Updated: May 4, 2022
By Catherine Lodge, author of Lovers' Meeting
In the event that you dear, kind readers are minded to purchase my book, you might like to know that it features a character (and I think we can all guess who it will turn out to be) who is sued by a husband for the tort (or civil offence) of Criminal Conversation.
I understand it still exists in some American states, though it was abolished in England and Wales in 1857. Basically, it consists of an outraged husband (of course it was only the husband) suing “the other man” for conversation with his wife. No, not just talking to her…you know…conversation. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
In the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, cases of Criminal Conversation were widely publicised and followed like soap operas in all the scandal papers and vulgar print shops of the day. As the events unfolded in open court, the engravers would be rushing out what we would call cartoons of the main characters behaving badly and looking ridiculous; prints of these would be displayed in the windows of the print shops and sold to the gentry and the rising middle-class, then frequently pirated and sold for pennies to the next layers of society. There are still plenty of examples to be seen online—crude, frequently obscene, and totally unhindered by ideas of libel or, indeed, fairness. Basically, once you were in a case of Crim Con, as they were known, you were fair game.
This wasn’t the same thing as a divorce. It was a straightforward demand for money damages, and the sums claimed were frequently huge by the standards of the day. It didn’t matter how high-born or important a man was, a husband could lay claim against him. The King’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland (known as Butcher Cumberland for his actions against the rebellious Scots), was sued and had to pay £10,000 in 1769. Lord Melbourne (known to fans of the TV series Victoria) was sued by an angry husband though, in that case, the husband lost.
Bizarrely (or not so bizarrely if you know anything about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English law), none of the main parties to the suit were allowed to give evidence. Instead, the court usually relied on letters and a parade of servants to trot out the salacious details. In the Melbourne case, the letters were so innocuous they later turned up parodied in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers in the breach of promise case of Bardell v Pickwick, in which poor Mr Pickwick’s letters about chops and tomato sauce are held up as evidence of his lascivious intentions. Incidentally, Lord Melbourne was married to Lady Caroline Lamb (his family name was Lamb) who had an extremely public affair with Lord Byron. They were certainly a family who…er…got around a bit.
But the best known and most magnificently bonkers case was Worsley v Bissett (1782)( Kings Bench Cases). Sir Richard Worsley sued George Bisset for Criminal Conversation with his wife, the gorgeously named Seymour Dorothy Fleming. She was what was known when I was a girl as “a bit of a one”—she was rumoured to have had 27 lovers—and eventually ran off with George Bisset, whom she had known as a girl. Bissett (here comes the Pride and Prejudice tie-in) was a captain in the South Hampshire militia.
The damaged claimed were the equivalent in today’s money of about two and a half million pounds. The amount awarded by the court was a shilling, five pence in today’s money which, even then, was a slap in the face for Sir Richard. The court considered that he had connived in his own dishonour when it was revealed that he had sneaked Bisset in so he could see his wife in the bath.
Gillray did a famous caricature showing Lady Worsley more or less naked and Worsley boosting Bisset on his shoulders so he can look through the window at her. The caption reads, “Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife’s bottom—o fye!" As I said, those caricaturists didn’t hold back. In revenge, Sir Richard refused to divorce her and, since only he could bring the case, she couldn’t marry Bisset, who fades from history. She became a lady of ill-repute, her life got more and more weird, and included a spell in a Paris prison during the French Revolution. Mind you, she had the last laugh: Worsley died first and she got her dowry back.
As I hope you can see from all this, an action of Crim Con was the talk of the town and beyond, an enormous public humiliation for all concerned. I can’t think a certain gentleman would enjoy being caricatured by Gillray, can you?
Now I have thoroughly alarmed you, perhaps I had better reassure the tender-hearted readers amongst you that ‘all’s well that ends well.’ It just would not do to write an unhappy ending, now would it? After all, none of us has Hill standing by with the smelling salts!