THE BLOG

Why 'The Scandalous Lady W' Was No Feminist

17/08/2015 22:43 BST | Updated 17/08/2016 10:59 BST

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In case you haven't been keeping up with the news lately, three people who have been dead for roughly 200 years are in the headlines. I am the historian responsible for resurrecting them.

It's been a weird and wonderful experience having my book, Lady Worsley's Whim, now known by the name of the BBC drama, The Scandalous Lady W become television. What's stranger still is that our lust for a tale about the extreme sexual antics of an heiress, a Tory MP and an officer is just as unquenchable now as it was in 1780s.

In November of 1781 Lady Worsley ran off with Captain George Bisset and her husband, Sir Richard Worsley set out to sue him (unsuccessfully) for £20,000 in a Criminal Conversation, or adultery trial. By March 1782 their names and cartoons were plastered all over London. 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 for years to follow.

Theirs was a truly amazing saga, and due to the constraints of making a 90 minute film, our drama only covers a portion of it. 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.

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 for the rest of his days.

Raising the dead has taught me a lot. It has not only proven that history is relevant today, but that 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.

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 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'm going to utter a little prayer to Clio the Muse of History that the facts and the desire to uncover them prevail above the tweets and hastily dashed out on-line content. I'll 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.

www.hallierubenhold.com

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Scandalous-Lady-Hallie-Rubenhold/dp/1784701939/ref=tmm_pap_title_0