But as usual for those joining this series of posts today here’s the background, if you’ve read it before skip to the end of the italics.
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.
Harriette declares herself melancholy when Lord Leinster leaves London, and she has sworn her other young beau, Lord Worcester, not to call on her for three days, as she knows he will be gleeful, and she will be in no mood for his joy.
The Duke of Leinster has promised to write to her if his trip to Spain is delayed by the weather at Portsmouth, and when he does write advising his delay maybe as long as a week, Harriette decides to play more games, and leaves Lord Worcester behind in London, with hurried notes apologizing for deserting him, and hurtles off to Portsmouth for a last and final farewell to Lord Leinster. When she arrives, she says ‘His Grace was very glad to see me, in his dry way; but it was impossible to avoid making comparisons between my two young lovers as were most favourable to Worcester.’
But then we hear another insight into Harriette’s calculating mind. She takes this moment to highlight that ‘her sister’ (this was not Harriette’s thinking – not Harriette’s at all – ha, ha) highlighted the fact the Duke had not thought to enquire after Harriette’s finances before he intended leaving. Then Lord Leinster added insult to injury and instead of spending his mornings entertaining Harriette by walking out with her, he instead went sailing. That was the final straw when there was the perhaps less wealthy (as he had not yet come into his title), but certainly more ardent and willing to flatter, Lord Worcester back in London. Harriette was not going to sit in Portsmouth twiddling her thumbs to hang about a Duke who did not even pay her (perhaps she had only gone in the hope he would pay up after he’d left London without giving her a final settlement).
So ‘coolly’ wishing Lord Leinster ‘un bon voyage’ to his utter astonishment, she hastens back to town.
And on her return to London ‘I found a great many cards and letters on my table in town; and what was better still, another blank cover, directed to me, containing two banknotes for one hundred pounds each!’
Harriette says very little else about why she specifically agrees to accept Lord Worcester’s protection, and become his mistress, all she says about meeting him again in London is, ‘I will not attempt to describe his rapture, or how violently he was agitated at meeting with me. My readers, besides accusing me of vanity, would not believe such exaggerated feeling as he evinced to be in human nature… Therefore without love, I agreed to place myself under his protection.’
As I said last week and the week before, I have a suspicion that Harriette held some hope in Lord Worcester as her potential happy ending, as a pathway to respectability and constant fortune. And here, Harriette makes me believe it again, when in the paragraph after saying she has accepted Lord Worcester without love she goes on to say, ‘Many women… intrigue (have affairs in modern language) because they see no prospect nor hopes for getting husbands; but I, who might as everybody told me, and were incessantly reminding me, have, at this period, smuggled myself into the Beaufort family, by merely declaring to Lord Worcester, with my finger pointed towards the North––that way leads to Harriette Wilson’s bedchamber; yet so perverse was my conscience, so hardened by what Fred Bentinck calls, my perseverance in loose morality, that I scorned the idea of talking such advantage of the passion I had inspired…’
Me thinks she doth protest too much 😀
Harriette’s tale continues next week – but just for a little humorous aside, it makes me laugh how things circle about – The Beauforts, of course, are descended from Katherine Swynford who had an affair/intrigue with the Prince, John of Guant, in the 14th Century which lasted years and produced four children who he later had legitimized. Oddly this was the love story which inspired me to write historical novels when I was very young, as John of Gaunt married Katherine when his second wife died… The happy ending perhaps Harriette was seeking.
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Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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