By Katie Hickman
Review by Cheryl Bolen
By Katie Hickman
$24.95, 232 pages
(also available in trade paperback)
While the prospect of reading about eighteenth and nineteenth
century courtesans intrigues, the reality of delivering new, detailed
information about their lives is almost impossible. A fallen woman is
not one whose family or former (married) lovers wish to publicize.
Therefore, little information about these promiscuous women has been
preserved for future generations.
In Katie Hickman’s Courtesans, little – if any – new
information is presented on the five English women whose claim to fame
was their sexual prowess.
Three of the five women highlighted within these pages were famous
during the Regency: Soffia Baddeley (1745-1786), Elizabeth Armistead
(1750-1842), and Harriet Wilson (1786-1845).
Soffia Baddeley made a name for herself on the stage and was for a
brief period one of the most admired, famous women in London. She became
the mistress of the first Lord Melbourne, who lavished her with money
and jewels. After Lord Melbourne grew tired of her (and began to run out
of the money he had so recklessly spent, her attractions began to
decline. Once her courtesan days were over, she lived as man and wife
with two men (at separate times) and bore three children. She died at
age forty, in poverty and addicted to laudanum.
Hickman was unable to verify the origins of Elizabeth Armistead,
brief lover to the future Prince Regent and wife of leading Whig
statesman Charles James Fox. How Armistead became a prostitute at one of
London’s finest brothels is also unclear. Most of Hickman’s information
on Armistead comes from Fox’s papers and deals almost solely with the
years after Fox made an honest woman of her.
Unlike the other women profiled here, Elizabeth Armistead was able
to completely turn her back on her former, demi-monde life.
Because Fox was so beloved, his wife was accepted by the ton. She
and Fox were deeply attached to one another and were happiest at her
country home outside of London. Though Fox likely had two or three
illegitimate children before he met her when he was in his mid-thirties,
she never had any, and Fox died without an heir.
Harriet Wilson was undoubtedly the most famous courtesan of the
Regency and remains famous because of her memoirs, published in the
Regency and still being published today. It is from these memoirs that
For a woman of humble origins who became a courtesan at age
fifteen, Harriet Wilson was remarkably clever, a fact that is apparent
in her well-written memoirs. She was one of fifteen children born to a
Swiss watchmaker and his English wife. Hickman tells us no less than
four of the sisters would become courtesans. (One of her sisters
succeeded in marrying a peer, Lord Berwick.)
It is thought the girls were educated by their mother, who was the
illegitimate child of a gentleman and who was allegedly adopted by an
aunt of the Duke of Argyll, which ensured that she received a good
During Harriet’s courtesan years, she served successively as
mistress to a number of well-connected men. Though she was never a
fixture in one of the London brothels, she was thought to have gotten
her hands on quick cash through a system known as "introducing houses."
The exclusive house patronized by Harriet was run by a procuress, Mrs.
Porter, who specialized in arranging meetings with a very select group
of men and her cut-way-above-the-ordinary prostitutes. It was in this
manner Harriet made the acquaintance of the Duke of Wellington – who
refused to buy himself out of the memoirs. (Dates in her memoirs cannot
be taken for fact. Her faulty memory has her having sex with the duke
after his Waterloo fame when, in fact, Hickman proves their liaison
took place many years earlier.)
The love of Harriet’s life was the exceedingly handsome young Lord
Posonby, who was – inconveniently – married. Harriet chased him
relentlessly before she succeeded in bedding him. Their subsequent
affair became common knowledge, wounding the wife he apparently loved.
To Harriet’s despair, he promised his wife not to see Harriet again, and
he kept his word.
As Harriet’s courtesan days faded into memory, her poverty made
her regret that she had not procured annuities from her rich protectors
– as was the practice when a courtesan went under the formal protection
of a gentleman. Her solution was to pen the memoirs with an eye to
blackmail. Each man mentioned in the memoirs was given the opportunity
to buy himself out of them for £200 (about $35,000 today). Through the
buy-outs and the popularity of the published book, it is estimated that
she earned a million dollars in today’s money – which was evidently
squandered by the scoundrel she eventually married and who reportedly
left her for a younger woman. Harriet never had any children and died in
poverty in France, her slim source of income coming from her old
acquaintance, Henry Brougham, the lawyer who represented Queen Caroline
at her 1820 trial. Hickman was not successful in learning much of
Harriet’s later years.
Cora Peel and Catherine Walters, who lived in a later period, are
also profiled in Courtesans.
Hickman compensates for her dearth of new information on these
celebrated women by chronicling courtesans of the era and supplements
the scantiness of new material with rich historical detail.
Be warned: the bedroom door stays closed.
--This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in December 2006.