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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.