For all of the corseting that aristocratic ladies of the Eighteenth Century wore (stays, garters, petticoats, underskirts…), one might imagine that sexual naughtiness would have been well nigh impossible. Those who have encountered the writings of the Marquis de Sade or Pierre de Laclos‘ Les Liaisons Dangereuses know better, of course, as do those who saw the recent Keira Knightly film The Duchess, which took its title and subject from Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). The Duchess’ extra-marital prowess (lovers, a bastard) was matched only by that of her husband, who ultimately trumped his wife in the field of sexual dalliance by taking her best friend as his lover and settling her into their home at Chatsworth in a cozy ménage a trois. Oh, yes: the ladies (and gentlemen) of the Age of Enlightenment managed to have rather a lot of fun and get into rather a lot of trouble with their affaires vénériennes.
Hallie Rubenhold’s recent cultural history The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce gives a vivid, lucid account of one of the strangest English sex scandals of the age: the tale of the adulterous Lady Seymour Worsley and her vengeful husband, Sir Richard Worsley. When Lady Worsley abandoned Sir Richard for one of his friends and asked her husband for a divorce, Sir Richard refused, instead initiating a criminal conversation suit against his wife’s lover (criminal conversation covers crimes like joyriding—any unauthorized use of another’s property; in the 1780’s, a wife was property). The case became the most sensational celebrity sex trial of the age. As the hearing of evidence began, it became increasingly clear that Sir Richard had unusual tastes in the bedroom and had been something of a collaborator in his wife’s misbehavior. Rubenhold writes good clean prose and deftly balances the larger cultural history of the age with the particular tale of the Worsleys’ ill-fated marriage; her account of the criminal conversation trial reads something like a John Grisham legal thriller and I’ll bet my best whale-boned corset that you’re captivated by her well-paced narration of this perverse, perplexing, and very public unraveling of a marriage.