At just seventeen, Seymour Dorothy Fleming was a spirited and rich heiress.
The well travelled baronet, Sir Richard Worsley was handsome – with vast estates and a rising career in government.
Their marriage on September 15th 1775 should have been the stuff of dreams.
But instead it ended in nightmare. And as one of the most high profile and shocking divorce cases in history…
Written by historian Hallie Rubenhold, the text was originally published under the title Lady Worsley’s Whim in 2008 (entitled The Lady in Red in the US).
However the book was reissued with the title The Scandalous Lady W, in 2015, after a BBC film drama based on the novel was broadcast with that title.
The drama starred Natalie Dormer who makes a superb Lady Worsley, Aneurin Barnard and Shaun Evans and it is certainly worth a look if you have a spare hour or so.
Rubenhold specialises in 18th century social history – having received a B.A. in History from the University of Massachusetts and an M.A. in British History and the History of Art from the University of Leeds.
She went on to complete a PhD at Leeds – with a thesis based on the subject of marriage and child-rearing in the 18th century.
She published her first book in 2005, The Covent Garden Ladies – a factual recount of the lives of Georgian London prostitutes; and has also published two works of fiction: Mistress of My Fate and The French Lesson (released in April 2016).
The Scandalous Lady W is Rubenhold’s extensively researched biography which intricately reconstructs the lives of both Lady Worsley and her husband, Sir Richard, from cradle to grave.
Whilst at times it can feel like you are being overloaded with information, with a generous mix of juicy gossip, fascinating characters and solid historical grounding – it does on the whole make a very enjoyable and interesting read.
The main story is centred around Lady Worsley’s elopement with her lover George Bisset (on November 19th 1781) and the consequences of her vengeful husband’s quest for retribution.
In Georgian England, a gentleman could sue his wife’s lover through a criminal conversation trial.
As a wife was considered her husband’s property – he could sue thousands of pounds in damages for the defiling of his assets. According to Rubenhold, this practice was actually surprisingly common.
However, the trial of Worsley v Bisset on February 21st 1782, was anything but ordinary. Rubenhold carefully recreates the trial from case documents and it is an extremely juicy and fascinating read.
Lady Worsley is a wonderfully lively and defiant character to follow, and in spite of everything she does and is, you cannot help but love and champion her.
Sir Richard, if anything, is her antithesis – playing the role of a great villain and one who certainly gets his comeuppance in the end.
Alongside their outrageous lives, and that of the outlandish and colourful figures who populate their social spheres, Rubenhold also recreates the important historical events they were swept up in – such as the American war of independence and the french revolution.
All in all, it is an immaculately detailed and researched historical biography. This is one scandal certainly worth raising from the depths of history.
Published by Vintage, The Scandalous Lady W retails at £8.99 in the UK and $18.99 in Canada.