Scandalous Interview with Hallie Rubenhold

Scandalous Women is very happen to welcome Hallie Rubenhold, author of the recent book Lady in Red. If you think that Jon Gosselin's behavior since his separation from Kate is bad, you haven't read anything until you read this book. Here's a brief description:

She was a spirited young heiress. He was a handsome baronet with a promising career in government. The marriage of Lady Seymour Dorothy Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley had the makings of a fairy tale—but ended as one of the most scandalous and highly publicized divorces in history. In February 1782, England opened its newspapers to read the details of a criminal conversation trial in which the handsome baronet Sir Richard Worsley attempted to sue his wife’s lover for an astronomical sum in damages. In the course of the proceedings, the Worsleys’ scandalous sexual arrangements, voyeuristic tendencies, and bed-hopping antics were laid bare. The trial and its verdict stunned society, but not as much as the unrepentant behavior of Lady Worsley. Sir Joshua Reynolds captured the brazen character of his subject when he created his celebrated portrait of Lady Worsley in a fashionable red riding habit, but it was her shocking affairs that made her divorce so infamous that even George Washington followed it in the press. Impeccably researched and written with great flair, this lively and moving true history presents a rarely seen picture of aristocratic life in the Georgian era.

Tell us a little bit about yourself before you came to write The Lady in Red.

I’m tempted to say that I’ve done a lot of different things before settling down to a writing career, but this is the case for many authors. I completed post graduate degrees in both British social history and art history, which enabled me to work as a curator, a university lecturer and also in the commercial art world. Ultimately, I’ve always wanted to write, but I felt I had to try my hand at a number of other things before committing myself to it entirely.

What led you to the story of Lady Worsley? And what sort of research did you do?

I first learned about Lady Worsley when I was writing my dissertation on 18th century portraiture. It was in a book of Joshua Reynolds’ portraits where I first saw the image of her that caused such a stir. The artist chose to paint her in a bold red riding habit, which alluded to her rather brazen character. I was intrigued by this and filed it away in my mind. Many years later I came back to her, though the research was very difficult as so much of the Worsleys’ personal correspondence had been destroyed. No one had ever before written a biography about Sir Richard Worsley or his wife and so I was starting from scratch, looking for shreds of evidence everywhere I could. I had to do some real fine-toothed combing through newspapers, printed material and vast amounts of legal documents in a variety of large and small archives. In the end I was amazed by what I managed to turn up and it felt like an enormous accomplishment to have discovered so much entirely new material.

Sir Richard and Lady Worsley’s situation feels incredibly contemporary, they could be any couple who unfortunately end up in a bad marriage, yet the stakes were so much higher in the 18th century, particularly for a woman when it came to a divorce.

Women walked a very fine line in the 18th century and the ‘rules of engagement’ in affaires de Coeur were very complex and contradictory – especially among the landed classes in Britain, where in theory you weren’t meant to be hopping in and out of other people’s beds, but in practice everyone accepted dalliances as normal, so long as discretion was applied. Ultimately, a wife’s freedom to do what she pleased was dependent on the indulgence of her husband and each marriage was different. If she had the misfortune of falling foul of him, he could completely destroy her life – taking away her children and cutting her off without a penny. The law regarded women as chattel, as possessions of their husbands, just like horses or paintings or land. 18th century law, society and the church saw it as a wife’s primary duty to obey her husband, no matter how dreadful the union may have been or how unsuited the couple were to one another.

Divorce in the 18th century was a complicated business. Can you explain a little about criminal conversation, ‘Separation from Bed and Board,’ and an actual divorce?

In my book, I make a very clear distinction between the varying modes of ‘divorce’ available. Generally, ‘divorce’ in the broadest sense, was a privilege reserved for the rich and titled, those who could afford the extremely high legal costs. A Parliamentary divorce, where a full divorce was granted through an act of Parliament, allowed for the remarriage of both parties. A ‘Separation from Bed and Board’ was like a partial divorce, granted through the ecclesiastical courts, which did not allow for the remarriage of either party. The couple remained shackled together in the eyes of the church, though the husband was freed from any financial obligation to support the wife. This was the most common form of ‘divorce’ available.

Criminal Conversation was an entirely different legal action from a divorce suit. Crim Con cases (as they were known) were heard in the civil court and were about financial reparations. Basically, the law regarded a wife as property who a third party (her lover) had soiled. The jury had to hear the entire story of the adulterous relationship before they could decide whether the husband was entitled to financial reparations – or what sum he was entitled to. These X-rated suits were heard in open court and became extremely popular ‘entertainment’ for the masses.

The UK title of the book was Lady Worsley’s Whim. Do you think that if Lady Worsley had really thought through what she was doing, she might have changed her mind? She seems to have been naively optimistic about the outcome of her elopement.

A number of my hunches and gut feelings about Lady Worsley and her behavior never made it into my book because the historical evidence simply wasn’t there to back them up. First among these was an instinct that Lady Worsley was not an entirely stable person. In a number of documented cases, her behavior was so erratic, swinging from periods of destructive hyper activity to melancholia that my sense is that she suffered from manic-depression and possibly other problems as well. Her decision to elope was particularly ill-informed, though love (another sort of mental disorder) probably has something to answer for here.

Marriage in the 18th century seems to have been a bit of a crap shoot, particularly among the upper classes, where money and social position were still important factors in choosing a mate, although marrying for love was becoming more common. Apart from the King and Queen, were there any happy marriages in the 18th century?

Interestingly, there were a number of very happy marriages in the 18th century. I wrote my thesis about the Fox and the Grenville families and studied their remarkably happy matrimonial unions over the course of three generations. However, their successful marriages can no more be considered ‘the norm’ than the Worsleys’ disastrous marriage. Although marriage on the basis of ‘mutual affection’ was becoming more acceptable, periods of courtship were quite short and circumscribed and getting to really know your potential spouse was quite difficult. By and large, society still relied on notions of duty to keep everyone in their respective places once the vows had been exchanged. If your husband turned out to be a bore or a philanderer, if he gave you syphilis or became a drunkard, you were expected to grin and bear it.

I found it hard to feel sympathetic towards Sir Richard. His behavior towards Lady Worsley as well as George Bisset seems unduly harsh. Do you think he was no better or worse than other men of his class?

It’s strange, my feelings for Sir Richard swung back and forth between sympathy and antipathy throughout the process of writing the book. I think he was a deeply troubled soul and very emotionally damaged. His childhood sounded terrible; his father was a chronic alcohol who drank himself to death and the family lived in a constant state of financial disgrace. These circumstances (and probably others which we’ll never know about) contributed to Sir Richard’s confused character later in life. Having said this, I do think that Sir Richard’s way of regarding the world was very typical of a man of his class and upbringing. He was a wealthy, titled man and brought up to rule. He believed in certain truths; that women were inherently inferior to men, that the lower orders were put on earth to serve and obey him, that as a land owner, the law and the government existed to protect his needs, not the needs of the man on the street. This was the reality of his world, and lest we fantasize too much of Mr. Darcy and his ilk, its useful to remember what sort of unsavory sets of assumptions he would have been raised with!

George Bisset and Lady Worsley didn’t take her husband’s retribution lying down. They both found a unique way to fight back, despite the damage to her reputation. How unusual were actions for the period?

The actions that Bisset’s lawyers took to defend him from Worsley’s charge of Crim Con were unprecedented. The line of defense which required Lady Worsley to renounce her character was completely radical and unorthodox. She would have had to have agreed to this beforehand. It was quite savvy, but there was no going back. She knew she’d never rehabilitate her reputation and so they went for the nuclear option! However, the mud slinging match that followed, where each party attempted to further destroy the other in the press was a well known practice between ‘warring factions’ in the eighteenth century, but its fair to say that due to public fascination with the Worsleys’ case, this was taken to new extremes.

We’ve become used to celebrities whining about the tabloids but the 18th century was really the beginning of the tabloid press. What role did they play in regards to the scandal?

The Crim Con trial of Worsley v. Bisset just happened to coincide (almost exactly) with the birth of the modern British newspaper. Instead of carrying just news announcements, shipping information and advertisements, Henry Bate Dudley, the founder of the Morning Post and the Morning Herald decided to include more entertaining features in his newspapers, such as sports reports, theatrical reviews and gossip columns. His newspapers were so successful that within months, all competing titles had to change their content in order to stay afloat. The race for stories and gossip to fill the daily pages was on, which is how the Worsleys’ scandal came to occupy so many column inches!

Lady Worsley had a particularly tough time of it after the separation. For a woman of her class, with very little money, and unable to be seen in polite society, she had very few choices.

Although Lady Worsley was completely ruined after her trial, she found herself in a rather strange situation. Certainly, no woman of reputation would be seen with her, including her own sister (Lady Harrington) or her mother (Lady Harewood). All of her respectable female acquaintances abandoned her, but this did not mean she was bereft of friends – in fact, she was able to keep all of her titled male acquaintances and move into an even higher social circle; that of the Prince of Wales. It was a situation peculiar to the late Georgian era that reputation was no bar to rising in society, and Lady Worsley just swapped one group of titled friends for another group of titled friends with naughty reputations! The Prince of Wales (who later became George IV) had a type of alternative court around him which was comprised of people his father despised; rakes, rou├ęs, courtesans and disgraced divorcees like Lady Worsley. However, things did become a bit trickier for her when she began to run out of money.

All three of your books deal with the 18th century, particularly the underbelly of the period. What is it about this time period that interests you?

I love the complexities, hypocrisies and contrasts of the eighteenth century. This was an era of rapid growth and rapid change, in terms of politics, institutions, belief systems, technology, science and the economy. Ultimately all of this had a profound impact on society and how people went about living their daily lives. At some points it feels as if eighteenth century society is about to come apart at its seams; old assumptions and ideas are doing battle with newer more progressive concepts that we associate with our modern world. Large numbers of people are moving to the urban centers, cities are growing faster than ever before, the law can’t figure out how to govern the swelling masses, while money becomes the only thing that protects individuals from exploitation. Many people, like Sir Richard Worsley just couldn’t come to terms with the breakdown of the old order. It’s an era of confusion and energy; the staid ‘classical’ and the unrestrained ‘romantic’. It’s often struck me as the western world’s adolescent phase.

What are you working on right now?

I’m turning my hand to historical fiction, but the details are going to have to remain a secret for the moment!

Thanks Hallie for taking the time to answer all my questions! If you leave a comment, you can win a copy of the UK paperback edition of Hallie's book, Lady Worsley's Whim.


Marg said…
Sounds like a fascinating topic to research, write about and then for us to read about! I've added the book to my TBR list!
Carrie K said…
Sounds like fascinating research! and thankfully a book too so that I can reap the rewards of your labor. ;) Lady Worsley sounds like she had quite the eventful life and it does sound as if she was bipolar. Does make life more interesting.
Rachel L. said…
It's interesting that just painting her in something red was enough to cast aspersions on her character... makes you think about how different things were then.
It's a fascinating book to read, particularly when you compare 18th century marriage to today. In some ways things have changed, and in others they have not. People still rip each other to shreds during a divorce.
Pam said…
Love scandal!

melacan at hotmail dot com
I'm intrigued. I'd like to read this book, but I'll probably have to wait until I'm on break from school.

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