A programme on BBC4 this week, about the Regency period, visited the house of Lord Berwick who married his mistress. I thought therefore I would tell a few scandalous tales about Lady Berwick, as told by her sister.
Harriette Wilson was a notorious courtesan in the Regency period. She published her memoirs in 1825, in a series that was printed in a paper. She tells the naked truth. Often when I have visited historic houses I check for the families names in her history, although just because they are not there doesn’t mean they weren’t associated with her. The scandal sheets then, are like the tabloids today. It was a money-making venture for Harriette – and she wrote to all her male associates and asked for money if they wished their names to be excluded from her tales.
The Duke of Wellington replied publish and be damned. Which she did, and then he sued.
Anyway, Lady Berwick’s life story – the fourth sister to follow the career path of a courtesan – in Harriette’s words:
‘she had begun her career before other girls even dream of such things. She had intruded herself on a cobbler at thirteen, thrown herself into the arms of the most disgusting profligate in England at fourteen, with her eyes open, knowing what he was; then offered herself for sale , at a price, to Colonel Berkeley, and when her terms were refused with scorn and contempt by the handsome and young, then throws herself into the arms of age and ugliness for a yearly stipend, and at length, by good luck, without one atom of virtue, became a wife.’
Harriette’s memoirs are often unkind towards her sister – who cut all her older sisters, (apart from the one Harriette terms the ‘Paragon’ who is not a courtesan) on the order of Lord Berwick when they wed. Harriette describes Sophia as unintelligent and lacking wit. She speaks of not only Sophia’s dislike for Lord Berwick but her hatred of him, and describes how when they dine with him Sophia’s rudeness embarrasses the whole party. Yet she speaks of Sophia’s willingness to accept his gifts regardless, something that all her sisters chastise her for. And describes how Sophia regularly dines with him, daily by implication, but will not do so unless Harriette or their friend Julia accompanies her.
Lord Berwick knew of her past – all of it. When Harriette records asking why he wants her sister Sophia, despite her obvious hatred, he says “I do not mind that,” and adds that he hopes “by giving her whatever she wants, she may perhaps get over her dislike.” And when she asked him why he loves her, he is recorded as saying, “In part,” when Harriette asks if it is beauty then adds. “but chiefly the opinion I have formed of her truth. I could never live with a woman whom I must watch and suspect. Now, I am disposed to believe implicitly every word Sophia utters.”
Harriette’s answer is “And with good reason, for I am convinced that Sophia seldom, if ever, tells an untruth; and certainly there is something candid and fair in her unqualified acknowledgement of dislike towards you, since she is evidently fond of all the good things, your money can buy, and I think she particularly likes a good dinner.”
But Lord Berwick was set on Sophia. He did the very fashionable initial courtship which is mentioned several times in Harriette’s memoirs of loitering in the district where she lives – before finally plucking up the courage to request an introduction. Then he courts her with gifts, drives her out in his expensive carriages and invites her to dine regularly – all in the company of her friend and sisters. While doing so, he begins his campaign, asking her sisters and her friend to persuade Sophia to accept his offer of £500 per year, to live with him in a house he will set up for her London. Even when Sophia is still saying no, she agrees to let him set her up for a few weeks in Brighton, but only if Julia accompanies her and Harriette also goes there with her latest protector.
It’s inBrightonthat she is finally persuaded. And later Harriette tells us that Julia had also received a sum of money from Lord Berwick for persuading Sophia to accept. But despite offering to take Sophia on as his mistress Lord Berwick always intended marriage. He said even before being introduced, to the man he asked to undertake the introduction, that he had found the woman he wished to marry, and he was just as ardently asking her sisters to persuade her to marry him as become his mistress. But I suspect he knew money was the path to her heart.
At length, Sophia’s and Harriette’s sister, Fanny, calls Sophia’s bluff – her sisters believe Sophia is just dangling Lord Berwick for fun, or perhaps for gifts, and knows she will take him.
Incidentally Sophia’s like of gifts are identified early in Sophia’s life, when Harriette records her sister submitting to Lord Deerhurst at the age of fourteen – after a long and determined seduction by him. Lord Deerhurst (the profligate) wrote to Sophia and followed her about from the age of thirteen, sending her cheap jewellery in pretty boxes to make it look expensive. Causing her mother to ask Harriette for advice, at this time Sophia was sent away, but when she returned Lord Deerhurst was still on the hunt, according to Harriette, and this time Sophia was persuaded.
She disappeared one evening, and so did Lord Deerhurst.
When she was returned – to Harriette – Lord Deerhurst was persuaded by Sophia’s family to make amends for ruining her, and he agreed to pay her £300 per year if she lived with him. She did move in with him for a while, until one evening Harriette asked her to show some of her jewellery to two of Harriette’s own distinguished admirers, in Deerhurst’s presence. Laughing at its unworthiness himself, (and by implication Sophia) Lord Deerhurst then declared that she’d even accepted a stipend of £300 when his solicitor had declared the next day it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Sophia left him soon after.
But even when she married Lord Berwick, Lord Deerhurst was playing his wicked games, Harriette records how he frequently sat in a theatre box next to theirs alone, winking at friends below as he sat and stared at Sophia.
Anyway, when Fanny call’s Sophia’s bluff she tells her sister Sophia that she has ‘observed a degree of coolness in His Lordships manners, and that she really fancied he was considering how he should get off the marriage honourably.’
Harriette records Sophia reddening ‘in evident alarm’. Then Fanny pushes further stating that it must make Sophia glad, “It is lucky, my dear Sophia, that you do not wish to be Lady Berwick, otherwise this change in my Lord’s sentiments might have caused you the greatest misery.”
The next day Lord Berwick, received permission to write to her father – they were married within the week according to Harriette.
So while the BBC4 programme claimed a clockwork monkey, clashing symbols, won the day, I think perhaps – although the monkey does entirely fit with the sentiments of Sophia’s character described by Harriette – I think – it may just have been the moment for an excuse to comply.
Harriette’s memories and sentiments about her sister however may be tainted by Sophia snubbing Harriette after her marriage. What Harriett does not record about herself, but is noted in the annals of history, is that on one occasion, sitting in a theatre box above Lord and Lady Berwick, Harriette spat on her sister Sophia’s head.
Many of the ideas for my books come from Harriette’s treasure trove of memoirs, with their delicious scandals. ©
Excerpts taken from Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs 1825
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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