Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hallie Rubenhold's "The Lady in Red"

Hallie Rubenhold was born in Los Angeles to a British father and an American mother. She is a young British art historian and writer whose first book, The Covent Garden Ladies, created a small sensation when it was published in the UK in 2005.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce, and reported the following:
‘Two young ladies are gone off – no, this is a wrong term for one of them, for she is just come to town and drives about London, for fear her adventure should be forgotten before it comes to the House of Lords, it is a Lady Worseley, sister of Lady Harrington.’

Curiously, few among these busybodies could claim to have personally spotted the runaways. Contrary to Walpole’s letter, Seymour and Bisset were not only careful to hide themselves but by early December, had fled London altogether, and retreated to Bisset’s house at Southampton. Within a matter of weeks the story had blown like a storm through London before heading southward through Hampshire and across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. Even in the countryside avoiding encounters with those ready to gawp and scorn was difficult. ‘Yesterday afternoon I was surprised at the appearance of Lady Worsley and her Gallant Mr. Bisset who were together at the Swan in this Town’, wrote one of the baronet’s neighbours from an Inn at Alresford, ‘They came on horseback and set out after dark for Farnham. I pity poor Sir Richard and hope he will never consent to live with such a damn’d bitch. She seemed very shy at seeing me but I did not take the least notice of her as I knew she had elop’d from her husband by a gentleman who brought the news from London’.

As his wife and her lover took shelter in Southampton, Worsley’s period of internment at John Hesse’s home continued. Unwilling to risk a similar chance-meeting with acquaintances, he did little more than stare through the windows, paralysed by his distress. The blow of his wife’s elopement and the ensuing anxiety of initiating legal proceedings had debilitated him entirely. His suit for a separation had been filed by the close of Saturday the 24th , a situation which enabled the baronet to resign himself to sleep that evening in the belief that his crisis had been contained. Regrettably, within a matter of hours misfortune would double back on him with another heavy strike.

As it always did on a Sunday, morning broke to a rising chorus of church bells. While the tolling echoes rolled through the capital’s narrow lanes and squares, a sea-worn frigate dropped anchor along the Thames. The ship had left the American colonies thirty-eight days earlier burdened with a weighty cargo. A letter was handed to a messenger who tore through the Sabbath streets with an urgent delivery. At mid-day, Lord North, the Prime Minister was handed the news: General Cornwallis had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown on the 19th of October. As suggested by the title of the tune played on that historic occasion, the world had turned upside down.

This is an interesting experiment, if not for the reader, than certainly for the author! If anything, the process sheds a light on the book’s quick pace and readability, which is something I was very mindful of while writing it.

The Lady in Red (or Lady Worsley’s Whim, as its known in the UK) was created as a very approachable, informative and highly entertaining work of historical non-fiction. The book focuses on one of the greatest scandals of the late 18th century; the divorce and criminal conversation trial of Sir Richard and Lady Worsley, a story which made headline news in its era, but which had been all but forgotten with time.

Under 18th century law, a husband could sue his wife’s lover for ‘criminal conversation’, or basically for soiling his property. The jury would hear the sordid details of ‘what the butler saw’ and then, in most cases, a sum would be decided upon and awarded to the injured husband. The salacious trials were heard in open court and therefore made great fodder for the gutter press.

Sir Richard Worsley’s case against George Bisset, with whom his wife ran off, looked like a fairly straight forward instance of adultery, but by the time the defence called their first witness, the entire courtroom was left in a state of shock. The tables were turned on Worsley quite dramatically…but you’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out what happened.

In fact, page 99 presents a good insight into the book’s dramatic flavour. The strange twists and turns in this story even managed to amaze me as I was researching it! As you can see on page 99, there’s even a connection with the events of American Independence, which, believe it or not, were very nearly altered as a result of Worsley’s criminal conversation trial in February 1782.
Read an excerpt from The Lady in Red, and learn more about the book and author at Hallie Rubenhold's website.

--Marshal Zeringue