You may think I had a privileged life, being a Lady and all that, But do you understand how BORING it can be? However wealthy you’re born, you are not allowed any of it. You have nothing to call your own, you have no means of independence. You are sold by your father – or, in my case step-father – to your husband. And then you have nowhere to run, no matter what you are like, no matter what you really want to do, no matter who you really are.
I lose count of the years that I’ve been here in my stepfather’s cinnamon drawing room.
Josh Reynolds caught me like this, and, to be honest, I don’t think he could have done it better.
People say that I stand here looking impatient. As if I’m waiting for the next thing to happen.
And indeed, that’s how I was all my life: I never could keep still.
I was born before my time, you see. I watch what goes on now, for you, and I wish it were for me. I grew up here, in this house – at least my teenage years, after my widowed mother wisely married the staggeringly wealthy Edwin Lascelles, who owned the place. Worsley came along to woo my good-girl sister, but instead I got him. He only ever wanted either of us for our fortunes, inherited from our father who died when I was just five, soon followed by our three siblings, leaving just us two girls, rich pickings on the marriage market.
So marrying me when I was just seventeen brought Worsley over £70,000. He was always a greedy man.
I never liked him. Nor, I think, he me. The only interest he showed me between the sheets was in order to produce his heir. Once I had done that – little more than a year after we married – he left me alone.
But like all women – although you’d be hard put to believe it, given the way we have been represented through the ages – I had my needs.
I took lovers.
They said in court I had twenty-seven of them, before our separation. But who was counting? In any case, Worsley knew about most of them. He even set me up with a few.
You see: he liked to watch.
What enraged him, though, was that when I’d had enough of his mean, penny-pinching ways I ran off with his friend Captain Bisset.
Well, I say he was Worsley’s friend, but, of course, he was more mine…
I believe I was truly in love with Bisset. Two of my four babies were his, after all – including Jane, who Worsley had passed off as his own to save face.
But when we left, Worsley was so angry that he sued Bisset for Criminal Conversation with me.
Well, I suppose, insofar as – in the eyes of the law – I was my husband’s property, it was criminal. It was theft, as if Bisset had taken his pocket watch, or a really fine bit of porcelain.
But it was something more than a conversation I had with dear Bisset!
Worsley’s downfall, however, was to demand £20,000 from Bisset as compensation. That was the price he put on me, and I suppose I should have been flattered. But it would have bankrupted poor Bisset, who was only a Captain on just £1500 a year. And Worsley wasn’t even going to offer me a divorce for that sum – just a separation, which meant that Bisset and I could never marry, and Worsley would hang on to all my property and money until his death.
I tell you, I did wish that death on him sooner rather than later at that point.
But instead, in order to save dear Bisset, I took damn Worsley on and let the world know his proclivities, and the way he took his pleasure from letting me take mine. If my reputation was going to be ruined, I was going to take his with me. Bisset and I even got Mary Marriott, the attendant at Maidstone Cold Bath to testify in court that Worsley put Bisset up on his shoulders so that he could see me while I bathed naked. She even testified how Worlsey had cried out ‘Seymour, Seymour! Bisset is looking at you!’ and went on to tell how, after I had dressed, all three of us went off together, heartily laughing at what had just happened.
And then they questioned five of my lovers, all of whom – while declaring my own behaviour dissolute and wanton, and that of my husband strange because he put up no objections to the dalliances that were going on under his nose, in his very own house – never once had their own conduct brought into question.
That was the age I lived in.
I believe – from what I’ve picked up as I’ve hung around up here – that you women have it better now?
Worsley won the trial, but the judge ordered Bisset to pay him just one shilling. My name was in tatters, but so, satisfyingly, was that of my husband – so much so that he disappeared off to Europe to lie low and lick his wounds. Because of his continuing refusal to grant me my divorce, all I got was separation and pin-money of £400 a year. Worsley was also ordered to pay me a further £600 a year, a paltry sum to him, but I never saw a penny of it.
Bisset and I retreated to London, where we made some attempt at a life. I was helped in this by my fellow fallen ladies at the New Female Coterie who I met weekly at Mrs Prendergast’s to sup and discuss the world. Sisterhood, I believe you call it now.
Sadly, the combination of the scandal around my name, and his inability to marry me because of Worsley’s refusal to divorce was too much for Bisset, who was, at heart, a deeply conservative man. He left me just eighteen months after the trial. And I was four months gone with my third.
My baby was born and put out to nurse, and, in debt and sick of facing the constant disapproving glances, I escaped to France, where I maintained a string of aristocratic lovers who kept me comfortably so long as I amused them.
I had no choice, you understand that. My only capital was my person.
Thanks to the wealthy company I was keeping, I was imprisoned in France for a year during the Revolution, and it was while I was in gaol that I gave birth to my fourth child, who was taken on by a French couple, and that I learned of the death of my son by Worsley, aged only nineteen. I was heartbroken, of course, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a small pleasure that Worsley never got his heir.
I fell sick and, at the age of 39, I returned, penniless and alone to London where, at last, my mother and sister finally took pity on me and let me stay in Brompton Park – a house that the law prevented me from officially owning, even though it was actually mine by rights.
Worsley died – at last – when I was 48. Finally the £70,000 of my marriage transaction was returned to me. Free at last to do so, I married John Louis Hummel, a musician and a pretty piece some twenty years my junior. People talked, of course, like they always had done, and he clearly wasn’t put off by my fortune. But he loved me well enough to change his name to John Lewis Fleming – my maiden surname. And, despite remarrying after my death, he is, at his own behest, buried beside me.
And I’m still hanging around here, dressed in a riding costume adapted from the uniform of damn Worsley’s regiment. It’s an unconventional portrait for a woman, I look pretty active. I’ve got a whip in my hand. I’m outdoors.
I think Josh had feelings for me.
To be honest, I know he had feelings for me.
People say I’m one of his finest portraits.
And I stand here and I listen to what people say as they are told my story. I still have the power to shock, you know. And I’m so used it now, I even take something of a pleasure from it.
So. What’s next then, chaps?