When Revenge Backfires: A Lesson in “The Scandalous Lady W”

Over the weekend I saw BBC2’s television movie The Scandalous Lady W, a historical drama depicting the life of Lady Seymour Worsley. She was an 18th century English aristocrat whose dysfunctional marriage became public knowledge when her husband sued her lover for punitive damages.

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A young Seymour Fleming catches the eye of Sir Richard Worsley
The story is quite a feminist one where Seymour starts out victimized by a psychologically abusive husband until she finally leaves him for her lover. She maintains her defiance and autonomy from her husband despite living in an era where women were viewed as men’s legal property.

I’ve always been a fan of Natalie Dormer ever since I saw her in the 2005’s Casanova where she played Giacomo’s would-be fiancée Victoria Donato. Her more prominent roles as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors and Margery Tyrell in Games of Thrones have given her ample practice in dramas of a historical/political nature. Upon seeing the trailer and realizing that she was playing Lady Seymour, I knew I had to watch it and I was not disappointed.

The Theme of Revenge

There are a lot of themes at play in The Scandalous Lady W, not least of which is the issue of women’s rights and the historical view that women were considered very much to be literal objects over which their husbands had full legal possession. Other themes include the clash of Romanticism, represented by Seymour, with the lingering Classical sentiment, represented by her husband.

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Sir Richard considers his options after Seymour runs away.
Yet out of all these themes, what struck me most about the piece was the theme of revenge, how Sir Richard reacts to his wife’s desertion and the actions he chooses to take both before and long after the trial against her lover, George Bisset.

Exacting revenge upon a spouse or ex-spouse will always remain a great temptation to mankind. Whether due to legitimate heartbreak or wounded pride, there are those who find it incredibly difficult to let a romantic partner walk away freely without inciting some form of vengeance.

Revenge is seen as a salve that will help heal the wounds of abandonment, betrayal, or loss of control. But often revenge does not always pan out in the way that the avenger intends and can actually cost the avenger more than what they could have gained through the cheap catharsis of revenge.

Sir Richard: Abuser Claiming to be the Victim

Sir Richard, angry, entitled, and believing himself to be in a privileged position, decides to sue his wife’s lover for 20,000 pounds. He is told by advisors that he should instead handle the situation quietly and delicately, but Sir Richard is determined to have his revenge. He thinks that through a trial he can financially ruin Bisset and punish his wife by publicly declaring her an adulteress.

At first Sir Richard seems successful, having already proven Seymour’s adultery with Bisset. However, Seymour and Bisset turn the tables on him by proving that Sir Richard was well aware of their affair and actually encouraged it, along with dozens of affairs Seymour had before Bisset at her husband’s request for his own voyeuristic pleasure.

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Seymour vowing that she will never be Sir Richard’s, divorced or not.
The revelation of Sir Richard’s voyeurism and sexual coercion causes the jury to reduce the compensation Bisset must pay from 20,000 pounds to one shilling. Sir Richard is humiliated, yet stubbornly refuses to grant Seymour a divorce, again against the council of those around him. He wants to maintain some sense of power over Seymour, even at the expense of himself moving on with his life.

Revenge is Expensive and Unhealthy

Sir Richard tried to obtain revenge rather than accept that his own sexual perversions had driven Seymour away. He felt he was entitled to do as he wished with Seymour without ever taking her feelings into account. He then felt a compelling desire to lash out at Seymour the moment she started to put her own emotional needs above his.

I connected so much to this movie because I could relate Seymour’s plight with her husband to my own fiancé’s plight with his ex-girlfriend. Like Sir Richard, his ex-girlfriend tried to use lies and half-truths to portray herself as the victim of a toxic relationship of which she herself was the instigator and perpetuator. While she may have been partially successful at first, as time wore on more of the truth came out, prompting others to question his ex’s credibility and to apologize to my fiancé.

Those who seek out revenge will find themselves losing out by the end of the ugly business, especially those who are guilty and have no legitimate, moral right to retaliation. They think they can conceal their own vices while staging the sins of their enemy, but such a strategy rarely works in the long term.

Revenge is not cheap. It is mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even financially draining. It can also cost the avenger a pristine reputation if they choose not to keep their hatred for their target in check.

Above all else, revenge can cause the avenger to place their victim’s punishment above their own happiness and peace of mind. That is the ultimate price, to not live life for one’s self, but rather for the misery of their target. Paraphrasing the words of Nelson Mandela and Emmet Fox, revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

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