The Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold (Book Review)

Due to a bout with insomnia I completed Hallie Rubenhold’s The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce in the wee hours of this morning.

The work is non-fiction though written with a narrative style that reads like a novel. The dustjacket includes the following brief summary of the work’s subject:

“She was a spirited young heiress. He was a handsome baronet with a promising career in government. The marriage of Lady Seymour Dorothy Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley had the makings of a fairy tale–but ended as one of the most scandalous and highly publicized divorces in history.”

The Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold

The Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold

But that summary fails to portray the worth of this volume. The affair is almost incidental, in my opinion, to the insights yielded into the culture and morality of 18th century England (and to a much lesser extent, France).

The affair provides the narrative in which Rubenhold unfolds for us the life and thought of the individual man and woman of England in the 1700’s.

The hardcover copy I have clocks in at 308 pp. and includes a center set of images of paintings and so on depicting various characters from the story, some satirical comics, and antiquities.

I read the book as part of my ongoing quest to understand the nature of morality throughout time and to further my hypothesis that immorality shifts form from generation to generation rather than running in the direction of either increasing or decreasing morality.

The work is well-written and Rubenhold unfolds the lives of the Worsley’s step by step, as The Times Literary Supplement (UK) notes, “[The Lady in Red] is told as a mystery, with Rubenhold keeping up the suspense.” One is repeatedly surprised by the twists and turns the tale takes…what seemed like a fairly straightforward affair is anything but and its repercussions are strange and unexpected.

I have two complaints of significance – first, Rubenhold doesn’t include footnotes in the work, but only a bibliography at the end. I understand the reason for doing so – the work reads much more as a novel than a historical tome because of this…but it also makes it more difficult to research further the stories and details Rubenhold tells and requires a certain trust on the part of the reader that Rubenhold is being honest and fair in her portrayal.

My second complaint is somewhat related to the first – and that regards how much subjective interpretation is present in the book as opposed to objective fact. There is much that is obviously taken directly from the historical record but Rubenhold frequently provides us with insights into the interior thoughts and/or motivations of individual persons and, again, without footnotes, it is difficult to say how much of this is the result of her interpretation and how much is sourced from journals, letters, etc. which explicitly provide insight into the individual’s internal thought life.

Still, none of this reduces from the volumes’ worth significantly. If one is looking for a simple historical tale of immorality, I’m unsure whether one will be well-pleased. I did not read the work as such – but rather as an insightful peek into the lives of our ancestors…and for this, it excels.

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