The Fleming Sisters

Jane and Dorothy Fleming were two beautiful sisters painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds – two beautiful sisters who led very, very different lives.

The Saint

The first, Jane Fleming, later Jane Stanhope, Countess of Harrington, was the picture of domesticity. She had a brood of ten children whom she attended upon in her home. Unlike her illustrious sister, her name was seldomly bantered about by her peers. What we know about her personal life is scant: As the daughter of the wealthy London landowner, John Fleming, her hand was deemed a considerable marriage prize.   According to the Gentleman’s magazine, her dowry totaled the magnificent sum of £100,000–an incredible fortune when a maid would be lucky to earn £5 a year and a gentleman’s income was considered vast at £10,000 a year.  Her father, a 1st baronet, his title created in 1763, died without an heir, making his two daughter equal heiresses to his fortune.  Lucky and equally unlucky, those ladies.

In 1779 Jane was painted by Reynolds in the grand manner, months before her marriage to the 3rd Earl of Harrington. She was 24, an age which might be considered advanced for a first marriage in that period.  She sat for Reynolds a total of four times, twice with her sons and twice before marriage. Two engravings of her also exist.

Her Earl of Harrington was a military man in the American War, an aide-de-camp to General Burgoyne.  As his virtuous and chaste wife, Jane held her own sort of public office, serving as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte from 1794-1818.

The Sinner

Lady Worsley, née Seymour Dorothy (or conversely Dorothy Seymour) Fleming, was the younger Fleming sister, best known for her extra-marital scandals.  Like her sister, Jane, she brought a pretty sum to her union with Sir Richard Worsley, 7th baronet of Appuldurcombe House, Isle of Wight: £52,000.  Unfortunately, unlike Jane, both sum and union did little to gain her happiness.

Lady Worsley, Sir Joshua Reynolds, now at Harwood House in Leeds

In the 18th century, one would shudder to utter the word “elopement” in fashionably circles, but that’s exactly what Lady Worsley attempted to do.  After a positively scandalous summer evening involving a bath, a handsome peeping tom, and her foolery-minded husband, Lady Worsley made a fateful leap of caprice.  She took George Bisset, the apparently irresistable peeping tom, as her lover and decided  to runaway with him, preceeding to decamp with him in a hotel.  Unbeknownst to them, the staff were noting their every delicious move.   Meanwhile, Lady Worsley, made silly in the arms of her lover, dashed of word to her husband, demanding a divorce, or in the least, a seperation.

Cartoon, James Gillray, 1782

What ensued was public trial (the transcript of which can be read here) and a scandal that shocked the ton to tittering pieces.  Sir Richard Worsley demanded restitution for his suffering.  In the process, lovers aplenty were revealed – the tarty Irish lass was rumored to have 27! – along with testimony by her doctor (a revelation which was not at all couth).  But, and it’s a big but, throughout the trial, Sir Worsley proved himself to be guilty of a marital crime which negated a hefty portion of his claim for damages.

Ah, the beauty of divorce.  There’s a reason irreconcilable differences are cited now and divorce is a civil proceeding.  Too many sinners in some party parades!

Well, there you have it: the tip of the icebeg for this scandal.  Far be it from me to conclude the tale of Lady Worsley’s proceedings with suitable panache.  After all, the grit, in all it historical glory, is wonderfully told in The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce by Hallie Rubenhold (Lady Worsley’s Whim, U.K. edition).  A highly suggested read, especially if you like debauched history and even more, historians that write books that read like fiction.


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