Read The Lady In Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale Of Sex, Scandal, And Divorce Online

Authors: Hallie Rubenhold

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The Lady In Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale Of Sex, Scandal, And Divorce (5 page)

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When exactly during that autumn the friendship between George Bisset and Sir Richard Worsley’s wife ignited into a love affair is unknown. The upheaval of the election period, though it lasted only a fortnight on the Isle of Wight, served both as a screen and a bellows to their simmering relationship. Having pledged his support to Worsley, Bisset was firmly affixed to the baronet’s train. In the ever-watchful eyes of the island’s residents he had rendered himself ‘a very intimate friend and acquaintance of the family’. With the baronet’s mind engaged in politicking, much of what passed between Seymour and Bisset would have gone unnoticed. At the time, what Sir Richard failed to recognise was that Lady Worsley was besotted: ‘Love alone engrossed all her powers,’ states one account. In September 1780, while the baronet and his associates were slipping banknotes into electors’ coat pockets, his wife was initiating his neighbour ‘into the arcana of love, in which science’, it was said, ‘he was not only an apt scholar, but soon became a thorough adept’.
On the 11th of September 1780 Sir Richard, who had faced no real challenge from his opponent John St John, found himself re-elected as the member for Newport. For his assistance, the baronet wished to compensate the gentleman who had lately become so indispensable to him as a supporter and as a valued confidant. In return for permitting him to use his burgage tenement, the baronet offered George Bisset a captain’s commission in the South Hampshire Militia, when a vacancy arose. As commander, Worsley may have been given an indication that Captain Charles Abbott was about to resign his place in the New Year. This he did on the 3rd of March 1781, and the deeds replacing him with Captain George Bisset were sealed on the 23rd.
Sir Richard’s grant of a commission was not merely a gesture of gratitude but was designed to pull Bisset more deeply into his life. In 1780 the country was in a state of high alert. It was anticipated that the war with France currently being waged in America would transfer itself to the coastlines of Britain. In response, the government had raised further funds to expand the militias. For the baronet the coming year would present another cycle of troop movements and dull encampments in muddy fields. The prospect of having a friend at his side would have cheered Worsley considerably. Undoubtedly, Bisset too had reason to welcome these developments. Where Sir Richard would be, there his wife was likely to follow. This was a useful arrangement for a couple who had illicitly fallen in love. Particularly now that Lady Worsley was carrying his child.
A Coxheath Summer
In April 1775, five months before Sir Richard and Lady Worsley stood before the altar at Harewood, settlers in the American colony of Massachusetts had gathered on the village green at Lexington and raised their rifles to a troop of British soldiers. This first volley of bullets was the opening round of the American War of Independence, a conflict which was to have enormous repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. For the next three years, King George’s armies would be engaged in a struggle to put down a colonial rebellion. The intention had never been to trounce their cousins overseas but rather to give the misguided minutemen a bloodied nose and a warning to step back into line. However, by 1778 what seemed to be a manageable family dispute between a mother country and her impertinent daughter assumed the shape of an international war when Britain’s neighbour, France, stepped into the quarrel. In February of that year, ships filled with ammunition, cannons and blue-coated French soldiers set sail in aid of the American colonies. Like storm clouds, rumours quickly gathered that Louis XVI’s forces also had their spyglasses fixed on the shores of England and were mustering in Normandy and Brittany for an invasion. Suddenly a nation that once had only a passing concern about the distant events of Bunker Hill and Saratoga, sprang to attention at the possibility of a French attack at home. Parliament ordered immediate fortification of the south coast of England and re-embodied the local militias which had been disbanded since 1762.
That summer of 1778, from June until the beginning of November, a
network of Kentish fields outside Maidstone became the site of one of the eighteenth century’s most impressive military spectacles: 15,000 militia troops had pitched their tents in an encampment that spread for nearly three miles along the pasture grounds of Coxheath. Sir Richard Worsley’s South Hampshire Militia had been marched from Southampton, via the Earl of Egremont’s estate at Petworth in order to be among them. Their garrison formed part of what was described as ‘a miniature city’, serviced by local tailors, purveyors and merchants who had closed their shops in the nearby towns to peddle their wares beneath the canopied arches. Surrounded by drilling grounds and makeshift stables, the officers erected their marquees in elaborate compounds comprised of ‘sleeping quarters, entertaining rooms, kitchens and servants’ halls’. Like the campaign tents of Roman generals, these lodgings were fully staffed and decorated with rugs, silver and furniture brought from home by their wives, who, breaking with tradition, insisted on accompanying their husbands on this patriotic excursion into the field.
The excitement and pageantry of Coxheath enthralled camp dwellers and spectators alike. Morton Pitt, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Dorsetshire Militia wrote to Lord Herbert to describe the marvel of their encampment, sprawled ‘on a ridge of a hill between two beautiful valleys’, on which they exercised ‘every day and in Brigade generally twice a week’. The Duchess of Devonshire, who had joined her husband at Coxheath, also enthused over the spectacle, writing with childlike excitement about waking early to watch the drills and witnessing the Duke’s face ‘smart with gunpowder’. The rows of soldiers in red uniform and a collection of ‘very handsome’ young captains impressed her equally. This exhibition of military might–the fiery blasts of the cannons, the officers galloping on horseback, the parading and bayonet wielding–offered the assembled not only a visual extravaganza but a sense of comfort that Britain was adequately prepared to face the French threat. The scene drew hordes of day trippers to the hills of Kent. Daily, a ‘cavalcade of coaches, chaises, wagons, carts, horses’ and pedestrians which ‘seemed to extend for two miles’ filled the surrounding area. One observer wrote in October that ‘almost all of Sarum [Salisbury] and its neighbourhood sallied forth’ to watch ‘the grand review’ of the troops by Lord Amherst, the commander-in-chief.
By late summer the country had gone Coxheath mad. The newspapers began ‘camp intelligence’ columns allowing their readers to keep abreast of developments and gossip. A novel entitled
Coxheath Camp
appeared at booksellers’ stands and on the 15th of October Sheridan premiered his new play
The Camp
at Drury Lane; an unmitigated success, it ran for fifty-seven performances.
Beyond its obvious draw, what made Coxheath such a source of fascination was the congregation of fashionable society, who had so publicly struck camp there. The fields had become a temporary home for the
and a showcase for their lifestyle. The Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Clermont, Lady Melbourne, Lady Jersey and Mrs Crewe were only a handful of the glamorous women who could be seen striding across the parade grounds. While not a part of the inner circle, Lady Worsley was included in their socialising. The Duchess of Devonshire, her brother Lord George Spencer, Lady Cranbourne and the notorious libertine Lord Cholmondeley were among those who called on her at Sir Richard’s tent, which the Duchess described as being ‘a very fine one’. With its round of social calls and parties, life continued much as it would have in London or Bath but against an entirely novel backdrop. Whereas women like Lady Cranbourne would have otherwise hosted suppers and card games at her town house, at Coxheath she ‘opened her tents to whist and cribbage’ instead. Prior to the summer of 1778 it had been virtually unknown for officers’ wives to be present in the field or to involve themselves actively in the affairs of camp life. However, for many this was an opportunity to fly the banner of patriotism. The Duchess of Devonshire and Lady George Sutton (whose spouse headed the Nottinghamshire Militia) invented a female version of their husbands’ militia uniforms, adapting the regimental coat into a modish riding habit with a trim, practical skirt. The other wives immediately followed suit and by July the
Morning Post
was reporting that ‘Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire appears every day at the head of the beauteous Amazons on Coxheath, who are all dressed
en militaire
; in the regimentals that distinguish the several regiments in which their Lords, etc. serve, and charms every beholder with their beauty and affability.’ Not to be outdone, Lady Worsley marched beside them, sporting the red coat and dark blue lapels trimmed with silver frogging that identified the South Hampshire Militia.
Among the coachloads of spectators who visited Coxheath in 1778 was the portraitist, Joshua Reynolds. It is more than likely that while there he met his friend Sir Richard Worsley and caught a glimpse of his wife in her striking red regimental riding habit. The following year, the painter chose to depict her as she appeared on the bright, summer-lit fields of Coxheath, strident and confident. The decision to portray Lady Worsley attired like her
husband in his portrait of 1775 was an obvious one, as the images were designed to complement one another. The commission undertaken in June 1779 was to replace the portrait of Seymour intended for Harewood which had instead been given to Sir Richard at the time of their marriage.
As a society portraitist, Reynolds was an exceptionally astute judge of character. The clothing that his subject wears in her picture is as much a reflection of her person as of a specific period in history. The nation was still heated with patriotic fervour when Lady Worsley came to his studio for her sittings in early June, 1779. ‘In London one sees nothing but red coats, cockades and recruiting parties,’ wrote Morton Pitt of the milieu. ‘This country now appears quite military.’ Accordingly, Reynolds desired to create a thoroughly contemporary image of a Coxheath ‘Amazon’, a woman whose uniform distinguished her as a member of the fashionable set, one who pursued her life with the carefree flamboyance adopted by that circle. With a hand on her hip and her gaze directed to the side, she surveys her world with an alert self-assuredness. The masculinity of her dress serves as an alluring counterpoint to her feminine features. White satin-shod feet decorated with ribbons peep from beneath her plain wool skirt. Kid-leather stretches provocatively over the delicate ridges of her hand and a flounce of black feathers sits atop a jaunty rendition of a military beaver hat. At twenty-one the beginnings of a double chin are noticeable above the lace at her throat, while the creaminess of her skin and ruddiness of her lips speaks of a young woman in the blossom of health. Reynolds could never resist the use of iconography, and into Lady Worsley’s hand he has placed a riding crop; an allusion to her skill as a horsewoman. When exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer show in 1780, it was this image more than any other that epitomised the stylish woman of the
and the current guise that such personalities had assumed as proud and commanding lady-warriors. Equally, it offered a nod to the prevailing patriotic spirit that had inspired them.
What escaped Reynolds’s brushes was the tone of dissipation that ladies dressed
en militaire
came to represent. As the hot summer at Coxheath blazed on, the enthusiasm for the maintenance of decorum wore thin. As Gibbon had observed, the militia environment tended to engender the worst of male excesses: drunken revelry and whoring compounded by a lack of manners and conversation. In the company of ladies, these boorish tendencies were tempered at first but finally the pretences of politeness were dropped. ‘Our minds have degenerated into infancy,’ the Duchess of Devonshire wrote. ‘In the beginning
of the summer our evenings were passed in conversation and singing of fine songs, we then got by degrees to Macao, cribbage, whist and catches, and now we are come to the point of diverting ourselves with
“Laugh and lay down”
“I’m come a lusty wooer, my dildin, my doldin, I’m come a lusty wooer, lilly bright and shinee”
, and ditties of that sort’. The drinking, pranks and parties raged on through the autumn, presumably worsened by the eventual decampment of the women to rented houses in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. Irresponsibility led to accidents; one night of celebrations turned into disaster when carelessness caused a conflagration in a stable block and the loss of six horses. Mrs Greville was also nearly set alight by a giddy Georgiana Cavendish, who like Lady Worsley had found the ‘flaming trick’ of burning militia banners with red hot pokers an amusing pastime.
The routine at Coxheath had grown boring and the men were becoming indolent. While their fellow officers in America were facing down the Continental Army at the Battle of Monmouth and expiring from heatstroke in oppressive conditions, they were idling in the Kentish fields. ‘I find it a very easy thing to be a soldier,’ Morton Pitt wrote from his shady tent; ‘it is however, too much of a lounge …’ Even Sir Richard was becoming fat and listless under a regime of bacchanalian indulgence. His personal physician, Dr Scot was concerned enough to scold him: ‘You may fight like Caesar, but you can not drink like Antony. You may write like Pliny but you can not cope with Apicius. You can be all that you ought to be, but you can not deviate; you are severely punished when you descend to the baseness of a toastmaster …’
Drinking, dining and gambling were not the only diversions popular among the officers and ladies at Coxheath. Ennui was easily dispelled with a bit of intrigue and adultery. As the Duchess of Devonshire had noted, the camp was bristling with handsome young gentlemen with little more to do than scribble billets-doux, flirt over card tables and visit ladies in their husbands’ tents. In the five months between June and early November the Duke of Devonshire took Lady Jersey as his mistress, Lady Melbourne became pregnant with the Earl of Egremont’s child and Lady Clermont aborted a baby she had conceived through a liaison with a local apothecary. Over that summer as well, the Countess of Derby threw caution to the wind and openly pursued a flirtation with the Duke of Dorset, for whom she later left her husband and destroyed her reputation. It is hardly surprising that Coxheath soon became renowned as a cesspit of moral laxity, one which both outraged
and titillated the public. In a matter of months, lampoons such as J. Mortimer’s
A Trip to Cocks Heath
which featured penis-shaped cannons being admired by sexually aggressive women were appearing in London’s print shop windows, ensuring that the licentious behaviour of 1778 was committed firmly to record.
When in 1781 a return to Coxheath was proposed, the prospect must have met with roguish smiles from the officers of the South Hampshire Militia. In response to the continuing American conflict, Sir Richard’s regiment had spent the past three years marching around the south of England, from the Isle of Wight to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Only their posting to London after the Gordon Riots of 1780 interrupted their circular progress. It would have been with memories of an earlier, less war-weary summer that they erected their tents on the fields outside of Maidstone for a second time. Once again, Lady Worsley followed her husband to Coxheath. However, on this occasion she was in the third trimester of a pregnancy and accompanied by her lover.
Throughout the period of their encampment, from June through to early November, the recently enlisted Maurice George Bisset was to be found at her side or in the company of her husband. According to the regiment’s surgeon Richard Leversuch, the baronet and his wife could be seen ‘at the camp almost every day attended by … Mr Bisset’. Observers did not fail to notice that the captain and the commander’s wife often slipped away together. In fact, the sight of George Bisset ‘attending Lady Worsley in riding and on horseback’ was so ubiquitous that mention of it appeared in the
Morning Post
. It was quipped that the captain’s ‘attention to a certain
belle militaire
at Coxheath’ had earned him ‘the appellation of Lady Worsley’s aid de camp’. While these coquettish activities may have raised eyebrows, the true complexity of their triangular relationship remained submerged.

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