Harriette Wilson liked to insult her suitors. Early on in her career she discovered the fastest way to get a man on his knees was to show him how little he could succeed the first go around. Courtesans, of course, were famous for this.
For a certain caliber of female, hardships birth wit, and to the gentleman trapped in a stratum of dull, mannered ladies, wit was an aphrodisiac. So, it seems, was cheek.
Harriette’s method was ridiculously simple. She laid siege to powerful men by writing queries like the one she “half in humour” dashed off to the Prince of Wales: “I am told that I am very beautiful, so perhaps you would like to see me. . .” When his reply was returned to her in the affirmative, she further wrote,
This sauciness inspired the ardor of many influential men during her reign, including the Duke of Wellington, the Marquess of Worcester, the Duke of Argyll, and Lord Melbourne’s son, the Honorable Frederick Lamb. One can scarcely leave out her first lover, the Earl of Craven.
At the age of 15, Craven introduced her to the pursuits of pleasure, but she was no more enamored of him than of his cocoa trees from the West Indies. By her own account, he would amuse her by drawing pictures of his “fellows” along with the dreaded trees, a practice Harriette called a “dead bore.” It didn’t help that she despaired of his cotton night cap. “Surely,” [she] would say, “all men do not wear those shocking nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed on the first night of their marriage.”
Harriette Wilson’s dismal opinion of marriage was borne from early experience: “. . .my dear mother’s marriage had proved to me so forcibly the miseries of two people of contrary opinions and character torturing each other to the end of their natural lives, that, before I was ten years old, I decided in my own mind to live free as air from any restraint but that of my own conscience.”
Although Harriette forbore blaming her parent’s marriage, and indeeded stressed that her dear mother did not influence her choice in profession, an unhappy home life seemed to affect the family at large. Among her sisters, three of them turned Cyprian—Amy, Sophia, and Fanny.
The closest in age, Harriette and Amy spent their careers competing for affections with the latter sister stealing lovers from the former. Harriette blamed Amy for instigating the strain between them, once stating, “Amy’s virtue was something like the nine lives of a cat.” Amy later bore a son by the Duke of Argyll, Harriette’s third lover.
Fanny and Sophia are, by degrees, less interesting. Fanny was described by a mutual acquaintance as “. . .the sweetest creature on earth.” Harriette had nothing but affection for her, saying she was “. . . the most popular woman I ever met with. The most ill-natured and spiteful of her sex could never find it in their hearts to abuse one who, in their absence, warmly fought all their battles . . .” Settled for seven years after the death of her lover and the father of her three children, Fanny died young after a three week illness.
The youngest sister, Sophia, endowed the family with honor by marrying her protector, Lord Berwick, in 1812. She, however, inspired much exasperation in Harriette before she retired into matrimonial bliss. On one occasion, her sisters were in hysterics when the 14 year old Sophia “…went away with Lord Deerhurst [that prince of hypocrites], being innocent as an infant as to the nature of seduction and its consequence . . . Sophie was a child, and not a very clever one…” The situation sounds strikingly similar to Lydia’s flight with Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.
A connection between Jane Austen and Harriette’s first lover, Lord Craven, can be found here.
S.W. Fores of Piccadilly printed a caricature by H. Heath in 1825 called “La Coterie Debauché”
Harriette is writing while her cadre of lovers watch on.
Although a well-known courtesan in Regency times, we have Harriette’s memoirs to thank for her enduring legacy in ours. The memoirs were published in 1825, a move she describes as a “desperate effort to live by my wits.” This is a marked contrast from the manner in which she formerly earned her living. The memoirs gained her a reputation far exceeding that of a demimondaine. Rather than earning admiration for her enterprise in a sticky situation, she was scorned by her methods.
Harriette was nearing old age–in truth, her thirties–when her protectors decided she wasn’t worth the jangle in their pockets. Denied the annuity promised by the Duke of Bedford upon her agreement to forsake his heir, the Marquess of Worcester, Harriette was left penniless. Her beauty diminishing along with her funds, the woman who later wrote, “I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man. He must make a friend and companion of me, or he will lose me,” dared blackmail the feckless gentlemen who had thrown her off. The famous reply by the Duke of Wellington, “publish, and be damned,” arises from Harriette’s request for funds in exchange to leave his name out of her memoirs.
Regardless of who paid up, the suprisingly tasteful history of her love life earned her a small fortune. Her publisher, John Stockdale, was forced to queue the crowds that stormed his shop upon the latest print installments. This nail biting manuever served Harriette well. The installments tested the nerves of her former lovers while they awaited the appearance of their names in the next issue. How many cried off at the last minute, we can only imagine. From the date of their publication, her memoirs increased in notoriety and exceeded Harriette’s hope of twenty editions. reaching thirty in its first year as well as the six volume French version.
Even today they are great reading. Harriette may have resorted to blackmailing and thereby acquired a reputation for unreliability, but she has an intelligent wit. She vilified some of her lovers, yes, but treated others with a fair pen. And she did not always spare herself in the telling.
The eBook format for Harriette’s memoirs can be downloaded free here.
Various plates from a set of eight satirical illustrations to the memoirs of Harriette Wilson from The British Museum
- Harriette Wilson – A Parody on Collins’s Ode – “The Passions”
- Wilsoniana, or Lust levels all distinctions
- Harriette Wilson’s last letter-or a new method of raising the wind!!
- Disappointment! The Duke of W… Alais the Rat Catcher refused admittance to H.Wilson
- Employment! the Marquis of W-r laceing H.Wilson’s Stays, & makeing toast for breakfast
- The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson
- Tribute for Harriette: The Surprising Career of Harriette Wilson by Angela Thirkell (out of print but available for a trifle on amazon us)
- Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs: The Memoirs of the Reigning Courtesan of Regency London (the edited version if you’re so inclined) US UK