The period drama genre is packed full of stories of women in oppressive noble marriages finding escape through illicit affairs – some of the best include Marie Antoinette, A Royal Affair, and The Duchess – but The Scandalous Lady W breaks the mould. Natalie Dormer and Aneurin Barnard, playing the eloping Lady Seymour Worsley and Captain Maurice George Bisset, are no strangers to historical dramas, having appeared in The Tudors and The White Queen respectively. However, The Scandalous Lady W differs from other similar series’ in the respect that the actual romance is barely touched upon and is already an established fact at the beginning of the hour-and-a-half long programme’s events. Hence, this mini-film focuses on something far less romantic than usual, but rather on something much more real: the inevitable consequences of the extra-marital ‘rantum scantum’ arrangement between Seymour and Richard Worsley laid bare in court for all to hear.
In late eighteenth-century England, Seymour Fleming, perhaps the most eligible heiress in the country, meets Richard Worsley at party, and the two appear to click right away. They marry and appear happy until it becomes clear that Richard can only be pleased in the bedroom if he is able to watch his wife through the keyhole of their bedchamber. This starts with him asking her to undress herself but eventually graduates to him farming her out to his noble friends so that he can act as voyeur, despite Seymour’s initial disagreement. This seems to go on for some time (illustrated by back-to-back sex scenes) before Richard chooses George Bisset, their new neighbour, to be Seymour’s next lover. Seymour and Bisset continue their affair behind Richard’s back, conceiving a child together and living like ‘moderns’ in some form of ménage-á-trois. Things are all plain sailing until Seymour begins to insist (to Bisset’s complete nonchalance) that the pair elope and marry, leading to a failed attempt to run away together which therefore results in Richard determining to bring charges against Bisset, claiming £20,000 compensation for “the damage he has caused to my rightful property.” To save Bisset from paying a sum he does not have, Seymour plots to turn the events to her favour by bringing each of her lovers to testify, proving that Richard had knowledge of her affairs and that she is not worth £20,000 as she was already ‘damaged property’. Succeeding in this, Seymour proceeds to spend plenty of money in Richard’s name until eventually he concedes and allows her a divorce, on the condition that she leave for France immediately. She agrees, but not before telling him “I loved you, and I obeyed you, but you never cherished me.”
It is clear to see why the BBC would choose to dramatise this story. Seymour is a woman living in a man’s world; she is unable to take the stand to defend her own honour and her 27 lovers are only able to give evidence because they know that their own reputations will not be damaged by the revelations. She is undoubtedly a fascinating character, a proto-feminist in her open derision for her status as property and her ability to use this to her advantage in court, but also shockingly naïve in her belief that she will just be allowed to get away with it and to escape with her infant daughter. It is perhaps to the show’s credit that she is not whitewashed entirely and that her recklessness ultimately results in the loss of her child.
Other characters are much less well fleshed-out. As a result of their relationship being condensed to only a few short scenes, George Bisset’s character feels underdeveloped to the point that his walking out on Seymour in the last ten minutes does not really come with any emotional pay-off. Perhaps this is because, as mentioned, the usual format for this sort of show would be focused on the love affair itself and with The Scandalous Lady W, it is certainly the case that in compromising Bisset’s character, Seymour is given much more agency.
Overall, The Scandalous Lady W dramatizes a fascinating and unique historical case with style, though there is a danger that it leaves the viewer wanting more. Luckily we can console ourselves with the book that the programme was based off: Hallie Rubenhold’s Lady Worsley’s Whim. As a stand-alone the show works, though it might have worked better had it been longer, giving us more time to grow attached to Seymour or to care more for her relationship with Bisset and thus making for a more satisfying ending – though in saying this I am perhaps being too heavily influenced by the expectations of the period romance. If anything, The Scandalous Lady W says exactly the opposite; perhaps the most poignant line of the entire programme is when Seymour says: “While it is my misfortune to live in an age of men, I will never belong to any man ever again.”