We are going to have a little comma in Harriette’s and Lord Worcester’s story today, as he’s gone off to see his father, and she is in London alone. So, on her own again, but still under the promise of fidelity to Lord Worcester, Harriette visits the theatre with a friend and gives us a rare insight into the difference of the world of a courtesan and the world of a prostitute.
But before I tell Harriette’s story of today let me recap on the history of this series of posts for anyone reading them for the first time, if you’ve already read this, as usual, 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.
It was not one of Harriette’s – fast – friends, other courtesans, but what Harriette terms a prudish friend who she went to the theatre with regularly. I picture this as a moment Harriette took off work. Most of her life she spent on show, being a larger than life figure to capture the interest of men, trying to be the prettiest and the wittiest. So, perhaps these nights out with a ‘prudish’ friend were escapism. They did not sit in a box, so they were not seeking to draw attention to themselves. They went dressed in blacks, and sat on the benches in one of the balconies, purely to enjoy the play.
Of course though, Harriette being Harriette, could go nowhere unnoticed. She speaks of several men watching her during the play, and her friend complaining that, wherever she went, why and how did she draw so much male attention.
There was one young man who watched Harriette, who she believed she recognized, because he had the look of his brothers, a Stanhope.
Of course while they watched the play and everyone was in their seat on the benches the fact that men ogled her was only an irritation to her friend. Harriette admits she didn’t care, she was flattered. But the problem came when the performance had ended…
Harriette tells us how she and her friend got lost in the theatre and ended up following others to find a way out, all the time sensing the young Lord she’d recognized from his family appearance following her. But they went the wrong way and found themselves in a room full of men, but not the sort of men Harriette usually entertained the interests of – these were no gentlemen.
The difference between being a courtesan and a prostitute was that the gentlemen Harriette traded with treated her as they would their wives, sisters or mothers, apart from one obvious difference in that they had a physical relationship, for which they paid. But the men she discovered in the lobby were of a lower class, a class who treated whores as whores. There was no kindness or building of a relationship. When a man hired a prostitute it was just a transaction exchanging money for the act with no need to charm.
There were two forms of high-society in the early 1800s. The beau monde – those who were deemed the elite in society, the aristocracy mainly, and the demimonde , who contained members of the men from beau monde and their favoured courtesans, but excluded any baser relationships with prostitutes. The demimonde lived in their style of elite society and had just as many rules about what was and was not done. The behaviour Harriette encountered in the lobby they ‘d stumbled into was not the sort of behaviour she was used to. If she attended the theatre alone, or with any of her male friends, she was just as much above this class, as the aristocracy.
Her friend’s bonnet was lifted as she was asked if she was ‘the bawd.’ Then asked what she’d ask ‘for the pretty black-eyed girl.’ While the man who asked the question touched Harriette indecently. Harriette says ‘I resisted these disgusting liberties with all the strength of my little hands, they only fell into roars of laughter.’
When Harriette’s prudish friend said, ‘Are there no constables here?’ The men in the lobby only insulted them more.
One walked over to the constable at the door, telling him ‘I say, my boy, that woman insists on having you to go home and sleep with her; but she is perfectly welcome, so that she leaves me her daughter.’ Then this man tried to pull Harriette away with him.
Harriette describes herself as angry, but that there are tears in her eyes, and that she was shaking and blushing, implying she was totally out of her depth. Over hearing the prostitutes that probably were in the lobby, although she only describes them as women, she speaks of them using language that made hers and her friend’s ‘blood run cold’ and says that with each step they were subjected to ‘fresh insult of the grossest and most disgusting nature.’
All the time the young Stanhope was following them, but at a distance, and Harriette prayed he’d come forward and protect them. It took a man to try to slip his hand into her bodice to finally bring the young lord forward. Harriette said she knew him, and he confirmed himself to be the brother of the Stanhopes she was acquainted with, and begged him to escort them to a Hackney Carriage.
He in fact escorted her all the way home, and took her to the theatre on several nights after this, considering himself infatuated with Harriette. Well that was until Harriette’s sister, Amy, spotted the competition and of course won him for herself, disappearing off to a country inn with him for an affair that lasted a week. Bless Amy, forever the jealous schemer.
Next week back to Harriette and Worcester…
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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