May 2015 meeting: The Scandalous Lady W

Joshua Reynolds, The scandalous Lady W

By Joshua Reynolds, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In one of our occasional departures from the norm, for this meeting we moved to a member’s house to watch a DVD, the BBC2 telemovie about Lady Worsley, The Scandalous Lady W.

Lady Worsley (1758-1818) was involved in a high profile adultery (“criminal conversation”) trial brought by her husband against her lover, Captain George Bisset. However, her adultery was orchestrated by her husband who turned out to be a voyeur who preferred to watch his wife have sex with others than do so himself. The inevitable happened and she fell in love with one of these lovers – George Bisset – and eloped with him.

This is a story of women-as-property. Her husband, Sir Richard Worsley, described her as “my property”. He is quoted in the telemovie as saying to her:

I promised to love and cherish but you promised to love, cherish and obey.

This is a story too, though, of a woman who was brave enough to stand up for herself. She was determined to save her lover from the bankruptcy that would ensue if the claimed £20,000 damages were found against him. So, she decided to prove that she wasn’t worth this amount by organising for the “lovers” to appear in court. The end result was … well, we won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. We did love, though, her parting shot to her husband (in the movie) that:

I loved you, and obeyed you, but you never cherished me.

He sure didn’t.

In addition to the “stories” mentioned above, this is also a story of women-not-having-access-to-their-own-propety, because it was Lady Worsley who brought a fortune to the marriage and who lost control of it once she married. The film has her saying that it was her “misfortune to live in an age of men” but that she would never belong to a man again.

We watched this movie for a few reasons. Some were historical: Lady Worsley lived during Austen’s time so her story throws a light on the rights of and prevailing attitudes towards women of the time. But another reason relates to the fact that some of the time she lived near Austen’s home. This, and the fact that her story was big news at the time, made us wonder what Austen knew of Lady Worsley. Whatever it was, we can guess from other comments Austen made in her letters that she would have understood Lady W’s frustration at her lack of control over her money and therefore over her independence.

As far as we can tell the telemovie follows the main elements of her life fairly closely, though of course it compressed aspects. For example, it didn’t mention the legitimate son she had with her husband. A biography of her, Lady Worsley’s whim by Hallie Rubenhold, was published in 2008.

We were all surprised that we hadn’t heard of her before, given the group’s knowledge of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was apparently the inspiration for Sheridan’s play School for Scandal, and was also painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Thanks Anna for your home, and for suggesting we watch the video. It was quite the eye-opener (though not in the Sir Richard way!)

Business matters

By the time we arrived, watched the movie while sipping on another luscious Veuve Cliquot champagne supplied by the lovely, generous Cheng, and then discussed the movie while partaking of afternoon tea, we didn’t have time for quotes and quizzes. We did though discuss the schedule for the next few months, which you’ll find in the side-bar.

We also decided that we would organise a group expedition to see Love and Friendship (the movie based on Austen’s Lady Susan) when it is released in Canberra.

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