'The Scandalous Lady W' - the Television Drama

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Lady Worsley will no more give up her pursuit of independence than will the American colonies.

A recreation of 18th Century England's greatest sex scandal, The Scandalous Lady W is a BBC television drama which tells the true story of Sir Richard and his wife Lady Seymour Worsley. First broadcast on BBC Two in August 2015 and repeated on Christmas Eve, it was inspired by Hallie Rubenhold's 2008 book Lady Worsley's Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce which was later republished and retitled to match. This marriage ended with elopement, poetry and divorce and was a shocking historical affair involving sex and scandal, voyeurism, prosecution and humiliation, brought to life in a period court drama.


In the closing decades of the 18th Century, not only is a man's wife his property, but property that could be assigned a financial value that depended on her virtue. In 1775, Sir Richard Worsley MP, Governor and Vice Admiral of the Isle of Wight and Colonel of the South Hampshire Militia, married Seymour Fleming, the titular 'Lady W' who was the wealthiest heiress in the country. Six years later, Lady W elopes with Captain Bisset to London, leaving her husband and four-month-old daughter Jane behind. Furious, the cuckolded Worsley sues Bisset for devaluing his wife through intercourse outside wedlock, demanding £20,000 in compensation for this crime known as Criminal Conversation. This huge sum, if granted, would ensure that Bisset would spend the rest of his life in a debtors' prison.

The court hears conclusive evidence proving beyond doubt that Bisset and Lady W had indeed committed adultery, with witnesses confirming that they had shockingly spent time posing as husband and wife naked in the same bed. The only way that Lady W can save her lover from a devastating judgement of the court is to reveal in intimate detail the real, scandalous story of her marriage to Worsley. Only by damning herself and proving that as a wife she has been so devalued that she cannot be worth £20,000 can Bisset be saved. This, though, will not only damage Worsley's reputation but destroy her completely.

Lady W therefore allows the Court of King's Bench to know the true story of her marriage. How though she had been determined to marry for love, she soon discovered that her husband was uninterested in sex, much to her own frustration. After months of living practically as brother and sister with the marriage remaining unconsummated, she reassured her husband she will fulfil his desires. At first he enjoyed spying on her through the keyhole as she undressed but soon this is no longer enough to satisfy him. He encouraged his friend Viscount Deerhurst to seduce her, and after being reluctantly persuaded to submit to this by being reminded of her wedding vow to obey him, her husband enjoys watching them 'playing rantum-scantum' from outside the bedroom by spying through the keyhole. Yet Deerhurst was just the first.

Soon it is revealed in court that Lady W had 27 lovers with her husband's encouragement and consent. Yet the more shamed and humiliated Worsley becomes as his private life is made public, the more he is determined not to grant her the divorce that she craves and the less attractive Bisset finds her as the full extent of her past is revealed. What will the verdict of the court be? How much is a woman who has had 27 lovers worth? Will Worsley ever grant her a divorce? Will Lady W be reunited with her daughter? Can she and Captain Bisset live happily ever after?


Seymour 'Lady W' WorsleyNatalie Dormer
Captain George BissetAneurin Barnard
Sir Richard WorsleyShaun Evans
Attorney-General James WallaceCraig Parkinson
Lord North, PMRichard McCabe
Viscount DeerhurstOliver Chris
Mr BearcroftWill Keen
Lord Chief Justice MansfieldDavid Calder
Mary SothebyJessica Gunning

Natalie Dormer is perhaps best known for playing Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (2007-10) and Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones (2012-16), with other appearances including playing Cressida in both parts of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014-15). Aneurin Barnard played the charmingly handsome Richard III in The White Queen (2013) and Cilla Black's boyfriend Bobby Willis in Cilla (2014). He also appeared in Sky's 2013 adaptation of Moonfleet, a programme that failed to film on the Isle of Wight despite a substantial part of the novel being set there. Shaun Evans is best known for playing a young Inspector Morse in Endeavour (2014+).


The Scandalous Lady W is a drama that constantly changes time period, with no way of knowing which year between 1775-1782 the next scene, and sometimes the current scene, is set in. The drama seems unsure of what it is. If this is supposed to be a love story, the audience is given no indication of why Lady W fell in love with either Richard Worsley or Captain Bisset. In a flashback scene set shortly after Lady W and Worsley meet, Lady W reveals that as the wealthiest heiress in the country she has had numerous suitors and wishes to marry for love, while Worsley states he wants to marry a wife who will do her duty. We know that they marry but the wedding is not shown, which seems odd considering the later emphasis placed on the vows both of them swore on their wedding day.

The drama was marketed as a bodice-ripper, yet it definitely is not one. Far from being a costume drama containing numerous sensuous sex scenes, it instead effectively has one sex scene endlessly recurring. Repetitive rather than raunchy, different partners keep climbing on the disinterested Lady W in an identical way while her husband watches outside. This clearly makes the point that she was not in love with the men she made love to, but the audience has little indication as to how Bisset was different to the other 26.

For a period piece, the events of the world outside the courtroom are tragically all-but completely ignored. The characters are seen wearing military uniforms, but no explanation is given as to why that might be. Prime Minister North is seen briefly and it is mentioned that Worsley is an MP with ambitions to become Prime Minister himself, however no indication of the political situation of the time is given. Events occur, but we are not shown on how things affect anyone outside the main three characters. All this seems to be wasted opportunities, and it makes it harder to care what happens for the main characters as no-one else appears to.

The drama delights in dropping in 18th Century sexual slang to give a period flavour. Phrases such as 'rantum-scantum', 'mutton-monger' and 'quim', once offensive words, are now accepted without comment by the BBC and BBFC. Yet only Worsley is taking any interest in the scenes set in the bedroom and the drama contains few scenes set outside it and the courtroom. The drama tries to make up for the lack of locations featured by constantly changing the time period instead, yet this leaves the audience befuddled about what is going on.

Making Of

The Scandalous Lady W was directed by Sheree Folkson and written by David Eldridge, based on Hallie Rubenhold's book Lady Worsley's Whim. The way the drama alternates between time periods was inspired by the films of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. David Eldridge had previously adapted the work of Henrik Ibsen, including A Doll's House, which shared an underlying theme of a woman leaving her husband and children. Many of Natalie Dormer's costumes were based on real clothes worn by Lady Seymour Worsley, particularly the martial riding outfit, based on her costume worn in a painting by Joshua Reynolds on display at Harewood House.

Natalie Dormer described her role with the words,

[It's incredible] in terms of women's rights, a woman was considered her husband's property and couldn't own or even inherit her own property until 1882 when the Married Woman's Act was passed. Most girls walking around on the street tweeting and ordering on their net-a-porter app have no idea how minute the time is that we have had equality.

However for writer Rubenhold, Worsley represents the old world and classicism, while his wife Lady W represents romanticism.

Sadly, although many of the events took place on the Isle of Wight, the drama completely failed to film there. Most notably, no filming took place at the Worsley's home of Appuldurcombe House1 on the Isle of Wight, with Palladian mansion Clandon Park in Surrey standing in as a poor substitute. Appuldurcombe House is an English Baroque Calendar House, and as such personifies Worsley's view of the world. The house had 52 rooms, 365 windows, seven staircases and 12 principle rooms to represent the number of weeks, days and months in a year, which represented Worsley's strong view that everyone had their place.

The fact that the house was built in English Baroque is important too. At that time, English Baroque was a Tory status symbol while Palladianism was associated with Whigs. Although the difference seems irrelevant now, at the time architectural styles were considered the ultimate reflection on who you were. So much so that when Whig Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham, built Wentworth Woodhouse as a Baroque stately home in the 1720s he was ostracised from Whig society until he built a huge new Palladian building in front, blocking the original from view. That accomplished, his son Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, twice became Whig Prime Minister (1765-6 & 1782).

Showing a Tory of the time as having a Palladian house is similar to portraying a gang of Hell's Angels or rockers riding Mods' mopeds, or making a film of the Hillsborough disaster in which all the Liverpool footballers and fans are seen wearing Everton shirts. Obviously two types of Georgian mansion appear at first glance to be as superficially similar as two different types of two-wheeled motorised vehicle or a red or blue football shirt. Yet the fundamental difference, though minor to us, was of the utmost importance then as it was an outward reflection of the owner's beliefs, world views and personal identity.

While Clandon Park's Marble Hall, Green Drawing Room, Hunting Room and Saloon were used to represent Appuldurcombe House, the Palladio Room was dressed as the hotel room that the eloping couple stay in. Tragically, shortly after filming finished Clandon Park's interior was destroyed by an act of God.

Producer Eleanor Greene described her interpretation of the story by saying,

Your sympathies should definitely lie with her, but we haven't painted him as an ogre or a baddy, because he wasn't. He really loved her, they really loved each other, and it didn't work out.

The Scandalous Lady W has been released on DVD and is rated 15 for containing sex and sex references. Despite this there is little nudity, with shifts, a type of nightwear, worn during most bedroom scenes.

The Truth

As The Scandalous Lady W is a biopic, the audience expects the events portrayed to be fundamentally true. As the drama was based on a true story the events are generally true, although changes have been made for dramatic purposes. There are the usual minor modifications made to try and compress six years into 90 minutes and round things up. For example, Lady W is said to have been worth £100,000 when perhaps £80,000 was more realistic, however this minor change in no way affects the story. In the drama Lady W only has one child, her four-month-old daughter Jane, while in real life she had a six-year-old son called Robert too. Yet as women who committed adultery had no legal right to see their children she never saw them again, largely as Worsley hoped to use them as means of persuading his wife to return to him. Sadly Lady W's daughter Jane died soon after the elopement and Robert predeceased both his parents, dying in 1795.

In the drama, Lady W and Bisset elope after Worsley is a drunken bore at a party, which helps the audience feel sympathy for Lady W. In fact they eloped after attending a party which Worsley did not attend as he was ill in bed. Their fleeing to London at 5am, leaving written instructions to Lady W's maid, Mary Sotheby to follow with her wardrobe and daughter, is however true. Similarly, Worsley discovering Lady W's absence is highly dramatized; he is portrayed as kicking down doors, bursting into rooms and searching everywhere for his wife before discovering she had fled with Bisset to London. In fact Worsley received two letters at 7am, one from Bisset and the letter from Lady W addressed to her maid giving instructions for her to take her belongings and daughter to London. As seeing someone ill groggily read a letter at 7am is less dramatic than that person angrily kicking down doors and shouting at everyone, this change is understandable.

One of the most remarkable moments in the drama during the trial is the testimony of a bathing woman2 from Maidstone. She states how she witnessed Worsley encouraging Bisset to watch Lady W as she bathed naked. This is taken as irrefutable proof that Worsley had encouraged the debasing and devaluing of his own wife and is an actual events. Worsley helping Bisset spy on his wife while she was naked inspired numerous satirical illustrations at the time.

The Characters

The Worsleys had been one of the most prominent families on the Isle of Wight since the Norman Conquest. Born in 1751, Sir Richard Worsley, the seventh Baronet Worsley, inherited Appuldurcombe House's wealthy 11,500 acre estate and was a man who believed strongly in order, that everything had its place. He unfortunately believed that the place for the poor was in the Isle of Wight's workhouse, which he founded in 1774 as the first workhouse built on a large, almost industrial scale. He was convinced that he had a duty to restore the influence of the Worsley family name back to the highest echelons of society but to reach the top he needed the money found in a wealthy marriage.

Born in 1757, Seymour was the second surviving daughter of Jane and Sir John Fleming, who died when she was six in 1763, leaving much of his wealth to his two surviving daughters. Seymour's mother then married elderly widower Edwin Lascelles, who owned Harewood House outside Leeds, where the portrait of her shown in the drama's end credits still hangs today. Richard's life revolved around politics, collecting antiques, writing his History of the Isle of Wight, fulfilling his political ambition and the strict order of a military life defending the realm, while Seymour flocked to the glamour of the social calendar.

In 1780 the Worsleys' new neighbour was 23-year-old George Maurice Bisset. His estate of Knighton Gorges was only four miles from Appuldurcombe. Worsley and Bisset soon became firm friends, with Worsley appointing Bisset to a captaincy in the South Hampshire Militia in early 1781. In the drama the character of Bisset has a strange habit of pronouncing his Isle of Wight home of Knighton as 'Newton'3.

Why is Everyone Wearing Uniforms?

In the drama all three main characters are frequently seen wearing red military uniforms. Bisset is called as a captain, so it makes sense for a military man to be in uniform, but Worsley is an MP and Lady W is a woman, so what is going on?

During the 1770s-80s, the time of the American War of Independence, much of Britain's army was abroad, but the Isle of Wight and south coast of England was threatened. In February 1778 France declared war on Britain with Spain following in 1779 and Holland in 17804 and closer to home, in 1780 the Gordon Riots swept through London. These events led to the creation of militia regiments of volunteer soldiers charged with defending the realm, with Worsley the Colonel of the local South Hampshire Militia. As Worsley's was friends with Bisset he gave him a captaincy in his militia. As it was fashionable at the time for society ladies to wear feminine versions of their husband's uniform, Lady W is seen wearing something similar.

Acting and Actuality

Lord North comes across as a respected elderly statesman with no cares in the world other than providing marriage guidance to his MPs, however the truth could hardly be more different. Lord North became not only the first Prime Minister but in fact the world's first leader to lose a Vote of No Confidence and resigned on 20 March, 1782.

Just as the drama implies, the trial's sex scandal did indeed catch the public imagination and was covered in immense details in newspapers, complete with cartoons. After the trial ended the trial's transcript was published in London and became an international best-seller, with even George Washington owning a copy5.

In the drama, Doctor Osborn is one of Lady W's key witnesses. As her doctor, he is shown as having intimate medical knowledge of her and clearly states that Lady W had caught Venereal Disease while Worsley was entirely unafflicted by the disorder, proving beyond doubt they could not have had marital relations and that therefore Lady W's daughter was illegitimate. In fact, this is has been substantially dramatically changed. Although Dr Osborn was indeed her physician and, under instruction from Lady W to do so, gave evidence at her trial that strongly suggested she had had Veneral Disease, at the time it was almost unthinkable for a doctor to actually physically examine a well-bred patient as that would be a breach of decency and decorum. Instead the patient would sensitively describe their symptoms and the doctor would act accordingly. As Dr Osborn did not wish to damage his own reputation, he was a more reluctant witness than the drama portrays.

The drama also shows the publication of a poem by Lady W. This too actually happened, with An Epistle from Lady W-y to Sir R-d W-y, published in 1782, an erotic poem that was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day. Although the drama portrays Lady W as personally being a talented poet, Rubenhold instead says it was written by 'a talented scribe'. Though Lady W probably hired a professional ghostwriter, the poem expresses her own thoughts and feelings. Society was outraged by its content of 16 pages of scandalously sexual rhyming couplets that attempted to justify the actions of a woman who left her husband and children, yet it sold outrageously well. Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the dictionary, described it with the words, it is without exception the best written poem that has made its appearance these many years..

The drama implies that shortly after the trial, Worsley granted his wife a divorce. In fact the divorce terms were finally settled over six years later in 1788, and as is shown Lady W agreed to Worsley's terms that she 'absent herself and withdraw herself from the Kingdom of Great Britain for the space of four years'. What isn't made clear is that a Suit of Separation from Bed and Board divorce prevented either party from marrying while the other still lived. Like most biopics, the drama ends with 'what happened next' text. This states,

When Richard died Seymour reclaimed what remained of her dowry and her maiden name, Fleming. She married again, a musician twenty one years her junior, but she didn't take his name. He took hers. Her portrait hangs to this day in Harewood House, Yorkshire.

This is indeed true. George Bisset left Lady W for a younger woman and Richard Worsley died on 5 August, 1805. A year after Lady W moved to France, revolution broke out leaving her trapped during the Reign of Terror. She survived and returned to England in 1797. After Worsley died, she married Frenchman Jean Louis Hummell, who as the end text states changed his name to John Lewis Fleming, taking her maiden name. They returned to France in 1816 where she died on 9 September, 1818 at the age of 61, and is buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Yet it seems strange that a drama that emphasises at the end that Lady W reclaimed her maiden name, keeping it even after she married again, is titled The Scandalous Lady W. This essentially takes her maiden name back off her after she had gone through so much to earn its restoration.

Views of the Reviews

Some reviews compared this true story with the fictional work of Jane Austen, who was five at the time of the trial. Needless to say the drama is not so much Pride and Prejudice as Sensation and Several Sexual Partners.

Author Hallie Rubenhold, on whose research the drama is based, was not uncritical of the reaction to the drama in which the lives of quite complex people have been judged by today's standards and had 21st Century labels attached. Her own Review is well worth reading6. She particularly criticised the media's labelling of Lady W as a 'feminist' purely because she was a strong-willed, determined woman and in the 21st Century it is all-but inconceivable for a strong-willed, determined woman not to be a feminist. Although the drama includes statements in which she says such as 'I will belong to no man', despite what other reviews have suggested, it does not really contain a feminist message; it does not even pass the Bechdel test. Lady W was out for revenge against her husband and interested in her own personal liberty, not the liberty of women in general. Similarly some have speculated that the reason why Worsley enjoyed watching other men with his wife may have been because he had homosexual desires and no other means of expressing them in an unforgiving world, however this again is speculation impossible to confirm.

1Appuldurcombe House was where mankind fought a decisive battle against Triffids according to John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids.2Her job was to wash the women who visited3The hamlet of Knighton is pronounced 'Kay-night-un' to avoid confusion with the village of Niton, pronounced 'night-un'. The 'town' of Newtown obviously is pronounced 'New-town'.4This was a major blow to Lord North's government. As King Louis XV of France had ignored Spain's pleas to ally during the 1770 Falklands Crisis, North had wrongly assumed that France would not become involved with the war in America. This mistake endangered the country when in 1779 a vast French-Spanish Armada set sail with 40,000 men intending the capture of the Isle of Wight, only to be defeated by internal conflict, lack of communication and sickness. For the next three years the Spanish army intended to invade Britain as soon as it had captured Gibraltar, however despite being besieged between 1779-1783, Gibraltar stayed British.5How many cherry trees he had to cut down after reading the steamier sections sadly is not recorded.6Rubenhold naturally concludes that she hopes the drama will encourage those who were interested in the story to read her book. This is a highly rewarding read once you get passed the overly melodramatic introduction.

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