Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Cuckold's Reel by Hallie Rubenhold


The only potential turncoat in Sir Richard's army of captive accomplices was Mary Sotheby. His wife's letter, imploring her servant to come to London had never been delivered to Mary's hands, but undoubtedly the maid was simmering with anxiety, anticipating a command from her mistress. Of all the servants under the Worsley's roof, no one would have been more distressed by the events of that morning than Mary Sotheby. Her concerns were not simply mercenary ones, that Seymour's absence would inevitably signal the termination of her position, but genuine worry for the welfare of her lady. It was her responsibility to follow her mistress, to forecast her needs, to soothe her bodily discomforts, to dress her, to bath her, and to coddle her emotionally should she require it. The complexities of woman's attire and the strictures of a genteel upbringing meant that a lady of privilege was virtually helpless without the assistance of her servant's hands. Their relationship was a complicated one; and association of dependency based on mutual trust, subordination, friendship , and sometimes unwavering fidelity and love. As it was Mary Sotheby's occupation to observe her mistress's person completely, she would have been privy to her most intimate secrets: the individuals with who she corresponded, her private conversations, even the state of her naked body and undergarments. The bond that was forged between a maid and her mistress was often intense. Acts of disloyalty and disobedience could be taken as devastating betrayals.

Mary would have known that Lady Worsley urgently required her presence. With no clothing but the functional brown riding habit in which she had absconded, without so much as a change of linen or stockings, without her jewels, her pomades or powders and without Mary's fingers to assist her, Seymour would be as vulnerable as a motherless child. She would be forced to rely on the housemaids wherever she resided, with their catty tongues and thieves pockets. Without her baby, bereft of clothing and parted from her lady's maid, both Mary and Sir Richard knew, Lady Worsley would grow increasingly desperate. So it was to Mary that he turned before his departure. He addressed her with sternness, impressing upon her the importance of her duties to him, the master, rather than to her wayward mistress. In was the husband, not the wife, who paid her wages. Then, into her care he placed 'Lady Worsley's cloaths and jewels... with a strict charge not to let her ladyship have any of these in his absence'. He knew that Mary Sotheby's heart would be burdened and her resolve slippery so Godfrey the butler was set to watch her closely.

As predicted, the first test of her will came shortly after Sir Richard's post-chaise had started for the capital. Out of the dust from his wheels came Joseph Connolly who had been lying in wait, anticipating that Worsley's departure would unfasten the loyalty of his household. Like Lady Worley's distress for her maid, Bissett would be feeling the absence of his valet; his first line of defense against an irritating world of shopkeepers and creditors who required payment, of affairs that needed arranging and items that demanded tending. Connolly felt the same devotion as Mary Sotheby. He had done as the captain had instructed him and hired a post-chaise which he now had ready to ferry him and Mary to London. As he had received no response to his message, he returned with trepidation to the Worsley's doorstep and asked for Mary Sotheby. 'It was Lady Worsley's orders that you should immediately pack up her Ladyship's cloaths as well as your own and prepare to follow on to London with me,' Connolly told her, and the explained 'that he had stayed behind to accompany her'. Godfrey stood over her, watching. Mary responded with emphatic regret that she could not perform 'her duty to her lady. As the butler looked on she told Connolly with firmness 'that she was sorry but she could not comply with her ladyship's order', and the Worsleys' door was shut.


  1. In her time of crisis, Lady Worsley's considerable wardrobe along with her collection of jewelry was the most precious asset she owned. For a woman of Seymour's position, wealth was worn. A lady arrayed herself in the latest fabrics and flounces not merely for the sake of fashion but to demonstrate her social status. The nuances of dress, the breadth and variation of wardrobe, the quality of silk and lace were important indicators of rank. Shabby clothing merited suspicion, disdain or indifference, tawdry overblown attire indicated a lack of breeding, as did dressing inappropriately for specific occasions. Lady Worsley's single suit of clothing, her fashionable but functional brown riding habit, would be wholly inadequate for her needs. Even if she had wanted to flout the rules of convention and appear defiantly in public on her lover's arm, she was ill-equipped to do so. Her state of distress would be apparent from her increasingly worn skirt and jacket and the falling plumes of her once jaunty hat. Without her billowing sacque dresses, ribboned stomachers and twinkling buckles, she was incapable of making triumphant appearances. Sir Richard had not lost control of his wife entirely so long as he held fast to her petticoats.

  2. However, the baronet had other reasons for withholding Lady Wosley's belongings. He did so not merely for reasons of manipulation but out of principle. Worsley understood the value of his wife's wardrobe in financial terms. Of her marriage portion, L3,000 had been coverted into the linen and lace of her trousseau, with further acquisitions made in the years following her wedding. Seymour herself admitted that since 1775 she had 'expended various considerable sums in the purchase of other wearing apparel and ornaments'. An inventory of her clothing listed among her holdings more than twenty-four gowns in a variety of styles made from muslin, chintz, silk, satin, calico and tabby, in lilac, white, green, bearing stripes, embroidery, beads and ruffles. The crowning glories of her collection were two exceptionally expensive 'suits of point lace with a considerable quantity of other valuable lace, probably purchased for wear at court. In addition to this she possessed endless pairs of gloves in grey and yellow leathers, boxes of feathers and paper flowers for decorating hats, an assortment of petticoats, tippets, muffs, aprons, cloaks, twelve riding waistcoats, and nine riding hats. This comprised only a fraction of the smaller pieces of attire which she could put on in order to change an outfit's appearance. In just over six years of marriage, the additions Lady Worsley had made to her wardrobe ha increased its value from L3,000 to between L4,000 and L5,000, according to her lawyers estimate. When combined with the contents of her jewelry box, believed to be worth L7,000 alone, the total value of her 'wearing apparel' might be calculated at roughly L12,000, the equivalent of L15.2 million today.

    In Sir Richard's eyes, this tremendous assets belonged to him... he had paid for the majority of it. He also recognized the collection's practical value to the person who held it. Jewelry and expensive clothing could be exchanged for ready cash. If he were to relinquish these items Lady Worsley would have a source of funds at her disposal. She could wriggle free from hardship or purchase ammunition to deploy against him. Money could buy attorneys and bribes, it could silence those eager to spill secrets and encourage timid critics to speak out, It could grease the cogs of the printing presses and construct lawsuits. The baronet knew it would be foolish to part with this armoury and guarded it jealously.

  3. "The Lady in Red; An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce." by Hallie Rubenhold; St. Martin's Press; 2008

    A self-professed 'expert brachygrapher' studiously recorded in shorthand the detailed transactions of the subsequent trial which appeared in the shops of London booksellers within 48 hours of its conclusion: "The Trial with the Whole of the Evidence between the Right Hon. Sir Richard Worsley, Bart. and George Maurice Bisset, Esq, Defendent, for Criminal Conversation with the Plaintiff's Wife", ironically priced at one shilling which, due to exceptionally curious circumstances, was all that the jury finally awarded Sir Richard in damages. In 1782 alone this book ran to at least eight editions. By 1783 copies could even be purchased in the newly formed United States of America. Sir Richard's disgrace had nearly caused the fall of Lord North's government (which ended the American war) a week early. In addition to 'a pair of handsome and fashionable spurrs and 10 pounds of the best hair powder' General George Washington listed among his requested supplies for the week of May 15th and edition of "The Trial between Sir Richard Worsley and Maurice Bissett."