Book Review: The Lady in Red

The Lady in Red
Hallie Rubenhold
St. Martin’s Press, 2008

I love bookshelf conversations. You know, when you read one book and it sends you racing off to read another, and on reading the second book, you find yourself getting new insights into the first.

For example, it would be so lovely to open this review by saying that reading Marion Chesney’s Six Sisters series piqued my curiosity about Regency England and that this curiosity led me to The Lady in Red.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was the Borders near me where I used to go to do all my writing went out of business, and I found this book on the woefully neglected (and 90% off!) History shelf. When I picked The Lady in Red up, I wasn’t thinking about Minerva, or Daphne, or any of the other sisters who had entertained me on those long ago afternoons. I was thinking about George Washington and wondering exactly how sordid a scandal must have been to have become required reading for him in the midst of the Revolutionary War.

As it turns out, pretty sordid. There weren’t any sex tapes, but aside from that technical detail, the tale of Sir Finical Whimsy and His Lady could easily slip into the pages of today’s celebrity gossip sheets. There were certainly plenty of unofficial accounts, one of which–The Trial with the Whole of the Evidence between the Right Hon. Sir Richard Worsley, Bart. and George Maurice Bissett, Esq., Defendant, for Criminal Conversation with the Plaintiff’s Wife by Robert Pye Donkin–made General George Washington’s list of requested supplies for May 15, 1782.

In the Lady in Red, Rubenhold traces the development of the socially awkward Sir Richard Worsley from an ill-at-ease sixteen-year-old with the habit of peering through the curtains of the brothel across the street from his lodgings in Paris into the respected member of Parliament for the county of Hampshire who casts the odd glance into his wife’s bedroom while she entertains her lovers. As the book makes clear, the fact that his wife had lovers didn’t bother Sir Richard. He wasn’t particularly interested in entering her bedroom himself. She could do whatever she liked so long as he got a good show out of it. The trouble began when she developed a passion for privacy and eloped with George Bissett to obtain it.

Instead of granting his wife a divorce as she expected, Sir Richard initiated a suit of criminal conversation against Bissett, using an 18th century law that allowed cuckolded husbands to collect substantial monetary damages from their wives’ lovers.

This is the part at which the scandal really began to pick up steam. In criminal conversation trials, the amount of damages the husband was allowed to collect was assessed based on the monetary value assigned to his wife. At the urging of Lady Seymour herself, Bissett’s defense centered first on destroying Lady Seymour’s value in the eyes of the jury by painting a vivid picture of her sexual habits, and second on Sir Richard’s willing participation in handing her off to one paramour after another, including Bissett himself. The more I read about the methodical evisceration of Lady Seymour’s character in the 18th century court of law, the more I found myself admiring Lady Seymour.

Rubenhold’s book is roughly divided into three sections: the events leading to the marriage of Sir Richard and Lady Seymour, the trial itself, and the impact the scandal had on both Sir Richard and his former wife in their subsequent lives. Her account breathes life into both Lady Seymour and Sir Richard, much as you would expect from a character-driven novel. As a result, the battle between them makes for excellent reading. Even if you, like me, plan to read this at the beach.

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