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By Katie Hickman

Review by Cheryl Bolen

By Katie Hickman
HarperCollins Publishers,2003
$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 Hickman draws.

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 education.

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.

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