Last week I spoke about how Harriette’s memoirs inspired my novel, Illicit Love, which was released on May, 2nd. This week I will tell you how Harriette’s love story ended.
But first, for those reading this series of posts, on Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, for the first time, here is the background. If you have already read this, please read on from 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.
Harriette had continued her intrigue with Lord Ponsonby for three years. Three years which she talks little about, apart from the odd brief mention of how happy she was, and how light on her feet she felt, as though she was walking on air. She also tells us, how she had become very used to watching for his approach along the street, and the sound of his knock on her door.
Then she begins to describe him growing melancholy, looking tired, and seeming to feign happiness, being overly bright, like he was acting for her. She suspects something is wrong, but says he will not speak of it to her.
She is not worried for herself, only for him.
Then when he visits her one day, she thinks him in a particularly low mood, and tries to cheer him up, but he denies being unhappy.
His hands are shaking, and Harriette suggests he is feverish. Ponsonby laughs, but then says, if I were to die, ‘Would you regret me?” Then Harriette describes how his fingers held back her hair as he kissed her brow, looking at her as though absorbing her beauty for the last time, memorizing her image. He answers his question himself. “I am sure you would.”
Then he sits down to write a letter at her home, hiding what he is writing.
Harriette senses the letter is for her, when he says it is personal business, but plays the pianoforte for him rather than challenge him. He does not give her the letter though but puts it in his pocket.
Suddenly looking agitated as he glanced at his watch, Lord Ponsonby says how the time has flown, and he must go to the House of Lords. But he declares himself perhaps in lower spirits than he’d admitted, then asks Harriette to come with him in the hackney carriage, to the House of Lords.
Harriette happily went with him, but refused to simply leave him there, insisting that she was happy to wait in the carriage until he left.
He comes out after half-an-hour, to say the House will be sitting late, and he can’t bear to think of her waiting. But Harriette says, she is happy to wait, when it will be Lord Ponsonby she is waiting for.
He returns three hours later. All this time Harriette has sat alone in the small carriage, hidden, out of sight from the world. His secret mistress.
Harriette comments on how unwell he looked. As unwell as he had appeared at the time his father died.
‘You are much fatigued, dear Ponsonby. I only wish to heaven I might stay with you, and take care of you for ever.’
‘I have a letter for you,’ Ponsonby answered, as the carriage drove on towards his home.
Harriette surmised, the letter he had written earlier, then, as he drew it from his pocket, was something he had frequently hinted he would give her, an agreement for an allowance of two hundred pounds per year. But she still had not realized what was coming.
She did not want his money, not like that, not in any formal agreement. Although she said, a number of times, that during their affair, he had paid bills for her, and kept her financially. But this formal agreement perhaps would have made their relationship more like any other. This was love for Harriette, choice. A written financial agreement, would have taken choice away, and made her love feel soiled.
She says she tore up his agreement and threw it out the window of the carriage. It must have fallen in shreds onto the cobbled street, left in the mud, and rolled over by coach wheels.
‘My dear, Harriette, it is indeed as you say, very hard upon us that we may not pass the whole of our lives together; but then be assured of this truth; and I hope that it may afford you consolation, happen what will; my affection for you, to whom I certainly owe some of the happiest hours I have ever known, will last while I exist.’
He kissed her then, a long kiss, as long as the one they had shared on their first time together, Harriette says. But she was still blind to the truth of what was happening. Blinded by love, probably.
As he left the carriage, saddened to have to say goodbye, Harriette cannot find any words, so only kisses his hand, letting it slip from hers.
‘I have never seen him from that hour.’
It was the end of their intrigue. The end of love, for Harriette.
The next day, when he should have called, Harriette instead received a letter. It explained that his wife had discovered their affair, somehow, and had made him promise to see Harriette only once more, to say goodbye. But he had not been able to find the words to say it in person. His intention, when he’d called the day before, had been to explain it all, and agree a settlement for Harriette to be paid annually after their parting. She had rejected that.
Harriette sunk into despair, she could not believe he had deserted her. She wrote more than a dozen tear-stained letters, but didn’t send any of them, because they raved and begged, and she wanted to send a letter which would persuade him to return to her.
Looking at the book he last read to her, Harriette is then unable to bear being in her own home which reminded her so much of him. She goes out and walks, until her distress overcomes her so much she can no longer walk, and sits on a doorstep. The beauty, and flower of Regency society, an abject figure, huddled on a doorstep.
She has a fever then, and is taken to bed, under the care of a doctor, for two weeks. But as soon as she is well enough, she writes a long letter to Lord Ponsonby, pleading that she never wished to injure his wife, but then begging he return to her, if only as a friend. Not in the same vein of the brazen, teasing, tempting letters she wrote to other men, this was a letter which voiced her desperation.
She receives no reply.
She is broken-hearted. She cannot believe he loved her and then left her just like that, and now their affair was over entirely. She cannot imagine never seeing him again. She has some lung condition, and speaks of a bar of pain across her chest, and being unable to walk upstairs without losing her breath, but then says at night she goes to his house to stand outside and watch and wait for him.
It’s weeks before she at last gets a glimpse of him, walking up to his home and knocking on the door at one in the morning. She rushes across the street, but he is already inside and the door shuts before she reaches him.
Harriette says she contracted scarlet fever after this, and spent still more weeks ill in bed. Her former lovers comfort her, not many know of her affair with Lord Ponsonby, but Lord Lorne, the Duke of Argyle, did. He must have held on to some anger that she’d left him some years before, because he taunts Harriette, and tells her while she is pining and in misery, Lord Ponsonby is happy without her.
Harriette cannot bear to think that Lord Ponsonby thought nothing of her, that his affection had been feigned if he could be happy without her. She wrote to him once more.
He replied. She said, her heart beat wildly.
Have you ever been in a situation when you feel so strongly about something, or someone, that your heart is literally beating like a bass drum when something unsuspected happens. I have. I can just imagine how her heart was pounding in her chest, so loud it would have drowned out all other sound and occupied all her thoughts, and her fingers must have been shaking as she opened it.
‘Upon my honour, upon my soul, I can say, no, in reply to your question; and you may tell the Duke of Argyle that he is mistaken, if he thinks me happy. Do you remember what I said to you at our last meeting? And will you do me the justice to believe I did no deceive you? Pray Do. Adieu.’
Their affair was at an end. It was the last she heard from him.
My reflections on Harriette’s memoirs, continue next week…
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and 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