Lady Worsley: the real woman behind the sex scandal

The Scandalous Lady W tells the story of an abused aristocrat who became a feminist warrior

Scandalous Lady W
(Image credit: BBC)

Flamboyant 18th-century aristocrat Lady Worsley is the subject of a new BBC film, The Scandalous Lady W, and was said to be the inspiration for Sheridan's play School for Scandal and a painting by Joshua Reynolds, but what do we really know about the real life woman?

The Scandalous Lady W, which first aired on Monday night on BBC2, is a 90-minute drama adapted by playwright David Eldridge from historian Hallie Rubenhold's book. It stars Natalie Dormer (of Game of Thrones and The Tudors fame) as Seymour Dorothy Fleming, a noblewoman who made an ill-suited marriage to Sir Richard Worsley and subsequently became notorious for her involvement in a separation scandal.

Rubenhold's book drew on historical records and court documents from the Lambeth Palace archives, which set out the bare bones of her life.

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Before she was married, Seymour Fleming was a wealthy heiress, worth between £77,000 to £100,000, an astronomical sum in her time. She pursued Sir Richard Worsley, who, with his title, property and political aspirations, seemed promising husband material. They were said to have been married "for love and £80,000", the Radio Times suggests.Having been wed at 17, Seymour took the title of Lady Worsley, and the couple had one legitimate child, a son, who died young. Lady Worsley had a second child, a daughter fathered by her lover Maurice George Bisset, but Sir Richard claimed her as his own to avoid scandal.The young Lady Worsley had soon discovered that Sir Richard was a voyeur, who preferred to watch his wife having sex with other men than having sex with her himself. Seymour was rumoured to have had 27 lovers, but Bisset, who was once Worsley's best friend, proved to be her downfall.Unable to cope with her husband's demands, Seymour eloped with Bisset, and an enraged Worsley decided to sue the couple for £20,000 in damages, hoping to ruin them both.Seymour, however, decided to contest the case, and the ensuing court battle brought the couple's private arrangements into public, prompting one of the 18th century's greatest sex scandals.To save Bisset from ruin, Lady Worsley decided to expose all the sordid secrets of her marriage and challenge her legal status as her husband's property. The jury must have been sympathetic because, despite finding in favour of her husband, they awarded him just one shilling in damages.

The couple had no choice but to remain married until Sir Richard's death in 1805. It was only then that Seymour was able to claim back what remained of her fortune. She reverted to her maiden name of Fleming, and at the age of 47 married again, this time to a man 21 years her junior.

What did the critics say?

The Guardian's Sam Wollaston praises "two fabulous performances" from Natalie Dormer as Lady W ("Girl Power in a red riding habit") and from Shaun Evans as Sir Richard ("aristocratic repression and perversion personified") in what he describes as a "stylish, spunky, fun-filled drama".

James Rampton at The Independent hails Dormer's "bravura" performance, and says "you can't watch The Scandalous Lady W without inwardly shouting, 'You go, girlfriend!'" The drama works so well because the story doesn't feel "shut away in some remote, stuffy and intangible past", says Rampton. "Rather, it bursts into our living rooms and grabs us by the lapels, urging us to think about its contemporary resonances."

Gabriel Tate at The Times also applauds Dormer's "terrific" performance, but says the drama as a whole "underwhelmed", offering a "cliche of female emancipation when greater insights and complexity beckoned".

He adds: "The postscript brought further frustration: Seymour, it seems, married a musician 21 years her junior, who took her name. This, if anything, felt even more startling and anachronistic, but presumably lacked the requisite rantum scantum. Sex sells, in drama as in life."

The Scandalous Lady W is available on BBC iPlayer until 16 September

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