I had never heard of Harriette Wilson before I came across this very interesting blog post about her and her siblings. She was a courtesan in the late 18th and early 19th century London. The daughter of a shopkeeper, but became the mistress of some of the most powerful men in Regency London. The voices of women of the past are not as loud or as noticeable of that of men’s, but here we get the perspective of a woman who was accepted into high society but always remained an outsider – a demimonde in the truest sense of the word!
Harriette Wilson wrote these memoirs in 1825 at the end of her career as a courtesan. I have read elsewhere that she was middle-aged when it was published. But she was only thirty! But of course whilst a man is entering his best years at thirty, a woman is of course not good for anything but the grave after that! Harriette is wonderfully uninterested in explaining to us how she came to make her living as a professional mistress to the rich and wealthy, and dives straight into describing her admirers.
I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress to the Earl of Craven.
She absolutely does not shy away from naming them! And why should she? These were names that certainly would catch the eye of her contemporary readers: the playwright Sheridan (who wrote Jack Absolute), William Lamb (he became Viscount of Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister and was cockholded by Lord Byron, and his wife Caroline wrote the infamous phrase ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’), the Duke of Wellington himself and several other aristocrats. She was also told that the Prince Regent himself fancied her!
How on earth would this book have been received when it was published? People back then were probably just as keen for gossip about celebrities as we are know, but sex outside of marriage and unmarried women having sex would have been more than frowned upon. And in this book Harriette expressing some rather shocking opinions for her time. For instance she writes that she cannot see the use of marriage – what does a ceremony signify! And most of her relationships are with married men. The woman is entirely unrepentant.
But Harriette also goes a long way to emphasize that she has her own set of values when it comes to admirers and that she woman without morals. As she describes it, a new relationship with a patron always begins with love, both on her side as well as the man’s. She also claims that she does not deceive her lovers with other men – although there are a couple of occasions in which she absolutely does attach herself to a new man before telling the previous one that it is over. Harriette feels strangely superior to her sister Amy, who share her profession, because Amy openly enjoys entertaining several gentlemen before picking out one to bestow her favors upon. Harriette has much more dignity and self-respect, or so she presents herself to the readers. It is as if Harriette is trying to balance her Regency societal norms for women virtuous of celibacy and meekness with a life-style that is absolutely not publicly accepted by good society.
But there is more to the courtesan life than choosing lovers and attending the opera! When the men decide to exit a relationship, they can do so without facing any consequences at all. But the courtesans cannot abandon their children and are dependent on finding a new love as soon as possible. Harriette also describes an episode in which one man became so angry she feared for her life. To modern eyes it is pretty difficult to read about 40 year old men having relationships with teenage girls who rely on them for money and their life in society.
Throughout the books, Harriette presents herself as heroine of a dramatic novel. There are dramatic confrontations and handsome mysterious suitors, but sometimes it is painfully clear that she is painting herself in a very favorable light. For instance, she is disdainful of courtesans that believe they can marry their aristocratic boyfriends. But when she describes how she was not at all hurt when the parents of one lover become terrified at the very thought of Harriette as a daughter-in-law, I did not entirely buy her claim of never wanting to wed the young, kind and rich Lord Worcester’s. Harriette must have hoped for a life in which poverty was not a looming threat.
Apparently Harriette tried to blackmail Wellington. Said she would not publish these memoirs if he would kindly help her financially. The soldier supposedly wrote back ‘Publish and be dammed!’. I love that her way of getting back at the men who did not compensate her financially for giving them her virtue, was to write this book. They absolutely should be punished for their hypocrisy! Wilson never goes into the details of the sex itself, but the book must have terribly juicy back in the day.
To me , as non-native speaker of English, the old-fashioned style of writing and the number of people I had never heard of made the book a loooong read, and I had to push myself to finish it. Anyway Harriette belonged to a societal group who are usually written about and whose perspective is not often represented and it is a fascinating read.