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.
But let’s start at the beginning, Harriette opens her memoirs at the point she had already become a courtesan, and was living in Brighton, on the Marine Parade with Lord Craven, everything she tells us about Lord Craven implies she thinks him tedious and from the beginning she appears unhappy with him. So why had she taken him as her first protector?
Harriette does not tell us.
But here is what Frances Wilson has discovered.
Harriette was the 6th daughter in her family, and she also had 4 younger sisters and 2 brothers so there were 12 children in all.
I have been saying for weeks her father was a watchmaker, but apparently that was a myth. Her father really laundered silk stockings, which you may think a mundane task, but only the genteel wore silk, and there was an art to keep the fashionable white stockings clean. It was a business that paid well, and her father and mother ran it from a large town property in Queen Street, in between Curzon Street and Charles Street, right in the heart of fashionable London, among their customers.
The family were not poor, but obviously not upper class, yet their neighbours included Dr Merriman, Lord Craven, Lord Lucan, Lord Whitworth and the Dowager Countess of Granard… Harriette and her sisters grew up watching wealthy young and titled gentleman walk past No. 23 Queen St hourly.
Harriette was taught to read by one of her older sister’s, the one she calls Paragon in her memoirs, growing up she recorded her favourite novel as Gil Bas, the story of a rogue who has many adventures and becomes a wealthy Lord. She apparently imagined herself writing a female version of the story.
Harriette says when she was younger, that her sisters constantly spoke of the men who lived near them. Fanny was kissed by Tom Sheridan, and read aloud the love letters she had received, and Paragon agreed to walk out with a man, while the others glorified Berkeley Craven’s bright eyes. Harriette at this point was uninterested, but then she declares that listening to such things for so long inspired her to become inquisitive, and then she started curling her hair, and receiving her own love letters through the hands of the maids.
It was then her mother chose to send her off to a convent school in Rouen, as far away from the interest of the debauched men of London society, who thought nothing of trying to tempt young girls into sin, as possible.
She returned in 1800, to discover that two of her older sisters, Fanny and Amy, had given in to the charms of such men, and run off to become the mistresses of a Mr Trench and a Mr Woodcock. Amy had found Mr Trench who sent her back to school, settled a hundred a year on her, and then never saw her again, and so Amy found General Madden to keep her company. It was then that Fanny followed the example of her sister and let herself be set up in a house by Mr Woodcock. She used his name although he already had a legitimate wife he lived with.
When Harriette published her memoirs in 1825, someone who claimed to have known Harriette in 1800 wrote a letter to The Times, signing himself ‘An Old Rake’ he described Harriette as ‘a little dirty girl, whose name was Du Bouchet, who was five and twenty years ago a regular tramp in St Jame’s Street… bunch backed with a shuffling gait.’
Harriette was then fourteen, and her father was unwilling to feed her, he wished her to support herself, and her father had been a figure to be frightened of all her life. When she was younger, once she recorded angering him, and then taking a beating with a birch that disfigured her entire body, while beyond the chamber door her mother screamed for her father to stop.
From a family that was not poor, but not at the level of someone who might be a companion, Harriette had one option, teaching, it would have been abohorent to her to take on a labouring job or a position as a servant when she came from a family who had servants. She had lived a lifestyle in town, probably similar to that which Jane Austen lived in the country, but Harriette’s family were not descended from a title, so there were no wealthy relatives to be looked to for support.
Of course her sisters had taken another option, to become kept women, a role in which they would still have servants, and be paid more money than they would as teachers, and the role must have seemed far less strenuous 🙂
Harriette’s mother found her a position as a music teacher in a school initially, near Hyde Park, but Harriette only survived three months there. The French mistress, having claimed to see Harriette’s breast uncovered, said she could not be a virgin. Harriette returned home. An appointment was then found for her at a girls’ school in Newcastle upon Tyne, and she travelled there on the mail coach, with Tom Sheridan, who was returning to his regiment in Edinburgh.
To express the sort of young man Tom was, like so many of the young men of the day, Francis Wilson records some of the things he was known to have said ‘Told by his father to take a wife, Tom replied ‘Yes but who’s?’ Told by his father he would be cut off with a penny, Tom asked whether he might have the penny now.’
It is not known what occurred on their journey, but there are hints in Harriette’s memoirs, that imply she may have allowed herself to be seduced by Tom, during the two days and one night they travelled, and certainly when she left him at Newcastle upon Tyne, she had agreed to him sending her love letters, with which she could tease her sisters.
Harriette did not survive long at this school either, such a life was too boring, and Tom Sheridan suggested to her in his letters that she should become an actress. The idea appealed, and Harriette headed back to her family home in London. But her father refused such a notion. Being an actress was no better than being a prostitute, and he said ‘he would rather see me in my grave.’
It was her father’s anger which finally drove her away. Francis Wilson, says, Harriette made him his favourite meal, and waited up beyond the time she was supposed to be in bed to ensure it remained hot, only to receive a scolding for her attempt to placate him, for her disobedience in staying up…
Harriette then planned her escape, but she did not run very far to look for her saviour, only to the end of the street where her parents lived. It is believed she ran away initially with Berkeley Craven – he who was revered by her sisters for his bright eyes. She had known the family for years. But it was not Berkeley Craven she remained with, it was his older brother, Lord Craven, who she became the mistress of…
And what happened then, I will continue 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’.
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