Harriette’s country retreat – including a trip to Regency Lyme Regis

Harriette_Wilson00I left you last week with Harriette scuttling off to a country retreat to avoid the temptation of town, and prove her constancy to poor young Lord Worcester, who was off to fight in the Peninsular war.

So let me begin this week’s post in Harriette’s words ‘In about two weeks after my arrival in this village, my reader may imagine me sitting at a little rural thatched window, in that beautiful country, addressing the following long letter to my sister Fanny.

But before I share with you what she wrote to her sister, here’s the usual recap of the background to this series of posts for anyone joining today, as usual if you have read it before skip to 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 tells Fanny, in her letter, that she’s only just recovered from two full nights passed in a mail-coach, and that she wishes something romantic had occurred on route, they (she and her maid) ‘were neither ravished, upset, or thrown into a pond just as a lovely youth happened to be passing by.’ To save them, dashing young hero style – I presume 😉

Then she tells Fanny her first night was spent at the pot-house (inn) in the village, where she was offered the only room left, ‘containing two small, neat, white beds… The staircase was a ladder, or rather a ladder was the staircase. We will not be particular.’

Harriette was woken at daybreak by sunlight because there were no curtains covering the window, and in answer to her endurance she says, ‘I am sorry, really, for the most noble Marquis of Worcester! But the fact is, my very first thoughts on awakening, and my most sincere regrets, were for the miles which now separated me from poor little beautiful Meyler. In short having done everything right towards Worcester, I loved him much less for that very reason.’

Harriette then goes on in her letter to describe a fascinating trip to Lyme Regis, giving us another great insight into real Regency life.

Lyme Regis is a sort of Brighton in miniature, all bustle and confusion, assembly-rooms, donkey-riding, raffling, etc. etc. It was a sixpence per night to attend the assemblies, and much cheaper if paid by the season. We went to a little inn and dined. From the window, I was much amused to see the number of smart old maids that were tripping down the streets, in turbans or artificial flowers twinned about their wigs, on the light fantastic toe, to the six-penny assembly rooms, at five in the evening! They were pleasantly situated near the sea, and as we walked past their windows, we saw them all drinking tea and playing cards.’ – I will admit in a little aside – when I read Harriette’s memoirs I am frequently surprised by words she uses that I wouldn’t have expected to see in the 1800s, the light fantastic toe – tripping the light fantastic? Ooo, who would have thought?

Having visited Lyme Regis though and saying ‘I hate, and always did hate, anything like London in miniature!’ Harriette set out to find somewhere to stay in the little village of Charmouth.  ‘Next morning at a little after seven the gay and fashionable Harriette Wilson was to be seen strolling about the little village of Charmouth, as though it had been her native place, and she had never heard tell of the pomps and vanities of this very wicked world, or the sinful lusts of the flesh, etc.’

Well you can imagine in a small village full of working people there were no properties or even rooms to let, but Harriette tells her sister Fanny, that while walking about the village she caught the eye of a young woman through a window and decided to go and ask if she knew of anywhere to rent. But when she spoke to the young woman, they instantly liked one another, and then the young woman went to speak to her widowed mother to ask if Harriette and her maid might stay with them. Harriette grasped at the chance for a quiet residence, ‘as I, determined to act with the strictest propriety, and conform to the established rules of the family, to be regular at church, too, for the sake of example, I conceived that it was certainly not incumbent on me to turn king’s evidence against myself, as to my former irregularities, or, as my friend Miss Higgins would say, little peccadilloes.’

But I will leave you now, as Harriette closes her letter to Fanny, wondering as I am sure Fanny did, whether or not Harriette would succeed in her commitment to strictest propriety and resist any urge to seek more entertaining pursuits than strolling about the village or sitting at a window writing letters….

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional Historical and New Adult Romance 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