- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

By Hallie Rubenhold
St. Martin’s, $25.99, 320 pages

For deliciously sordid marital scandals, there is no better historical milieu than 18th-century England. Among the many “modern” institutions this era brought into being — newspapers, coffee houses, insurance, financial bubbles, street lights, police — it also inaugurated celebrity sex scandals and celebrity gossip tabloids. Hallie Rubenhold’s captivating new cultural history, “The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce,” gives an account of one of this century’s strangest marital scandals, the tale of the adulterous Lady Seymour Worsley and her vengeful husband, Sir Richard Worsley.

Perhaps because the 19th century — which as it became the age of Victoria took on a strong savor of piety, restraint and cloistered, immaculate domesticity — occupies such a large place in our culture’s popular imaginings of the past (the works of Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and George Elliot are more often made into movies and miniseries and assigned in literature courses than those written by 18th-century writers like Fanny Burney, Eliza Heywood, Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe), it is easy to forget that the 18th century was in many ways quite modern and reminiscent of the cultural tone of our own age, at least among the wealthy and aristocratic. It was secular, jaded, gossip-hungry, debt-ridden and devoted to the pursuit of pleasure (think of 1999’s “Cruel Intentions,” the clever contemporary adaptation of Pierre de Laclos’ 1782 novel “Dangerous Liaisons”). Ms. Rubenhold’s book brings to life the dissipated and alluring world of aristocratic Georgian England, particularly its vexed sexual morality, through the story of a marriage and its unraveling.

In 1775, when the unconventionally named heiress Seymour Dorothy Fleming married Sir Richard Worsley, baronet, it was considered an excellent match for both: He got her fortune, and she got his title. This was the way of the world for the wealthy and titled in 18th-century England. According to the gossip papers of the day, Seymour and Sir Richard were enamored of each other before their engagement, but Sir Richard’s interest was as much in the Fleming fortune as in Seymour herself. Sir Richard’s friend the historian Edward Gibbon reported to another friend that Sir Richard was to marry Seymour Fleming for “love and 80,000 [pounds].”

The couple’s courtship was brief and immediately following their marriage they took up residence in London. The Fleming family had lived a quiet country life in Yorkshire, but now Seymour, barely 18, newly adorned with a title and a fabulous trousseau (Rubenhold estimates that she acquired 3,000 pounds worth of new clothing on the occasion of her marriage and 7,000 pounds worth of jewelry — approximately 10 million pounds in today’s terms), found herself swept up into the glamorous whirl of the ton, presided over by Lady Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. The chief pursuits of this set were parties, gambling, drinking, flirting, sexual dalliances and gossip.

Sir Richard, meanwhile, seemed to have little interest in his wife and left her to pursue her own ends. “We do not disagree because we seldom meet,” says a lady of her husband in the Duchess of Devonshire’s 1778 novel “The Sylph.”: “He pursues his pleasure one way, I seek mine another, and our dispositions being opposite, they are sure never to interfere with one another.” This blase resignation to her husband’s indifference seemed to suit Lady Worsley for a while; she adopted the ways of the Devonshire set, amusing herself with lovers, wine and gambling — albeit discreetly. Hypocrisy was the byword of the age, and so drunkenness and adultery were only dangerous to a woman’s social position if she was caught in the act and publicly exposed.

In 1781, Lady Worsley boldly turned her back on hypocrisy when she eloped with her lover, Maurice George Bisset, and asked her husband for a divorce. She did not fully understand that as a woman under 18th-century English law, she and all of the wealth she had brought to her marriage belonged to her husband. Sir Richard refused and, instead, brought a criminal conversation suit against Bisset for 20,000 pounds (criminal conversation covers crimes like joyriding — the unauthorized use of someone else’s property; in the 1780s a wife was property). This sum would have ruined Bisset and it seemed at first that Sir Richard could not lose, since he had more than sufficient proof of adultery.

But the case was not so straightforward as it seemed. Bisset had been a close friend of Sir Richard’s and had lived with the Worsleys at Sir Richard’s invitation. In fact, Lady Worsley’s second child was known to be Bisset’s, though Worsley had willingly given it his own name. He had also helped Bisset peep at his naked wife in the presence of a servant. This revelation drove Sir Richard from England in shame and cost him his suit. Lady Worsley and Bisset effectively won, though Lady Worsley had also won herself an irreparably blackened reputation that left her exiled from most of her former acquaintance and her family.

While the series of actions that comprise this tale are transfixing in their strangeness, Ms. Rubenhold gives us almost nothing of her subjects’ voices and motivations. What drove Lady Worsley to elope, a decision that was virtually guaranteed to leave her poor and outcast? What was she thinking? What was she thinking later when she began dressing in men’s riding clothes to perform wild equestrian feats for the Prince of Wales? When she married a man half her age? These absences are doubtless due in part to a lack of source material, but they also bespeak a reluctance on Ms. Rubenhold’s part to theorize her startlingly bold subject. “The Lady in Red” is an impressive feat of cultural history, but its subject, the Lady in Red herself, seems finally to elude and defy her historian, just as she eluded and defied her husband and the hypocritical morality of her age. Then again, perhaps this is Ms. Rubenhold’s restraint rather than reluctance — a willingness to let an inscrutable individual remain just that.

Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewer’s Contest.



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