Lady Worsley’s Whim Hallie Rubenhold

Chatto, pp.308, 25

Lady Worsley’s Whim, by Hallie Rubenhold

There is a magnificent portrait by Reynolds at Harewood House in Yorkshire of Lady Worsley. She wears a sweeping red riding habit, she looks self-assured and alert, and she holds a riding crop as an allusion to her skill as a horsewoman. In reality, as Hallie Rubenhold’s book vividly reveals, Lady Worsley was one of the most scandalous women of her day, the subject of the first squalid celebrity divorce.

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Lady Worsley, who rejoiced in the odd first name of Seymour, was a massive heiress. She inherited a fortune of over £60 million in today’s money from her father, Sir John Fleming, who owned a farm in the London suburb of Brompton. Aged 18, she married a wealthy, socially ambitious baronet named Sir Richard Worsley. He set about advancing and advertising himself in the fashion of the day. He became a MP and made lavish improvements to his house, Appuldurcombe on the Isle of Wight. But then Seymour started to behave rather strangely. As a prank with her girl friends she set fire to the militia colours and peed on them. She was seen constantly in the company of a neighbouring landowner named Maurice George Bisset. Seymour became pregnant by Bisset, but Sir Richard, far from stopping the relationship, seemed determined to encourage it. He invited Bisset to share a house with him and his wife when he went on manoeuvres with the militia at Maidstone and then Lewes.

One night Seymour and Bisset decided to elope. This, as Rubenhold explains, was an extraordinarily foolhardy thing to do. Seymour stood to lose not only her fortune, but also her reputation, her children and — what she minded more than anything — her clothes and jewels worth a staggering £15 million. The lovers dashed to London and went into hiding in a hotel. Seymour stayed in bed for days, but this was only partly due to passion: she had left all her clothes behind and her mean-minded husband refused to send any. Humiliated and dishonoured, Sir Richard plotted his revenge. He planned to ruin Bisset financially and shackle his wife to him for life. He sued Bisset for crim con or criminal conversation — in other words adultery — and claimed damages of £20,000 (£25 million today). In a superb moment of courtroom drama, just as Sir Richard thought that he had won his case, the defence revealed that Seymour had taken as many as 24 lovers over the previous four years. One after another her lovers stood up in the witness box and told an extraordinary story. Whenever Sir Richard caught Seymour in bed with her lovers, he showed no anger. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy the intrigue. He had been caught looking through keyholes. Most damning of all was a story of how Sir Richard had made Bissset climb upon his shoulders to peep through the window of a bath house in Maidstone to watch the naked Seymour getting dressed.

The judge declared that Sir Richard had made no attempt to restrain his wife, but instead had prostituted her. Sir Richard lost his case against Bisset and was awarded a shilling in damages. Seymour had taken the extraordinary step of denouncing herself and destroying her reputation in order to save her lover. Sir Richard was exposed as a sexual voyeur and a pervert. His reputation was in ruins, and he left England for years of lonely foreign travel, amassing a collection of antiquities. Seymour joined the demi-monde of scandalous women, often aristocrats, and waged a vicious pamphlet war against Sir Richard. Cartoonists such as Gillray had a field day, with savage caricatures of Lady Worsley and her seraglio. At least Seymour had the satisfaction of outliving her cold, unyielding husband and getting some of her money back.

The story of the Worsley divorce has never been revealed before, and Hallie Rubenhold tells it with panache. Her account of the elopement is gripping, but this is far more than an 18th-century bodice-ripper. Rubenhold combines narrative skill with historical expertise, and she traces the knife-edge that women walked between social success and public disgrace with subtlety and assurance.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated