Reflection on BBC drama ‘The Scandalous Lady W’

In the light of the screening of the BBC costume drama ‘The Scandalous Lady W’ on Monday, 17 August 2015, this short article looks at the nature of the law as it applied to married women at the time these true-life events took place (1782).

The obvious desire of film and television to portray the salacious in the drama (and there was, admittedly, plenty to highlight) left the essence of the history of Lady Seymour Worsley too much to one side – and that is that when she married her husband she became his legal property. Though she had brought c.£70,000 into their union, Sir Richard Worsley owned her body as much as he owned her clothes, jewels and daughter, Jane – who was seemingly abandoned by her true father, Maurice George Bisset, without a second thought when he chose to tell Lady W that he had tired of her following their elopement.

All this happened after Her Ladyship had washed her dirty linen openly in public in order to ensure Bisset won the legal suit for Criminal Conversation brought against him by the morally questionable Sir Richard who, in effect, had prostituted his wife to secure his own sexual gratification – achieved by staring at the copulating couple through keyholes. Bisset was, in fact, one of twenty-six aristocratic men who admitted having sex with Seymour with her husband’s full knowledge and approval. Sir Richard had believed his friend Bisset would, as the other men before him, use Seymour only as an object for sexual release. However, while Bisset’s love for her held secure at first, it did not stand the test of time.

The drama was based on the first research into the Worsley divorce scandal by Helen Rubenhold in her book “Lady Worsley’s Whim” (2008) – and commentators have, rather flippantly if you read the preview by Filipa Jodelka in ‘The Guardian’ (17/8/15), commented on Seymour Worsley’s inability to secure a divorce and thus free her from Sir Richard’s tyranny. Jodelka views the drama (and the true history on which it was based) seemingly from the perspective of today’s married couples’ freedom to part and to obtain (in her words) ‘a cheeky little dec abs’ to end the friction. Life in the 1780s, however, was not as simple as that – as many an unhappy couple discovered to their cost – and mistresses were commonplace in elite circles.

What we know about the Worsleys situation, though, offers a different perspective on patriarchal marriage – one where a bride, initially in love, is subsequently forced by a manipulating spouse into a series of passive sexual liaisons that demean and degrade her. Her tacit complicity in the events of her downfall, however, offers an intriguing perspective on the psychology of the time. Seemingly coming rather late to the realisation she has been routinely sexually abused, Lady W allows the sordid details to be told in a court of law, where of course only males preside. She does so on account of ‘love’ for her paramour Bisset, in much the same way as her ‘love’ for Sir Richard drove her to commit adultery for his gratification.

However, it was her only recourse when Sir Richard demanded recompense of £20,000 from Bisset for the damage to his human ‘property’ following their elopement. Seymour ensured, by her willingness to tell the truth of her intimate life, that her husband was awarded just one shilling, as her reputation (and thus her financial worth) was reduced to tatters in court.  Lady W was such damaged goods, Bisset’s Counsel argued, she was worth no more. Her doctor, William Osborn was summoned to attest to the fact that her body was riddled with venereal disease – a common consequence of multiple sexual partners in men and women, though for the latter the affliction was a considered as much a moral as a medical stigma.

The word ‘whore’ was hissed in the courtroom and, far from seeing his lover’s actions as selfless in that they saved him from financial ruin, Bisset’s ardour for her melted faster than snow in spring. Seymour Worsley later became part of the twilight Demimonde, those professional mistresses who were ‘kept’ in their position by the patronage of wealthy men. If this is the life of a proto-feminist I would question the designation!

Jodelka also comments that the dramatic narrative, as portrayed on the BBC, was ‘perhaps the biggest advert not only for divorce but radical, militarised feminism’. That’s quite a leap – for it is a long road between Lady Worsley’s actions as she walks down the drive of Appuldurcombe House with a secretive smile playing around her mouth into her ‘freedom’ – and those of the ‘Women’s Army’ of Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union, founded in Manchester 1903.  Pankhurst was proud to call her supporters an army, but the militant ‘suffragettes’ (and by that is meant those women who engaged in disruptive and, it can be argued, criminal acts in order to secure the parliamentary vote for women) were seeking a political ‘right’ and the responsibility of electing to office those who represented them in the House of Commons – something denied them until the passage of the Representation of the People Act, 1918.

“A long line of non-violent women emancipators campaigned for personal equality with men”

Before them, however, came a long line of non-violent women emancipators who sought instead the social, economic, sexual and political rights that would grant them personal equality with men – as this was at that time enshrined in the laws of the nation. This, if they held property (and all British male voters were enfranchised by the fact that they were property owners at this time) would, by implication, also provide elite women the grounds to claim political representation too. While they would have been happy to be known as radicals, in both political and social circles, such women emancipators as Barbara Bodichon, Frances Power Cobbe, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and Josephine Butler would have blanched at the term ‘militarist’.  Nonetheless, they worked throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century to end the injustices that women faced; and to orchestrate the changes in the law that would prevent other women from having to endure the scandals, social ruin and continental exile suffered by Seymour Worsley half-a-century earlier.

James Walton, writing in ‘The Telegraph’ (18/8/15) claims the television drama ‘reduced… an intriguing real-life story to a simple black-and-white morality tale…with the morality belonging firmly in the 21st century’. He made the moot point that the word ‘scandalous’ in the title would once have indicated a form of censure, but in the modern day opens up the possibilities of intrigue, drawing the viewer in where once some, at least, would have been repelled. Perhaps the fact that Rubenhold’s book is being reprinted with a change of title to The Scandalous Lady W gives pause for thought on this point.

In addition, Walton argues that ‘on her way to eventual empowerment’ Lady W was shown as being ‘blameless’ – a picture of perfection that obscures any flaws her character may have possessed. What only a close reading of the end credits would have shown, however, was that Seymour Worsley did not in fact become truly ‘empowered’ until after Sir Richard had died, when, as a widow (or feme sole in legal terms,) she was at liberty to recover her dowry and remarry, which she did in 1805 to a lover who took her maiden name of Fleming, to which she had reverted. ‘Feminism’ – yes, but only on account of her changed legal status.

Prior to this her ‘feminist’ action was limited to being able to build up debts in her husband’s name – debts for which he, as the ‘owner’ of the goods she had purchased after their separation, continued to be liable. This was a situation that remained legal until the Married Women’s Property Act, (1870) Amendment Act (1874) closed the legal loop-hole in a law that became known colloquially as the ‘creditors’ bill’. If, as it can surely be argued, Seymour by-and-large accepted the fact that her body was being sexually misused, she was certainly aware of the way in which she could hurt her husband’s pocket! It is this that drives Richard, eventually, to fund her life in exile as the less expensive alternative – all the while making it clear that she had lost any right to see her infant daughter, Jane, or their legitimate son, Robert, who both pre-deceased him.

It was not until the passage of the Infant Custody Act (1886) that both parents were granted, in law, ‘equal rights to name testamentary guardians or to have a court award custody’ of children following legal separation.  Only some fifty years earlier, in 1837, had Caroline Norton cajoled influential male supporters to push through legislation that granted a separated wife access to her children up to the age of seven. The 1886 legislation increased this period to the child’s sixteenth birthday, but nonetheless, in the late-eighteenth century all this was far in the future. Lady W, on separating from her husband, had legally forfeited any ‘rights’ to her daughter – even though Jane was brought up by someone who was her non-biological father. The mere fact that Sir Richard ‘acknowledged’ her as his offspring was enough to secure Jane’s relationship to him.

The effect of, as it was known, of the ‘dead hand’ of a deceased father’s will in consigning guardianship away from a natural mother was not an isolated phenomenon either and such perfunctory decisions happened often in cases of separation too. A well-known example of this was the 1883 Agar-Ellis case when a mother was separated from her daughter on the grounds that she, as a Roman Catholic, had sought to challenge her husband’s decree that the children of their marriage be raised as Protestants.  We see Lady Worsley challenge her husband verbally regarding her daughter’s guardianship and well-being, but she knows the truth of the matter and accepts it, in the drama, with the words ‘I have lost everything’. In short, she knows when she is beaten, and in this matter choses to cede to patriarchal norms without too much of a fight.

James Walton’s point about the language of the drama is raised again in the ‘Daily Mail’ review by Jim Shelley (18/8/15). He writes of the ‘ostentatiously vulgar but historically accurate’ use of language in the description of sexual matters. One of the common criticisms of the Georgian gentry by the rising numbers of the ‘middling-sort’ was precisely this ostentation and vulgarity, which the industrious bourgeoisie sought to counter by an increasing adherence to Evangelical religious doctrine. By the Victorian era this had almost evolved into a cult for women – that of domesticity and their place as ‘the angel in the home’.

This has perhaps its greatest legislative demonstration in that any rights a minority of women had in exercising the franchise were removed in the Great Reform Act of 1832 – where a specially gendered clause was included to legally remove their entitlement. It was only twenty-seven years later that a restricted, municipal franchise was restored to female property owners in the Municipal Corporations Act, 1869.

Shelley also poses the view that Lady W’s history tells of a ‘strange kind of feminism’. This is an assessment with a far greater ring of truth to it than Jodelka’s flighty prose praising her ‘militarism’. Divorce, in the 1790s, was a complicated business, and was only granted by the passing of an Act of Parliament. Sir Richard, as an MP, a member of the Privy Council and Governor of the Isle of Wight, had access to the funds necessary to achieve this end but chose not to do so. Only with the passage of the Divorce Act in 1857 was this restriction lifted – although women’s reputation in social circles was still irreparably damaged and they had to prove, in addition to any adultery claim, that their husband had been responsible for other cruelties as an addendum to what might (and was) understood to be his ‘natural’ sexual appetites.

If this article appears to challenge more than support Lady’s Worsley’s place as a proto-feminist icon, it does so in the light of the restrictions placed upon her and upon every other eighteenth-century married woman in Britain by the laws of the land. Worsley lived at the same turbulent moment in time as Mary Wollstonecraft and both were in France at the time of the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft, known as the ‘founder of modern feminism’ by scholars and students world-wide, was also publicly derided for her flighty private life (she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter by Gilbert Imlay in France in 1794). And, as academics have recently pointed out, Wollstonecraft’s feminism was based far more around the abilities of girls and young women to achieve an education to fit them to make better wives and mothers (rather than merely the ‘fascinating graces’ that ornamented society) than to force them into challenging the laws of marriage and divorce.  As stated above, it was a long road to the suffragette ‘army’.

©2015 Maureen Wright, PhD and

The links below have been sourced from the internet. Their inclusion on this list does not constitute endorsement or that they have been verified.

More on the book ‘Lady Worsley’s Whim Eighteenth Century Scandal’ (Amazon)

Facebook page on the BBC drama series

The Guardian’s review of the BBC series

Daily Telegraph’s review of the BBC 2 series

Daily Mail’s review of the BBC 2 series



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