Monday, July 26, 2010

Georgian Wrangle #2

One of the most famous---and infamous---divorces of the 18th century was that of Sir Richard Worsley and his wife, Seymour Dorothy Worsley (nee Fleming). The scandalous behaviour of the participants kept the gossipmongers occupied for weeks, and a summary of the trial transcript underwent seven printings in less than a year! Even George Washington requested one.

Seventeen-year-old Seymour Dorothy Fleming was the daughter of a baronet, the step-daughter of a earl, and a great heiress. Richard Worsley was a handsome baronet of twenty-four with a promising career in government. Their marriage, in September 1775, had the makings of a fairy-tale, but it ended as one of the most sensational and highly publicized divorce cases in history. (The image at right is Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait, painted in 1775, of Sir Richard Worsley in his uniform as a colonel in the Royal Hampshire Militia. (As always, click on any photo to enlarge it.)) Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to the Isle of Wight, Sir Richard's family home.

Seymour Fleming's dowry was reputed to be 70,000 pounds (equivalent to almost 10 million dollars today), but was actually about 52,000 pounds (equivalent to 7.3 million dollars). In 1774, after returning from his Grand Tour, Sir Richard had been elected as M.P. for Newport. After his marriage to Seymour, his political star continued to rise. He supported Lord North's government, became a clerk comptroller in 1777, was comptroller of the king's household from 1779-1782, became a privy councillor in 1780, and was Governor of the Isle of Wight from 1780-1782.

Lady Worsley (shown at right in Sir Joshua Reynolds's 1780 portrait of her) presented her husband with a son and heir a year after their wedding, but the boy died at age twelve. During the autumn of 1780, while her husband was electioneering for his seat in Parliament, Lady Worsley, who had already earned a reputation for being free with her affections, began an affair with a local militia captain, George Bisset, who was a friend of Sir Richard's, as well as a fellow officer in the Royal Hampshire Militia. In August 1781, she gave birth to a daughter, fathered by Bisset, which Sir Richard acknowledged as his. In November 1781, the lovers decided to run away to London, well aware that their indiscretion would set Sir Richard on the path to the most public revenge.

 Sir Richard launched a criminal conversation ("crim. con.") action, which involved proving that Bisset had defiled his wife and reduced her worth. Sir Richard demanded 20,000 pounds in compensation, an astronomical sum at the time, and one that would have condemned Bisset to debtor's prison for the rest of his life. (Twenty thousand pounds in 1782 is equivalent to equivalent to 2.67 million dollars today.)

The facts of the elopement were clear. The couple had been living in the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall. Servants had been interviewed, the bed linen examined, and witnesses had contrived to see them in bed together. There was no doubt of culpability. Seymour, Lady Worsley was Sir Richard's chattel, and Captain Bisset had made off with her. How was the aggrieved husband to be compensated? What value could be placed on a privy councillor's matrimonial honour?

The subsequent trial left all parties nursing their egos. In order to prove Lady Worsley's worth was tarnished long before the arrival of Bisset, the defence adopted a unique---and unprecedented--- strategy.  They attempted, with Lady Worsley's assistance, to prove that she had not only behaved in a manner that was inappropriate for the wife of a nobleman, but that she had done this with the active collusion of her husband. A procession of aristocratic lovers were brought before the bench to testify that Sir Richard had contrived to display his unclothed wife before them and encouraged sexual liaisons, which he had observed from the concealment of her dressing room. (At right, James Gillray's 29 April 1782 caricature, A peep into Lady W!!!!!y's seraglia.)

Three of Lady Worsley's lovers are named in the summary trial transcript. Reputedly, there were 24 others! (The couple had been married only six years.)

Other people, including a bathhouse attendant, testified that Sir Richard had actively encouraged Bisset to peer at his naked wife through a bathhouse window. (At right, James Gillray's 14 March 1782 caricature, Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife's bottom;---o fye!)

The court proceedings gave the scandal sheets and gossip columnists much to write about. Although a large amount of personal correspondence relating to the affair was destroyed, the trial transcript is 300 pages of the most damning evidence one is ever likely to read.

Servants, friends, and family were all called to give evidence, and the tawdry picture of the threesome kept the masses entertained for months. Captain Bisset was eventually found guilty, but because of Worsley's connivance, he was awarded just one shilling in compensation---the price of a pound of soap, a muslin neckcloth, or a roast beef dinner.

At the end of the trial, Sir Richard was a figure of ridicule, but Lady Worsley continued to defy social convention. She never once betrayed a hint of regret and showed no intention of withdrawing from fashionable London life. Sir Richard lost all his political offices when Lord North's government fell in the autumn of 1782, but his political career had already been damaged by the scandals surround his wife and the crim. con. case. He departed for the Continent, and did not return to England until 1788.

Worsley did not grant Seymour a divorce, which prevented her from remarrying, and denied her access to her children and her fortune, both of which remained under his control. (Including her daughter by Bisset, since Sir Richard had claimed the child.) Sir Richard and Lady Worsley entered into Articles of Separation in 1788.

While she was pregnant with her lover's second child, Bisset left her. Sir Richard spent 15 years trying (unsuccessfully) to redeem his character by documenting his impressive art collection in a large leather-bound volume, which also contained drawings of the monuments of Ancient Greece.

On the death of her husband in 1805, Seymour's property and fortune were restored to her. Seymour, who was 47, married her 26-year-old lover, a Swiss musician. Their affection for each other seemed genuine, and he remained at her side until she died 13 years later.

Next post: a scandalous Regency divorce.


P.S. Like my last post, this one is straight out of my lecture notes for Jane Austen's England (Spring 2009 honors seminar, Lecture 22). In addition to the references cited in my last post, I would add the following:

Rubenhold, Hallie, Lady Worsley's Whim: an 18th-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, Chatto and Windus, 2008. (The U.S. edition of the book is titled Lady in Red: an 18th-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, St. Martin's Press, 2009.)

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