Biography, Women's History

Seymour Dorothy Fleming (1757-1818), part 1

Born in October 1757, Seymour Dorothy Fleming was the fourth of five children of Irish career soldier, Sir John Fleming and his wife, Jane Colman, granddaughter of the Duke of Somerset. Seymour was the surname of the Somerset dynasty and she was named to reflect this familial connection.  By the time she was twelve, she had lost her father, brother and two sisters, and found herself heiress, along with her elder sister Jane, to her father’s fortune. Her mother remarried to the wealthy MP Edward Lascelles, whose family had made a fortune through sugar and slavery in Barbados, and she spent her teenage years in his household. By the time, she was of marriageable age, she was personally entitled to a massive £52,000, a figure inflated to £70,000 in the gossip columns that monitored the doings of the British aristocracy. As wealthy women, Seymour and Jane were prized items on the marriage market. Jane was pretty and intelligent, keen to learn, and later developed a reputation for ‘virtue’. Seymour was conventionally attractive, but more headstrong and less inclined to read or attend to her schoolwork. With good familial connections and outstanding personal wealth, both sisters should have married well. As daughters of a baronet, this should have meant capturing an Earl or maybe even Duke. And in this Jane was successful, marrying Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington.

Seymour first met Sir Richard Worsley, baronet of Appuldurcombe House, Isle of Wight, when he came to court her elder sister, Jane. Attracted by their wealth and of similar social standing, Richard was looking to consolidate his social position in London society. The young Seymour flirted with the man who had come to court her sister, but at fourteen was deemed still too young for marriage. She met him again three years later at the York Races, after which they were inseparable. For Seymour at least, this was likely to have been a love match.  Even her marriage contract benefited Richard more than might have been expected given her wealth, leaving herself only £400 a year pin money and tying up her property until after his death.

A career politician, Richard was establishing himself as stalwart Tory. He would later hold a variety of governmental and diplomatic roles that added to his estate income of between £2000 and £3000 a year, through pay and bribes. He was also an avid collector of ancient art, spending parts of his life travelling through Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and beyond. Spending considerable time in London, despite Richard’s politics, Seymour became a part of the ‘Devonshire set’. While not in the inner cadre of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s friendship group, she regularly attended her parties, renowned for their gambling, drinking, high fashion, and sexual libertinism. The Worsley’s had one son, Robert Edwin. In August 1781, Seymour had a daughter, Jane, who Richard claimed as his own.

In November 1781, Seymour eloped with George Maurice Bissett, a Captain in the South Hampshire Militia, next door neighbour and close friend of the family. Richard was furious. While discreet sexual liaisons were a common part of their social circle, eloping with a lover opened up the couple’s marriage to public scrutiny, ruining Seymour’s reputation as a respectable woman, and shaming Richard, by challenging his presentation as a strong patriarch with control over his household. Why the couple eloped is an open question. Richard had already accepted Jane as his own daughter, clearly willing to accept his wife’s affair. Perhaps the couple hoped that Richard would similarly offer little resistance, providing his wife with her desired divorce. Or perhaps, her marriage was so miserable that she was willing to take the risk of scandal.

Richard, however, was not willing to concede to this public humiliation. Instead, he sued George for Criminal Conversation with his wife. This lawsuit was a way of receiving financial compensation for the seduction of your wife, and was a fairly standard prelude to divorce proceedings. But, rather than asking for standard damages, that would have allowed Richard to restore his reputation but not overly hurt George, Richard demanded £20,000 in damages. If Richard was awarded the full amount, George would have been bankrupted. Moreover, instead of suing for divorce, Richard asked only for a legal separation. This meant that his wife would never be free to remarry until Richard died.

The trial that followed, however, was wilder that anyone imagined. In order to ensure that George did not have to pay full damages, Seymour decided to open up her marriage to the scrutiny of the world. What emerged scandalised eighteenth-century society. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her social circle, George had not been Seymour’s first lover. In what was an almost unheard of defence, five of Seymour’s previous lovers testified of their relationships on George’s behalf, noting that Richard was often complicit through not questioning what his wife was doing. Her doctor also testified that he had treated her for a sexually transmitted disease. The press, in turn, heightened this scandal linking her with a total of 27 men, often basing their claims
on little more than relative proximity.

But there was more. Richard not only overlooked what his wife was doing, but actively encouraged it. One lover noted that as he was leaving after a night of love-making, he found Richard in her dressing room, but went unchallenged. Another told of how Richard allowed him to watch through a window as his wife dressed, in what appeared to have been an arranged ‘show’. And, George himself had watched Seymour dress through the window of the public baths, sitting on Richard’s shoulders. The threesome had walked away laughing together after the event. Richard’s complicity in his wife’s affairs shocked the jury, who brought back a verdict of one shilling damages.

Tune in next week to find out what happened next.

Further Reading

Hallie Rubenhold, Lady Worsley’s Whim; An Eighteenth Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce (Chatto & Windus, 2008).

Katie Barclay is amazed at Seymour’s bravery in choosing to destroy her reputation and risk everything for her lover. She is a historian at the University of Adelaide.

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