Awards & Funding

2018/19 MA Dissertation Prize

By Kathryn Holdsworth

Dissertation Overview

My MA dissertation research focused on the role of gossip in late eighteenth-century adultery narratives, exploring the relationship between gossip and the formation and circulation of knowledge about women.  Drawing on two criminal conversation trials and one novel as case studies (Worsley v Bissett, 1782; Duberly v Gunning, 1792 and Edgeworth’s 1801 novel, Belinda), I considered three aspects of gossip in adultery trial literature.  The first examined witness testimonies from friends, family members and “gossiping servants,” and discussed the role of gossip as evidence.[1]  The second explored gossip in the print media and publicity surrounding each trial – not just as a tactic of social punishment and ridicule, but as an unstable communicative mode that women themselves could exploit in order to exert their agency and explain their motives.  Lastly, I touched on the dangers of gossip to women, using Edgeworth’s Belinda as a case study for the volatile and uncontrollable nature of gossip.  Overall, I argued, gossip as a mode of communication was integral to the production of knowledge about women in adultery narratives, relating to wider anxieties about how information concerning women was formed and circulated. 

What’s Crim. Con.?

A Criminal Conversation Trial (or crim. con. for short) was a civil law proceeding which allowed the husband to sue his wife’s lover for damages over trespass to his property.  The crim. con. trial had two aims: the first to establish that the adultery had indeed taken place and the second to assess and award financial damages.  Fewer damages were awarded to a husband who was perceived to have been abusive or cruel or to have neglected his wife.  Conversely, the happier a marriage was determined to be and the more virtuous the wife was considered, the higher the damages awarded to the husband over the loss of marital comfort.  Unsurprisingly, this was a course of action only available to men.  There was no such recourse for women and the wife accused of adultery was not permitted legal representation in the trial – there was no way for her to explain her motives or justify her version of events.  

A Definition of Gossip

Samuel Johnson defined ‘gossip’ as “one who answers for the child in baptism [a godparent]” and “one who runs about tattling like a woman at a lying in.”[2]  Patricia Meyer Spacks draws together Johnson’s definition of gossip with moral commentary from the late seventeenth century, which, she argued, focused on the “resemblance between loose talk and loose sexual conduct.”[3]  Here ‘loose talk’ is equivalent to ‘gossip,’ creating a group of associations over the course of the eighteenth century between gossip and loose sexual conduct and gossip as women tattling at a lying in.  There is an overall suggestion of an unruly female body, the association of women ‘gossips’ with birth and baptism has connotations with leaky bodies – or in this case, women leaking information.  Gossip not only became associated with women, but with female indiscretion and scandal.  

As such, gossip is an unstable signifier and elides with other conversational modes such as tattle, slander and rumour to name a few – all of which consolidate the traditional definition of gossip as idle and malicious.[4]  Gossip changes again when in a written or printed form, gaining more authority as ‘intelligence’ or ‘report.’ There are some similarities between these different manifestations, however, such as the fact that gossip tends to take place between small groups of people and discuss the private details of an absent third.  However, much of what we perceive as gossip tends to be oral and thus unrecorded meaning that there is a need to turn to written (e.g.: letters and diaries) or printed gossip (for example, content found in magazines).  Adultery trials are interesting in this respect; they provide a written record, many containing verbatim accounts of witness statements while some generated huge publicity through the print media.  They offer a unique window into the world of gossip, allowing for an extensive look at how knowledge about women and information concerning female indiscretion was formed and circulated.

Gossip as Evidence

On February 21 1782, Sir Richard Worsley was awarded a single shilling in damages over the affair of his wife, Lady Worsley, with a Captain George Bissett.  Despite the trial finding in Worsley’s favour (the jury agreed that his wife didcommit adultery), he was awarded very low compensation over what was perceived as Worsley’s own involvement (known as collusion) in his wife’s affair.  The accusation of collusion refers to the infamous account of Sir Richard lifting George Bissett onto his shoulders so that he could view Lady Worsley while she bathed.  

Sir Richard Worse-than-sly Exposing his Wife’s Bottom. James Gillray, 1782. British Museum

The damages awarded were also heavily influenced by the presentation of Lady Worsley’s character and reputation. Unlike the physical evidence of adultery (no matter how dubious, such as indents in a bed), character and reputation are intangible, formed from and informed by the opinions, thoughts and talk of others; in other words, gossip.  Espinasse argued that during a crim. con. trial the husband “puts [his wife’s] general character and behaviour in issue.”[5]  As such, crim. con. trials did not just rely on dubious physical evidence but drew on the wife’s public reputation (most often maintained and circulated via gossip) to supplement the evidence of adultery.   

Within the Worsley adultery trial, Mr Bearcroft (Bissett’s defence lawyer) made use of Espinasse’s caveat and drew significant attention to Lady Worsley’s reputation, arguing that:

 “The licentious conduct of Lady Worsley, was so notorious, that it had been the subject of common conversation; and that many Ladies of Distinction, in the Isle of Wight and elsewhere, had frequently remonstrated with Sir Richard on the subject, and told him that, if he did not attempt to restrain her conduct, her character would be ruined and destroyed.”[6]

There are a few things to note here, from the differentiation between Lady Worsley and the “Ladies of Distinction” to the drawing together of “character” and “notoriety” to describe her.  For the moment, however, I will focus on the “common conversation.” 

Bearcroft does not elaborate as to the content of such “common conversation” (whether it was idle chit chat or malicious slander), but he does makes it clear that there was gossip concerning Lady Worsley and her promiscuous behaviour.  The unrecorded nature of these “common conversations,” however, does not deter Mr Bearcroft as he calls Lady Worsley’s previous lovers to testify.  The Marquis of Graham testified that Lady Worsley was “gay, lively and free in her behaviour,” while Lord Deerhurst, Lord Peterborough and Charles Wyndham all agreed that her behaviour was “not that of a decent, modest wife.”[7]  These witnesses, all ex-lovers of Lady Worsley, prove that the gossip given by the “Ladies of Distinction” was correct.  Their testimonies match Lady Worsley’s actions towards themselves with the rumours they had previously heard, in turn supporting Bearcroft’s argument that Lady Worsley had a very well-known promiscuous reputation.  

As such, Mr Bearcroft’s defence tactic is not so much to destroy Lady Worsley’s reputation during the trial itself, but to present the court with her already ruined reputation. Bearcroft cleverly uses the gossip already circulating about Lady Worsley’s character and behaviour as evidence for the defence.  He demonstrates that Lady Worsley was not so much a helpless victim of Bissett, but a promiscuous woman in her own right.  In doing so, such gossip as proof of female indiscretion is legitimised when it is used as evidence in court. 

Kathryn Holdsworth was the winner of the 2018/19 CECS MA dissertation prize. The prize is awarded to the dissertation that received the highest mark within that cohort. Here she introduces us to her research on gossip in late eighteenth-century adultery trials.

[1] Anon, The Cuckold’s Chronicle; being Select Trials for Adultery, Incest, Imbecility, and Ravishment (London: printed for H. Lemoin, 1793): 89. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, accessed July 22, 2019.
[2] Samuel Johnson, A dictionary of the English language, Volume 1. The seventh edition. London, 1785. Image no. 460. Accessed May 21, 2019.
[3] Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip, (New York: A.A. Knoff, 1985): 121.
[4] Spacks suggests that a definition is useless because gossip “means many things to many people and even, at different times and in different contexts, to a single person.” Spacks, Gossip, 4; Robert Post, “The Legal Regulation of Gossip: Backyard Chatter and the Mass Media,” in Good Gossip, ed. Robert Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994): 67.
[5] Isaac Espinasse, A Digest of the Law of Actions and Trials at Nisi Prius […] (London: printed for J. Butterworth, 1798): 788; Henry Bathurst, The Theory of Evidence (London: printed for Sarah Cotter, 1761): 111. Accessed August 3, 2019.
[6]Robert Donkin, The trial, with the whole of the evidence, between the Right Hon. Sir Richard Worsley, […] and George Maurice Bissett, for criminal conversation with the plaintiff’s wife (London: printed for G. Kearsley, no. 46 Fleet Street, 1782): 11. 
[7] Ibid., 16, 13, 15, 18.

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