As always, before I tell you the story though, here’s the background for this series of posts for anyone joining today and if you have already read it, skip to the end of the italics where I have highlighted the text in bold.
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.
Napoleon had been captured, and The Peninsular War was finally over, so Meyler suggested they move for a stay in Paris, now the continent was open again. But they were rowing regularly, having ‘serious quarrels’ at the time, and Harriette speaks of watching other men and wondering if she would be better off with someone else.
‘‘Meyler,’ said I to him, a short time before we went abroad, ‘you and I cannot live together. You are honest enough to admit your temper is abominable; for my part, I do not believe that there exists a woman who could endure it. I hold myself no longer therefore, under your protection… I don’t mean to say that I will be unfaithful to you: but from this hour I am my own mistress, and you, when we meet any visitors, are to be turned out, the first moment you treat me with a want of politeness.’
But it was the nature of their relationship to row and argue, and break up and get back together, so, ‘we had, in one month, mutually agreed to part at least twenty times over, and then made matters up again. The deuce was in the both of us. We really hated each other, and yet sheer jealousy kept us together.’
Then Meyler admitted to being determined to end their relationship and stick to it. But his resolution made Harriette ‘very unhappy.’ ‘To conceal my real feelings, I dressed gaily, I went blazing to the opera, and to every other place of resort where I might expect to meet Meyler’s friends, one of whom told me that Meyler was actually staying at Melton, quite alone.’
‘In about three weeks, he came to town. I dreaded encountering him at the opera, since we were to cut each other dead, and yet the effort must be made. He shall see me merry, and surrounded with handsome admirers, if I am to die the next hour. The little, provokingly handsome sugar-baker must not know that I still remember him, and am dying for his kiss.’
This is one of the sections of Harriette’s memoirs that I love, because it makes it all so real, mirroring relationships today, hovering around his friends, missing him, but acting happy, and then…
‘For several opera nights I saw Meyler, in the Duchess of Beaufort’s box and in the round room, and we mutually cut each other. At last he came slyly up to our party, and addressed my sister Fanny. His beautiful, white, petit hand was held towards mine, and I pressed it, malgré moi, (in spite of myself/involuntarily) for an instant, without speaking to him, and the next moment, found myself seated in his carriage, on our way home.
‘Don’t tell my friends,’ said Meyler, ‘I have so sworn never to speak to you again that I shall not be able to support their incessant quizzing.’
‘We shall never attempt to live with each other,’ said I. ‘Our tempers never can assimilate, and I will be as free as the air we breathe; but you may, indeed you must, come and visit me.’
‘Swear then, upon your soul, that you will acquaint me, if you should prove unfaithful to me.’
Harriette swore not to deceive him, and so then they tried to continue their relationship under these new terms, and Harriette headed off to Paris alone, in her own carriage, to set up her own house, with an agreement that a week later he would follow…
More next week 😀