Seymour: A Woman of Spirit, and Friends

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Lady Worsley’s Whim 2008 by Hallie Rubenhold is an excellently researched and written account of a real-life  Georgian sex scandle. ‘To have Criminal Conversation with’ is an 18th century euphemism for adultery and the 1782 Crim Con trial involving George Bisset, his lover Lady Seymour Worsley and her husband Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet Worsley of Appuldercombe is an exquisit example of exactly why any lengths would be gone to to avoid public scandal in Georgian Britain.

Lady Worsley herself courted scandal after her seperation from her husband and I’m so glad she did, for otherwise we wouldn’t have the contemporary news and gossip reports of Seymour’s activities, whether they occured in the courts or behind doors that appear to have never been closed, so skillfully presented by Hallie Rubenhold.

Francis Wilson, author of The Courtesan’s Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King 2003, gives an enthusiastic review and superb synopsis in Literary Review:

“Because the market is saturated with eighteenth-century bodice biographies, most indistinguishable from the next, Lady Worsley’s Whim should come with a warning: nothing else in the genre is close to being this good. As a historian and a storyteller, Hallie Rubenhold is in a league of her own.”

Lady Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1776

Lady Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1776

Sir Richard Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1775

Sir Richard Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1775

Speaking of Francis Wilson, her biography of Harriette Wilson (no relation) is also extremely good. Destitute and past her prime as a courtesan, Harriette caused a sensation in 1825 when she published her memoirs in salacious weekly tidbits. Rather cleverly, she would name drop a famed punter at the end of each edition, and if the client didn’t pay up during the week following, details of his encounters with the courtesan would then be laid out in print for the ravenous public in the next installment. Her former associates had included the Duke of Wellington, George Canning and Lord Palmerston (to name just the prime ministers). Francis Wilson’s research is impecable and her style is academic and highly readable:

Frances Wilson’s biography of the famous Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson also opens with a composition in light and dark, this time a landscape rather than a body. From Virginia Woolf’s review of Harriette’s Memoirs, she borrows the image of a continent divided by a sword’s shadow. One side is bright and orderly: the world of decent society, through which a respectable woman walks as if on a path through Kew Gardens. The other is a glowering, tumbled wilderness of precipices and ruins. A man can traverse the whole continent at will, stepping from gloom to sunlight and back – but any woman who once crosses the shadow of the sword can never return to the light.

This crepuscular, divided world, the demi-monde of “High Impures” and their clients, forms the setting for both books. The Courtesan’s Revenge focuses on one extraordinary woman, a boyish livewire better remembered for an act of audacious literary blackmail than for her original profession. With her career in decline, Harriette Wilson threw London into mingled panic and delight in 1825 by publishing her Memoirs – as a serial, each instalment containing a list of eminent names which would feature in the next episode if their owners did not pay to have them removed.

– From Sarah Bakewell’s review in The Independent 30 August 2003

Facsimile of a portrait of Harriette Wilson, from the 1909 edition of her memoirs published by Eveleigh Nash, London


Another very high quality biography of a fascinating Georgian character is Lorna Gibb’s book about Lady Hester Stanhope, the aristocratic niece of long serving Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Lady Hester: Queen of the East 2005 chronicles Hester’s privileged young life, her dazzling career as a Tory hostess and extraordinary later life as a great traveler through Arabia and a figure of great authority in her adopted home of Joun, Lebanon.

“Lorna Gibb’s biography is an elegant, scholarly production, all the notes and sources are present and correct. There are some useful condensed passages of explanation concerning unfamiliar sects and customs, such as the religious practices of the Druze, the people to whom Hester offered help and protection. Gibb has a talent for vivid, detailed descriptions of places and climates. Hester was a gardener, and the descriptions of the gardens she made, both in England and in her last home in the mountains of Lebanon are among the treasures of this book.”

– From Patricia Duncker’s review in The Independent 1 May 2005

The portraits in this post are housed at Harwood House © the Earl and Countess of Harewood and Trustees of the Harewood House Trust

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