Raising the Dead – an author’s view on resurrecting Lady Worsley for TV

me and natalie in costume

If you don’t write for a living, what I’m about to say will probably surprise you; it’s a very dull job. It’s also the sort of job that’s likely to drive you insane. You spend most of your time alone and, if you’re writing historical nonfiction, with a load of dead people. Writing history books turns you into a stalker; you become obsessed with the private lives of people you’ll never meet. You read their letters, you stare at their pictures. If these people are already famous kings and queens or leaders you might find others who share your passion, but if you’re unearthing three people from 233 years of history, who virtually no one alive has ever heard of, you’re very much on your own.

While I love all aspects of history, it’s hunting down the previously unknown stories that thrills me. I have a bulging sack full of them just waiting to be cooked up. There are some amazing true stories out there, and most of them are better than the stories we know already about figures who feature on the national curriculum but we have to go looking for them and people have to put in the effort to haul them into public awareness. As a full time writer, the disincentive to do this often comes from a need to make a living. We’re always told that stories about unknown people of won’t sell, and so those unbelievable tales about individuals who travelled, or fought, or loved, or who went to prison, or did all of these things in one lifetime, are filed away indefinitely.

So, bearing all of this in mind, it’s pretty amazing that Sir Richard and Lady Worsley and Captain Maurice George Bisset have become household names once more. Until 2008, when I first published Lady Worsley’s Whim (now republished as The Scandalous Lady W) only a small circle of art historians were familiar with Lady Worsley, but this was not always the case.Lady Worsley Sir Richard and Bisset

In November 1781 Lady Worsley ran off with her husband’s best friend, Captain George Bisset and by March 1782, their names and cartoon images were plastered all over London. (For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the publicity surrounding the BBC dramatisation of the book, Sir Richard was a voyeur who used to pimp Lady Worsley out to his friends, and then tried to unsuccessfully sue Bisset for 20,000 in a Criminal Conversation, or adultery trial). The couple took great pains to completely ruin each other and the public loved it. They queued outside booksellers shops for copies of the trial transcripts and the newspapers covered the farce for months. Poems and pamphlets of purported exploits were printed and hungrily consumed all that year and in the years to follow.

maidstone whim coloured

Even when out of the public eye, the Worsleys saga continued. Our drama only covers a portion of their incredible story. After the credits roll Lady Worsley goes to France and becomes trapped there during the French Revolution. Sir Richard disappears to Egypt, Greece and Turkey in pursuit of antiquities and slaves he could own and control. Lady Worsley was blackmailed by an illegitimate child, Sir Richard was tricked by a fraudulent Italian countess. Sir Richard met Catherine the Great, crossed Russia in a sleigh and in a scene worthy of a Patrick O Brian novel, escaped from Venice in a frigate filled with art treasures as Napoleon’s navy fired on him. And it carried on like this well into the early years of the 19th century.

The public never forgot who they were either. In an age when women suffered more than men in the wake of a scandal, remarkably, just the opposite happened here. Ultimately, Lady Worsley didn’t care what the world thought of her, but the scandal continued to dog Sir Richard. I cannot but help to recall the peeping scene writes a gentleman in the 1790s who visited Sir Richard while he served as the British Minister Resident (or Ambassador) to Venice, from his manner and ideas he does not seem as though he could have been such an ass.worse-than-sly web image

It’s for this reason that in light of their current return to the headlines that I pity Sir Richard more than Seymour.
This experience of resurrecting the dead has been truly extraordinary for me. It not only proves that history is relevant today, but that yes it is worth digging out those unknown stories. It’s also shown me that surprisingly, when the dead come back to life, they do so in the way horror films depict it; swinging their unfinished business like a jangling chain. From my perspective, it feels very surreal to watch the scandal of the Worsleys grip the media again, just as it did in 1782. I have to rub my eyes when I read headlines crying out that Lady Worsley had 27 lovers and that Sir Richard was a voyeur, a pervert, a deviant. That’s exactly what they called him 233 years ago and my heart sinks a little for this man who died alone, staring out at the sea from a cottage on the Isle of Wight, hoping it would all just go away.Sir Richard Worsley reynolds Portrait
As for Lady Worsley, she is emerging as the heroine in all of this, which is not entirely unlike what happened in 1780s. In the book I have attempted to paint both sides of the story in a balanced way you will like and loath them in equal measure. They were both complex and difficult people, but often we end up rooting more for Seymour and this especially true in our drama. Seymour comes across as strong, unbending, determined (she was), and as a result the instinct is to call her a feminist or a woman before her time. Lady Worsley was neither. I was holding my breath that no one would use that word and then, sure enough it happened; it appeared in a magazine. My toes curled as I read it.Lady worsley
In all the research I have done, I have never found a shred of evidence to suggest that Lady Worsley wanted to serve any agenda other than her own personal one which was to fight against her husband. She was not like Mary Wollstonecraft, who truly was an early feminist (and a contemporary of Lady Worsley’s). Seymour was not interested in furthering women’s rights, she was interested in getting back her money, and in wresting her expensive clothing and jewels out of her husband’s hands. She didn’t campaign like Caroline Norton to see her children because that wasn’t her goal. She never made any grand statements, she never wrote pamphlets or appealed to Parliament to change the law, but we’re not happy with this because we want historical stories to mean something. What good is recounting the struggles and triumphs or sacrifices of the past if they don’t ultimately change the world? What’s the point of fighting a battle if a blow hasn’t been struck for modernity?

The boring truth is that like today, most people faced struggle in their lives and had experiences, both good and bad and it didn’t change anything. They didn’t set out to overturn laws or to challenge the system, but rather to sort out a problem in their own lives. Lady Worsley was just another one of these people. The fact that we want her to have been a feminist says more about us and our feelings about the inequalities of the past than it does about her true aims. Varnishing history with the values of the present is a dangerous game.

Our era is no different than any other; its history is being rewritten by those living through it, but ours is being rewritten at an alarmingly fast rate and quite often to suit the aims of a capricious commercial market. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve watched the dissemination of the resurrected Worsley story with a pinch of concern and a lot of morbid fascination. Much as it happened in the 1780s, I’ve seen stories invented from nothing more than gossip and glib comments. I’ve observed media outlets appropriate information from other media outlets and then regurgitate, rewrite and reshape it, like some filthy processed chicken nugget. Factual errors in one source are absorbed into another and then taken out of context before being spewed all over social media. I do wonder what of the Worsleys story will survive after broadcast on Monday the 17th. What facts will people remember? How will their story be told?

Sir Richard looking through the keyhole

I have a little prayer for the 17th of August and it goes like this; Please Clio, Muse of History, do not let the research I did into these individuals, the weeks and months of trawling through personal papers and deposition statements, the hours of analysis and contemplation get lost between assumptions and guesses, flippant statements and on-line slagging matches about the sexiness of actors. Let the facts and the desire to uncover them prevail above the fan blogs and tweets and hastily dashed out on-line content. I pray that when a student looks up the name Seymour, Lady Worsley that he or she finds the book before the sound bites. I also pray that the word “feminist” appears nowhere in their essay.

Buy The Scandalous Lady W , the reissue of Lady Worsleys Whim here

The scandalous lady w cover




Comments

  1. Mark Johnson

    Well said Hallie totally agree with you
    I used to visit appuldurcombe house quite often in the late 70’s having got to know the gatekeeper who took the admission money to visit the house and gardens. We used to take him things we had found, fossils etc. He had a small exibition in the gatehouse of natural history items and a collection of prints relating to the house and the Worsleys.
    His party piece was to entertain the visitors with the story of the Worsleys. I was only about 12 or do at the time so much of the story went over my head, but I’ve always remembered that the damages awarded in court amounted to a shilling. Thank you for bringing the story back to life

  2. Re your prayer; it would be interesting to hear what you thought of the finished film? I found it interesting and watchable. I wondered from time to time if, like the famous dodgy document, it had been sexed-up somewhat? There seemed an awful lot of it and I wasn’t sure how much was based on the book and how much might have been from ‘editorial choices’.

    Lady Worsley was ultimately not a very sympathetic character and certainly, in her attitude to doing whatever her husband desired sexualy, was no feminist – as we understand the term today, at least. You could say she was ‘liberated’ in that she seemed to have little regard for convention and the confidence to go against it. However if ‘she’ had been a ‘he’, would there have been such focus on the bedroom in this telling of the tale? But perhaps there wouldn’t have been a scandal in that case.

    I can’t help feeling that this was glossy sexed-up version of her life and some way from the whole truth. None the less interesting for it but perhpas not as rounded as suggested in your article.

    • Hallie Rubenhold

      Hi Bryan,
      Naturally there were always going to be some differences between a 90 min TV version of Lady Worsley’s story and the historical telling of it in my book. It’s very difficult to distill the complexities of the Worsleys’ tale into that medium and limited frame of time. You’ll see in my book that neither Lady Worsley nor Sir Richard are entirely sympathetic, which is what makes them fascinating. You’ll also find that Lady Worsley was an active and willing participant in her sexual encounters with other men and she continued to carry on her affairs with them even when Sir Richard wasn’t present. She also tried to elope with Lord Deerhurst long before she met Bisset.

      • Maria

        Dear Hallie
        Great to read your review. I wonder what happened to little Jane Worsley. Did she die prematurely and neglected as one account online seems to suggest? Did she ever know bisset? If not her mother? Where did she live and how was she educated? Hard to believe Worsley could have cared for her. Seems she was tragically abandoned with not oven a follow up story line.

        • Hallie Rubenhold

          Hi Maria, The story of what happened to little Jane Worsley is detailed in my book. She died shortly before the trial and Lady Worsley, Bisset and several others suspected Worsley of murder, though this couldn’t be proven. As it was not unusual at all for children to die in infancy (during the mid-18th century in London the average infant mortality rate was 50%, for all classes) it would have been rather difficult to prove foul play.

      • Maria

        Dear Hallie
        Great to read your review. I wonder what happened to little Jane Worsley. Did she die prematurely and neglected as one account online seems to suggest? Did she ever know bisset? If not her mother? Where did she live and how was she educated? Hard to believe Worsley could have cared for her. Seems she was tragically abandoned with not even a follow up story line.

  3. sunny16

    Thank you so much for bringing this story to all of us – it’s a great historical gem. I see what you’re saying re: Lady Worsley and feminism, but I think that as a woman who was pursuing her own aims, at a time many women weren’t, she’d fall under the term “feminist” in a loose way. There is a thread that has continued into our times, where women can still relate to a courageousness in her actions and an independence because there’s still a relevance to it in this day. Being a woman didn’t seem to fully deter her from pursuing her own needs, her own aims (even if those needs involved being entangled in a battle with her husband – Sir Richard, to get/protect what was hers, and even if they involved a drive/desire for retribution ). Yes, looking back on it some may now use the term ‘feminist’, while Lady Worsley would not – however, she did break through ‘norms’ in pursuing what she needed to, wanted to, and didn’t let the fact she was a woman and the expectations that came along with that at that time, wholly stand in her way – I think this where the feminist association comes in. I personally don’t think she needed to be an activist, fight for woman’s rights, or have had loftier aims, to be associated with the word ‘feminist’. It’s more along the lines of being a woman pursuing what she felt she needed to, at that time and in that context, where I can understand the tie-in of that term for her.

    • Hallie Rubenhold

      Hi, I understand your point of view and I think it’s valid for women to look to a woman in the past who stood up for herself and admire her strength and determination in doing what she did and going against the grain. Lady Worsley was all of that, but we’re applying the term ‘feminist’ to her retrospectively and we must tread carefully here. The question is, what does ‘feminist’ mean to us in the 21st century? It’s very easy to arrive at a set of assumptions that are uniquely 21st century and then assume people in the past also adhered to these ideals, notions and aspirations, when more often than not they didn’t. I would also offer a caveat which is that the Lady Worsley depicted on screen and the ‘real’ Lady Worsley (who I write about) were different people. I would urge you to read my book before deciding exactly who and what she was.

  4. sunny16

    Thanks so much for your reply Hallie. I also see and agree with your perspective – have the book and starting it now. I’m looking forward to reading it and will be interesting for me to see where my view lands up on Lady Worsley.

  5. Sashbash

    I have just watched this with my sister and husband and we are fascinated to know the truth behind the story. Having just read a few articles, there does not seem to be tangible evidence of voyeurism beyond the bath house; was that the case and artistic licence took you to believe the other 26 lovers were also embroiled with Sir Richard’s deviant practices? Or do we have further evidence that they were all arranged by him?
    Very enjoyable and watchable programme, excellent entertainment. Strong characters, although George Bisset a bit weak; we felt it sad he left her after all she went through, unless, in fact, they were all her lovers, in which case understandable!

    • Hallie Rubenhold

      Hi Sasha, I would encourage you to read my book as the TV drama does differ in a number of ways. With regard to the 27 lovers, there is no absolute proof that there were 27 lovers, in fact, the source for this number comes from a letter written by Horace Walpole who was one of the era’s most atrocious gossip mongers. In the course of my research I was only able to trace a handful, and all of these relationships seem to have been initiated by Seymour, not by Sir Richard. Lady Worsley had numerous affairs and Sir Richard either just let her get on with it or actively encouraged his friends (like Deerhurst and Bisset) to have sex with her while he watched. Proof of his voyeurism appears in the trial transcripts and was widely discussed in the press after the trial. In fact, although Lady Worsley was very much trapped in her marriage by the legalities and conventions of her era, she was not passive in her relationship at all. She even attempted to elope with Deerhurst before she met Bisset. A much fuller picture of the dark complexities of their marriage is discussed in my book.

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