The gossip of a real 19th Century Courtesan offers a window into the past

Harriette_Wilson00Last week we left Harriette establishing a fashionable lifestyle in London and breaking into the most fashionable group of the Regency aristocracy there. At the time she was still engaged to Lord Lorne, but all good things must come to an end as they say. Each summer, as was fashionable, Lord Lorne returned to his estates. Lord Lorne’s estates were in Scotland, and Harriette had no intention of burying herself away there when there was far more fun and society to be courted in town.

So now we reach the point that Harriette must search for another new protector.

Before I go on though, I will quickly recap some of the background to this series of blogs for those following for the first time today. Please read from the end of the italics if you have already read this.

In 1825 Harriette Wilson, a courtesan, published a series of stories as her memoirs in a British broad sheet paper. The Regency gentleman’s clubs were a buzz, waiting to see the next names mentioned each week. While barriers had to be set up outside the shop of her publisher, Stockdale, to hold back the disapproving mob.

Harriette was born Harriette Debochet, she chose the name Harriette Wilson as her professional name, in the same way Emma Hart, who I’ve blogged about previously, had changed her name. Unlike Emma, it isn’t known why or when Harriette changed her name.

She was one of nine surviving children. Her father was a watchmaker and her mother a stocking repairer, and both were believed to be from illegitimate origin.

Three of Harriette’s sisters also became courtesans. Amy, Fanny and Sophia (who I have written about before). So the tales I am about to begin in my blogs will include some elements from their lives too.

For a start you’ll need to understand the world of the 19th Century Courtesan. It was all about show and not just about sex. The idle rich of the upper class aspired to spending time in the company of courtesans, it was fashionable, the thing to do.

You were envied if you were linked to one of the most popular courtesans or you discovered a new unknown beauty to be admired by others.

Courtesans were also part of the competitive nature of the regency period too, gambling was a large element of the life of the idle rich and courtesans were won and lost and bartered and fought for.

So courtesans obviously aspired to be one of the most popular, and to achieve it they learnt how to play music, read widely, so they could debate, and tried to shine in personality too. They wanted to be a favoured ’original’.

The eccentric and outspoken was admired by gentlemen who liked to consort with boxers and jockeys, and coachmen, so courtesans did not aim for placid but were quite happy to insult and mock men who courted them, and demand money for any small favour.


Sometimes Harriette’s memoirs take detours from recounting specific tales and then they give us some far more real insights into the life of a courtesan in the early 1800s. Last week I spoke about the new bonds and friendships she had struck up with her sister Fanny, her friend Julia and the less close relationship she had with her eldest sister, Amy. So now when Harriette speaks of searching for a new relationship from which to earn her income, we slip into learning some of the gossip the four women shared as she thought about how to progress her career. Both Amy and Harriette were living beyond their means, hiring opera boxes and hosting parties, and Lord Lorne was due to retire to his Scottish Estates for summer. So both women were busy keeping a close eye out on the field of men available, and they must have had much to discuss and compare.

Frederick Ponsonby, Earl of Bessborough, William Ponsonby's father to give an idea of William's looks

Frederick Ponsonby, Earl of Bessborough, William Ponsonby’s father to give an idea of William’s looks

Harriette records a conversation when Amy declared that one of the men Amy was interested in, who did not return her interest but did attend her parties, had been taken up to her bedchamber, a little worse for drink, and unknown to Amy he’d been left there to sleep off his excess, fully clothed, behind the curtains surrounding her bed.

When Amy had retired to bed, thinking herself alone, she says she used the chamber-pot ‘indelicately’ and then it was at this moment her favoured Lord Ponsonby appeared from behind her bed curtains laughing at her. She was mortified.

Harriette replied that she thought the bed was exactly where Amy had wished Lord Ponsonby (The brother of the infamous Lady Caroline Lamb), but Amy told Harriette then that Lord Ponsonby had made it plain he was only there for ‘repose, not a companion.’

Julia then recounted her own experience of a man hiding in her bedchamber when she began her affair with Colonel Cotton. She admitted that he first succeeded with her on a stone staircase in Hampton Court Palace because it was so hard to find privacy in such a place. But wishing to spend a longer time in the arms of the young woman he’d successfully seduced he then begged Julia that he might come to her room. Julia said she claimed it was impossible because she undressed with her sister, who slept in their mother’s bedchamber next door, and her mother always came to her to say goodnight and between times other women from the court came and went. But determined to achieve a night in Julia’s bed Cotton said he would willingly endure three to four hours of discomfort beneath Julia’s bed.

Julia then describes how knowing Colonel Cotton was there she undressed herself with care, took her hair down prettily and bathed her hands and face, while all the time imagining herself watched by a romantic lover. But at the same time her sister undressed and to Julia’s embarrassment on her behalf she splashed and rattled without care, speaking of her sensations and pimples and wishes, Julia said she could have fainted with dismay.

Then Harriette decided in this moment of honest conversation to press her eldest sister to tell how she had used to come by hundred pound notes, at the time when Harriette was still a child at home, and Amy was with her second lover a penniless soldier.

Amy declares she did nothing more than let a man ‘pat’ her, and to earn her hundred pounds she simply told him when he asked that she enjoyed it. Harriette implies much disbelief among the group of women and then their laughter when Amy declares it true and showed them how he patted her, and the face she made to express her enjoyment. Yes you can just imagine them all sitting about Harriette’s parlour gossiping about the men surrounding their lives.

But how then to decide who to pick for a new protector when you were short of money and the man who was your preference did not want you. Both Amy and Harriette had preferences, who were in fact brothers but they didn’t know it at the time. Lord Ponsonby who had hidden in Amy’s chamber was Amy’s favourite but he was a good-looking young man who needn’t pay a courtesan and he was not interested in Amy. But Amy had bills to pay and so must take a man.

Harriette records a conversation with her sister Amy, as Harriette used to write her letters, Harriette shares their debate over the best of the offers Amy had, and then the man she chose Harriette sat down and wrote a letter to, offering an agreement of two hundred pounds per month. Although Amy even at the time admitted she really didn’t like him.

Harriette’s preference though was for someone she could not approach because she had never spoken to him and had no idea who he was. She had only seen him from a distance. But such things did not pay bills, and as Lord Lorne disappeared off to Scotland, Harriette realised the time for preference had passed. Next week, we’ll look at how Harriette picks her next conquest…

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

About janelarkhttps://janelark.wordpress.coma writer of compelling, passionate and emotionally charged fiction

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