while she was carrying his child. Seymour goes on to a fairly long career as a professional mistress, while Sir Richard retreats into collecting antiquities and art.

Rubenhold’s book reads easily and she explains the legalities in terms that the casual reader can understand. It is accessible to the mass market, while also being historically accurate and making use of various primary sources. If you are interested in 18th century British history, this is a great read. It can be a little harder to find in the United States, but there are copies for sale on Amazon.  A 2015 movie based on the book, entitled The Scandalous Lady W, was made by the BBC, starring Natalie Dormer as Lady Worsley and Shaun Evans as Sir Richard. The book was redistributed to American audiences with a 2015 copyright and under that title as well.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did English laws regarding marriage and divorce contribute to the Worsley Criminal Conversation Case?  What about the laws of coverture (the laws which made a woman’s property her husband’s upon their marriage)?
  2. Why do you think Lady Worsley decided to runaway with Bisset?  Why not stay in her marriage where she had at least tacit permission to continue her extra-marital activities?
  3. In view of the options available to Seymour after her separation from Sir Richard, what do you think of her choices?  What about signing the separation agreement that included a four year banishment from England? How did that affect her later?
  4. What if Sir Richard had divorced Seymour–how would that have changed the outcomes for both of them?
  5. What is your biggest take-away from this book? Does it inspire you to learn more about the Worsleys or about other famous people mentioned?