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


About janelarkhttps://janelark.wordpress.coma writer of compelling, passionate and emotionally charged fiction

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s