How Harriette Wilson’s memoirs inspired me to write Illicit Love

Harriette_Wilson00This week, I am deviating a little in this series of posts about the memoirs of Harriette Wilson, to celebrate the release of Illicit Love on Thursday, May, 2nd, by telling you how Harriette’s memoirs inspired me to write Illicit Love.

Before I go on though, I will still share the background to this series of posts, for anyone reading this for the first time today. You can skip to the end of the italics if you’ve already read it.

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.

I’ll start with a quote from Harriette’s memoirs.

“The idol of romantic passion, in some unlucky moment of common sense, or common life, is discovered to be the last thing their worshippers would wish the idol to be found—a mere human being! With passions and wants utterly unprovided for by the statutes of romance.”

– Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, quoting “a celebrated French writer,” published 1825.

I found this a beautiful truth for a romance writer. There are so many expectations on people to be perfect in life. These days the desire and expectation for perfection comes in the form of seeking a perfect appearance, people want a perfect figure and face, and, to never grow old. But I think Harriette was talking more about a perfect character, as a stained, imperfect, character separated woman from normal life in the 1800s. They were ostracized. But people are people and no one is perfect, as Harriette says above, human beings are passionate, and have uncontrollable desire, ‘outside of the boundaries of romance’. These are the characters I love to write, real people, people with faults and flaws, and humanity.

So then, I reached Harriette’s descriptions of how she fell in love with Lord Ponsonby. When she describes following him, walking in the park at dusk, even alone, just so she might see him, or hover outside his house in the hope of seeing him come or go, or peer at him through a window. Then she meets him and longs for what she’s never had before…

“Suppose he were to love me! Thought I, and the idea caused my heart to beat wildly. I would not dwell upon it. It was ridiculous. It would only expose me to after-disappointment.” – Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, published 1825

The way she speaks about Lord Ponsonby is just dramatically different. It ceases to be something inanimate and becomes emotional. So then, I knew, I wanted to give a courtesan her love story. In Illicit Love, Ellen meets Edward, in a gambling hell, looking at him across a card table. It is not a scene from Harriette’s memoirs, but the scene which came into my mind when I visualized a meeting of kindred hearts. Neither of them can take their eyes off the other. Both of them drawn by physical attraction. As Harriette describes how she watched Lord Ponsonby and he watched her.  

“Dean Swift mentions having seen, in the grand academy of Legado, an ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method of building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downwards to the foundation; and which he justified by the like practice of those two prudent insects, the bee and the spider. The operation of my love, then, was after the model of this architect. The airy foundations on which I built my castles caused them ever to descend.”

– Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, published 1825

So of course, then, as Harriette says above, Ellen’s mind’s eye, and her heart and her soul, begin building castles in the sky. A hope for love, when love is what she has lacked as a courtesan. She wants to be with a man of her choosing, just as Harriette had hungered for Lord Ponsonby.

“Choice was a holy grail; a cup fallen woman longed to drink from,” Illicit Love, Jane Lark.

Yet Ellen is afraid to hope for love, like Harriette, because the life she lives will hurt even more if she gave her heart and did not have her love returned. But how is she to achieve such a hope anyway, when normal life is beyond reach for a woman who has fallen…

“Mr. Meyler Expressed himself in such strong terms of disgust, in reference to me that His Lordship had been obliged to desire him never to use my name in his presence again.” – Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, published 1825

 “What can be expected from one thus destitute of every manly feeling of compassion, towards a poor, fallen, defenceless relative?”

– Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, published 1825

The question in Illicit Love, is, can love redeem a life of sin?

“As though pulled by an invisible cord, Lord Edward’s gaze lifted to her while he contemplated Lord Gainsborough’s call…” Illicit Love, Jane Lark. May, 2nd.


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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