Harriette Wilson – a Regency courtesan’s memoirs – Truth or lies

So this week, I am going to tackle the question that everyone has been throwing at me since I started sharing Harriette Wilson’s stories. Are they true?

Well, there is no doubt at all that Harriette was really a courtesan, as I said last week, the start of her career is even recorded in a letter by Jane Austen, but how much of her memoirs are the truth…

Before I look at that though here is a little background to this short series of posts looking at the reality of Harriette Wilson’s historic memoirs. If you’ve already read this, read on from the line of bold type.

If you have been following my blog for a little while, you will know that Harriette Wilson, the real Regency courtesan who published her memoirs in 1825 as a kiss and tell series, inspired the first novel in the Marlow Intrigues series, The Illicit Love of a Courtesan, I have been sharing the version of her life she told in her memoirs here for about a year, but over that year so many times people have told me – but it’s known she lied in them.

Well recently, I discovered the work of someone who has researched Harriette’s real life, and so I can now share with you some of the things she did not include.

As to whether or not she lied, well I will also cover that… But… I will say now, I have used her memoirs as a wealth of insight into the Regency world, her writing is like looking in through a window to see how life was for someone who lived then, and yes, you can definitely spot the scenes where there is some embellishment, either because she was writing for an audience, or because she wished to hurt someone who had hurt her… But overall, many of her scenes are from truth. Plenty more of this in the next couple of weeks, including some insights which I have found really upsetting.

I guess the first questions is, how can we even know what is truth or lies?

The answer, other letters and memoirs written in the same period.

Frances Wilson researched Harriette’s life a few years ago, and found letters kept which tell her story outside of her memoirs.

When Harriette made the decision to write down her history, there were a few reasons – her fame was dying out, she was getting older and losing her looks, but she also did believe she had a literary talent, and therefore writing her memoirs was a way for her to regain her fame, and express how clever she thought she was. But also it was simply to raise money. She lived an expensive lifestyle, and with no wealthy protector, she needed an income… And what better way to fund her lifestyle, than by making the men who now overlooked her, but had spent years using her, pay.

At this point in her life, she was no longer acting as a courtesan or living among the elite, but living with a con-man called Rochfort, the nephew of an Earl, in Paris. He had no inheritance, and lived only on his wits, so they had little money. She’d taken his name and said she was married, but there is no evidence she had legally married him.

Harriette’s memoirs began as what she called sketches, and she tested them with several publishers after the couple came back to England. Rochfort had spent a spell in prison too, at the point Harriette was seeking someone to print her work. She was rejected by all the well-known publishers of the time, those who’d printed Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb… But then Harriette introduced herself to Jospeh Stockdale, a publisher who was a pornographer. He was a man who had a political fire, something against the aristocracy, a desire to be famous and most importantly a need for money… So he grasped at the chance of publishing Harriette’s stories.

We don’t know whether Harriette’s initial intent had been to blackmail people, to buy their names out of her memoirs, but what we do know, is that Stockdale wrote many of the letters still in existence, so the blackmail campaign was a joint affair, run by both ex-courtesan and publisher… They probably hoped to make more from their blackmail than they did the printed version, and we assume then that Stockdale was taking his cut of the blackmail fees… Which we know he agreed with Harriette would be an annuity (an annual payment) of £20-£40 or a one-off sum of £200.

It was also Stockdale’s idea to break the memoirs into a series of releases, that would generate more of a stir and speculation as people wondered what would be included in the next part… A series also helped them to put more pressure upon the men they blackmailed.

Harriette lived with Stockdale, when she wrote the first three parts, with him reading through each piece as she wrote, but the fourth part she returned to Paris and Rochfort to complete. Then the blackmail letters began.

There were several camps… Men who bought themselves out immediately without complaint… Their names we cannot know, and that is the part of her memoirs, which leads many people to believe they are not true at all, because there were certainly considerable omissions.

Then there were the men who refused to be blackmailed and left their names in. Like the Duke of Wellington, who famously said “write and be damned.” Only to later try to sue Harriette and Stockdale. Lord Ponsonby, the man Harriette called her one true love all her life, also refused to be blackmailed.

But then there were those, who rather than buy themselves out, became Harriette’s accomplices to escape becoming the subjects of her kiss and tell tales.

The British Ambassador in Paris, Sir Charles Stuart, let Harriette send part four of her memoirs, along with her blackmail letters to England in the diplomatic bag. Why? Because he was a former lover who did not wish his name mentioned, and Brougham, who was working his way up to become Prime minister took on the role of her legal adviser as well as paying her, and became her puppet for the rest of his life as both she and her new husband continued to blackmail him.

Then there was another camp, those who had never been associated with Harriette, and urged her to write, so they might amuse themselves teasing friends, or attacking political enemies.

Certainly when the first part of Harriette’s memoirs were published in February 1825, some of the most eager to read her work, were the aristocracy. ‘Perhaps you may find time to read this trash,’ wrote Poodle Byng, who was included in it, along with Lord Granville who he wrote to. ‘Not my letter but HW’s memoirs. Heard of it you must – it has caused sensation here and is almost as much talked of as the Mining Shares. Like most other people I suppose you like to see what is said of your relations…

It was said the whole house of Lords, and Parliamentary Cabinet were reading it, in order to look for the names of their colleagues, and several titled men recorded in letters that they were ordering copies to be delivered so they could read it, as soon as each part was published.

Meetings were organised in the men’s clubs, White’s, Brook’s and the United Service Club, solely to discuss what might be done to prevent the publication… But Poodle Byng recorded the outcome of one such meeting, ‘it was determined that nothing in the way of opposition could be done.’ But of course this implies – if these men she had been involved with were so concerned they wished to prevent the publication – that it is likely not all her stores were lies.

The publication of the first part was heralded by a newspaper advertisement mentioning the names of over a dozen noblemen who would be named, and consequently the release was delayed as more men sought to buy themselves out… and one woman… Sophia… Lady Berwick… Harriette’s sister. It is believed she offered Harriette money, but whether it was not enough… (it may have been as Sophia’s husband ended up bankrupt)… or maybe Harriette simply refused to take Sophia out (I will explain why that might be next week) Or perhaps Harriette did take some elements of Sophia’s story out. But for whatever reasons, negotiations delayed the printing of the first part for a whole month, and so it built up a desire from the public to get a hold of it when it was released. It sold out immediately. Although when I say public it’s initial release was aimed at the sort of people Harriette had spent her life mingling with, as at 2 shillings 6d it was beyond to budget of many.

On the back cover of the publication, working the blackmail plan as much as selling copies, there was a list of names in order of rank as who would be mentioned next, and on the front cover the day and hour of the next publication. Which of course was not met as more men sought to buy themselves out.

Lord Craven, who I spoke of last week, of course had not bought himself out, and had the pleasure of facing his name on the opening page.

Apparently Earl Spencer had not just tried to buy himself out, but buy the whole manuscript for £1000. That offer was refused. Harreitte also wanted her revenge and Stockdale wanted fame. They did not just write single letters either though, they continued to urge people. Harriette had written to the Duke of Wellington in the summer, and then there is a letter of Stockdale’s still in existence dated 16th December 1824, to Wellington, warning him again about the stories covered in Harriette’s memoirs.

So were the memoirs finally published truth or lies?

We cannot know for sure exactly how many elements were one hundred percent truth, but what we do know is what was written about Harriette’s memoirs at the time they were printed which imply there were considerable elements of truth.

A magazine of the time, Bell’s Life, published several pieces about the memoirs as they were released, this commented… ‘his Grace the Duke of Wellington, who in conversation with the Duke of York and the Marquis of Hertford a few days back, candidly admitted that some of the stories representing himself were true.”

Frenderick and Charles Bentinck did not buy themselves out, neither did they protest their inclusion, and Charles was recorded as saying, ‘We are all in for it… my brother Frederick and I are in the book up to our necks; but we shall only make bad worse by contending against it; for it is only true, every word of it…

Scott said, ‘though the attempt at wit is very poor that at pathos is sickening… There is a some good retailing of conversations, in which the style of the speakers, so far as is known to me, is exactly imitated, and some things told, as said by individuals of each other, which sound unpleasantly in each other’s ears. I admire the address of Lord A, himself very sorrily handled from time to time. Someone asked him if HW has been pretty correct on the whole. “Why faith,” he replied, “I believe so” – when raising his eyes, he saw Q D, whom the little jilt has treated atrociously – “ what concerns the present company always excerpted, you know,” added Lord A, within infinite presence of mind… After all, HW beats Con Phillips, Anne Bellamy, and all former demireps out and out.’

So from those named there is some recognition of elements of truth.

Certainly we know for sure that one part was true… She refused Lord Ponsonby’s annuity when he offered it on their separation.

Lord Ponsonby was a man who kept his letters, and there is one from Harriette blackmailing him, dated August 1825. He had been abroad, and returned to find his name included in Harriette’s memoirs. Whether he would have chosen to buy himself out or not before they were published, we don’t know, but we do know he did not reply to her when she did blackmail him. He was staying with the Duke of Argyll when he received the letter, another of Harriette’s old flames included in the book. The fact that these men were all friends and stood against her, I am sure must have hurt.

But she did have something very strong over Lord Ponsonby, he had been indiscreet during their affair, trusting her with stories of his former relationship with the Countess of Clare, and with letters from Lady Conyngham, who was now the King’s mistress. Harriette had kept the letters.

This is what she wrote to Lord Ponsonby, the man who was without doubt, the love of her life…

You must be sensible that I have no reason to make you an exception if I show up others (I think there should be a comma here, but there isn’t in the letter) for you as yet done me only harm – The pirates have spoiled our prospect of Memoirs so far I have sold the copyright of what is in Stockdale’s hands namely 18 parts – the rest I publish on my own account – I am sure the stories you recalled to me of Lady Clare and Lady C were such as you do not wish to be published – neither do I wish to publish them – I never broke my word to you or any body – let me be grateful to you for something before I die that I may remember you with kindness – I am printing in Paris at my own expense – Can you afford to send me two hundred pounds? If you assure me upon your honour that 200 is more than you can afford  I will be satisfied with one. I leave all to your good heart if it is good and I hope you remember me with good will – I shall like one simple proof of it and all things considered shall be furious if I do not get it.

Pray answer directly for your own sake – I shall be very sorry if you don’t for it really is (this word was illegible) that you and I should be otherwise than friends… a la distance.


Harriette Rochfort

Pray don’t put off money till the last part of Memoirs are in press –

The story you told me of ravishing Lady Clare behind the door and breaking a blood vessel etc. will be fine fun for all but the lady and son… I do not wish to hurt you but then you ought to serve me. I returned you a draft you wrote for me surely you may send me what was mine and tended to me by you – I had not returned it had I not loved you, n’est ce pas?’

On the back of Harriette’s letter pleading recompense for the draft she returned to him, when they separated, and claiming love. Lord Ponsonby had simply written ‘This most infamous lying letter was taken no notice of by me.’

The result of this danger, and blackmail threat, was that the King himself, ensured Lord Ponsonby was sent abroad again. He was given a political post in Brazil.

We also know that Harriette’s sister Fanny’s lover, Colonel Parker, was real, only he was in fact a Captain not a Colonel but his surname was Parker.

As the memoirs came out, initially they generated a renewed fame and excitement for Harriette, but very quickly the men she wrote about joined together against her, submitting law suits and ridiculing everything she said. Then Julia Storer, her former comrade and friend published her reply and called the whole thing lies, although it is not even really know if it was Julia who published the response or someone pretending to be her, and Julia’s completely opposite tales actually deny many things in Harriette’s memoirs known to be fact. In answer, Harriette killed off poor Julia, at the end of her memoirs, even though she did know that Julia had not died then. It was a way of mocking her former friend. That part definitely was a lie.

As for the whole truth… That we will never know… Or maybe never know… Apparently the publisher, Stockdale’s wife, is known, after his death, to have offered a full manuscript, showing all deletions with them only crossed out but clearly legible, to one of the noble Lords included. There is no knowing if someone else bought it. Perhaps it was bought and destroyed, or may be it will turn up in the attic of a stately home one day, and then we will know it all in Harriette’s original words, with no deletions.  🙂

There is one horrible truth I know she kept out of her book though…  I will share it next week.


Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional Historical and New Adult Romance stories, and the author of a No.1 bestselling Historical Romance novel in America, ‘The Illicit Love of a Courtesan’.

Look at the index to discover all the true stories Jane has discovered during research, and to find links to excerpts and a FREE novella ~ A Lord’s Desperate Love

Click here to find out more about Jane’s books, and see Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk 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


Capturing the Earl’s Love Part Two ~ A Historical Romance Story

A #free short story…  I’ll be telling it here, and it can also now be preordered on Amazon.

@Copyright Jane Lark; Publishing rights owned by Harper Impulse; Harper Collins UK

Capturing the Earl’s Love

Capturing the Earl's Love High Res


A Historical Romance story

Part One

Part Two


A wave of relief suddenly swept in. Rupert had forgotten how good their camaraderie had felt. They’d been firm friends from their Eton days. Perhaps, if he cared to admit it, he was a bit jealous of Edward’s wife.

Miss Divine laughed, in her high-pitched, slightly forced, listen-to-me giggle.

Rupert glanced at her. Her gaze caught his, before it travelled on to Rowena. She said something which made Rowena laugh.

What was Miss Divine plotting? What did she hope to gain from an introduction to Ellen?

“Rupert? How are you?” Edward asked again.

Rupert was frowning as he faced his cousin. “Well enough.”

An odd questioning expression shifted in Edward’s gaze as his eyebrows lifted a little, before he smiled briefly, then said, “And my aunt?”

“No better. In fact, perhaps a little worse.”

“Then we shall call in a day or two, once we’ve settled in.”

Rupert nodded. Edward looked at him as if he was trying to read something in Rupert’s eyes.

“And you are well and happy, I see, Edward. I have no need to ask.”

“I am exceedingly happy….” A sudden smile parted Edward’s lips.

The conversation dried. Rupert thought of discussing Rowena’s suitors. He was never sure who to introduce her to, and he thought perhaps Ellen… But then again, perhaps not. Ellen’s history hardly made her the best person to seek suitable companions for his sister.

Good God, he had never not known what to say to Edward.

“Will you be going to Jackson’s tomorrow? We could spar as we used to?” Edward suggested.

They could, but nothing was as it used to be. The freedom of Rupert’s bachelorhood had gone. He’d donated that to his sister this year. Still, she would be at home in the morning, he could go out. But Edward’s life was not the same either… “Are you sure you’re up to it? Domesticity has not softened you?”

Edward laughed.

“Lady Eleanor, would you introduce me to these young ladies?”

Rupert’s gaze spun to the man who’d spoken. Then he glanced back at Edward, asking who? with a look.

Edward leant closer and whispered. “The Earl of Kendrick is an acquaintance of my brother-in-law, Richard. He lost his wife two years ago. He’s been in the country on his estates since. He lives near us, but I do not know him well.”

Rupert glanced back at the man.

Having bowed to Miss Divine, Kendrick then took Rowena’s hand and pressed a kiss on her fingers. “Would you dance with me, Lady Rowena?”

Discomfort ran up Rupert’s spine. He had never met the man, but Kendrick was no suitor for Rowena; he was in his later years, grey-haired and even balding. He may have a strong gaze and relatively slender figure, but Rupert wished Rowena happy, cherished. He wanted her to have what Edward had, even if it was a fragile, breakable thing. If there was a chance of happiness for her, he wanted her to have it.

She accepted Kendrick’s offer. She could do little else. Yet she did not appear comfortable.

Rupert wondered if he should have stepped in and refused the introduction. But that would have been churlish and domineering, wouldn’t it? He had no reason to do so.

“We are hoping Lord Morton will take us driving in the park tomorrow…” Miss Divine’s bright voice broke into his thoughts.

It was meant to, of course. Her pitch had been lifted so he would hear. He knew it.

What was she after? He hoped it was not him. She had no hope if it was.

“Ellen, shall we dance?” As Edward made the invitation to his wife, Rupert realised the tune lifting over the hubbub of conversation was a waltz.

He glanced towards the dancers to see Kendrick leaning forward to listen to Rowena speak.

When Rupert looked back, Edward and Ellen were walking away and Miss Divine had moved closer, and now looked up at him, with wide eyes. He’d never really looked at them before, but now he noticed they were a vivid blue, or perhaps they were grey. Whichever, they went well with her auburn hair, and, of course, she wished him to notice that.

She smiled. The smile, he would swear, she’d developed before a mirror, to impress and cajole. He said nothing. Nor did she. He did not smile.

The woman was a witch, and trying to weave spells about him. Her smile twisted his innards somehow.

The sound of the orchestra rose and couples began moving near Rupert and Miss Divine as they stood at the edge of the dancing.

Awkwardness hovered in the air. No one else was likely to approach Miss Divine now. It left him no option but to offer… “Would you care to dance, Miss Divine?”

Her face lit up. “Thank you, Lord Morton.”

He hoped this would not give the girl expectations. He rarely bothered with dancing. His evenings were spent watching his sister do so. It left his offer, now, open to misinterpretation. What if people thought he was favouring Miss Divine?

He lifted his arm, stiffly, and she laid her fingers on it as they stepped away from the edge, joining the dancers.

He knew women adored this dance. Rowena had crowed for days once she’d been given permission to participate.

He formed a frame for Miss Divine, lifting one hand and setting his other at her back.

Miss Divine had won agreement to dance the waltz the same night as his sister. He’d heard them speaking then, whispering about how romantic it was. It was not romantic for a man. It was an opportunity to seduce a woman.

Rupert glanced across the room to watch Rowena as he began dancing, leading Miss Divine, whose fingers were a very gentle weight on his arm, and a slender presence in his hand.

Rowena seemed to be conversing quite happily with Kendrick, yet her body expressed wariness. She looked as though she was being polite, rather than enjoying herself. She looked as though she felt uncomfortable. Rupert should have said no to the introduction.

“Will you? Well… I mean…” Miss Divine’s voice pulled his attention back to her.

He faced those eyes. He could not avoid looking at her when she was in his arms, with less than a foot of space separating them. There was a slight tilt to the tip of her nose, and her lips were as red as the roses which suddenly bloomed in her cheeks. When his gaze lifted to her eyes again, they seemed as deep as the sea.

“Rowena said you might…” she began again. His gaze dropped to her lips as she spoke, then returned to her eyes when she stopped.

“Might what, Miss Divine?”

“Take us driving in Hyde Park tomorrow,” she said hurriedly.

Ah, so she could show herself off to a world who would not wish to know her at all if she was not with his sister. Even her middling dowry did not recommend her. The fortune hunters, who trailed after Rowena, overlooked Miss Divine. The girl was bartering with her looks, yet her looks were also middling in comparison to some, no matter her vivid hair and striking eyes. Which was, no doubt, her reason for hovering so close to Rowena, and using his sister as a foil.

“I cannot take you both, I’m afraid. My phaeton will only seat myself and my sister.”

“But Rowena implied we might use the barouche.”

Did she? Or had Miss Divine asked if they might go out in his barouche?

Tomorrow, after his sparring match with Edward, Rupert would raise the subject of Ellen chaperoning Rowena, no matter Ellen’s past. He was intensely tired of this charade, regardless of how much he cared for his sister. He’d had enough of Miss Divine’s manoeuvring, especially the riotous disturbance she instilled in his blood, and he was tired of trying to judge what was best for Rowena, who to help her meet and who to avoid…

“May we, Lord Morton?” Miss Divine asked, following her words with a very bright smile, which, he supposed, was also passably pretty.

“Yes.” He looked past her, rather than at her, as he answered, to discourage further conversation, feeling thoroughly manipulated.


A Lord’s Desperate Love is the  story of two of the secondary characters from the 1st book in

the Marlow Intrigues Series


‘The Illicit Love of a Courtesan’




  • the story of the real courtesan who inspired                                                 The Illicit Love of a Courtesan,
  • another free short story, about characters from book #2,                              A Lord’s Scandalous Love,
  • the prequel excerpts for book #3                                                                   The Scandalous Love of a Duke

Go to the index

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional Historical and New Adult Romance stories, and the author of a No.1 bestselling Historical Romance novel in America, ‘The Illicit Love of a Courtesan’.

Click here to find out more about Jane’s books, and see Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk 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