Harriette Wilson's Memoirs
Review By Cheryl Bolen
Lesley Blanch, Editor
Phoenix, London, 2003
£9.99, 471 pages
of this large, UK trade paperback tauts Harriette as "The Greatest
Courtesan of Her Age." Indeed, she was the most celebrated demimonde of
the Regency period.
seeking a racy read within the pages of this book, however, will be
disappointed. The bedroom door stays closed. That is not to say the book
is disappointing. It's anecdotal and full of interesting stories about
the beau monde of Regency England.
much grabs you from Page 1 with this opening:
I shall not
say why or how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl
of Craven. Whether it was love or the severity of my father, the
depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which
induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his
protection, does not now much signify; or if it does, I am not in the
humour to gratify curiosity in this manner.
she gratify curiosity about her family, other than the three of her
sisters whose chosen, profligate path mirrored her own. She adopted the
surname Wilson, which she used until she married late in life.
Harriette Dubouchet in 1786, she was one of 15 children born to the
union of John Dubouchet, originally from Switzerland, and his wife
Amelia, who was said to be an illegitimate, well-educated daughter of a
wealthy country gentleman. As a child, Harriette's mother was a
particular favorite of Lady Frederick Campbell, an aunt of the Duke of
I feel for the memory of a most tender parent, makes me anxious that she
should be acquitted from every shadow of blame, which might, by some,
perhaps, be imputed to her, in consequence of her daughters' errors, and
the life they fell into.
She goes on
to say that, "having no fortune to bestow on us, she [her mother] gave
us the best education in her power." The children, who called Mayfair
home, grew up speaking French as easily as English.
skills came in particularly handy when — past her prime, financially
destitute, and married to a scoundrel — Harriette stuck upon the idea of
penning her memoirs.
she offered men the opportunity to buy out of them for a few hundred
pounds. From the buy-outs and the book, which went into 31 printings
the year it was published in 1826, she made a considerable amount of
much is known about her final years, it is thought her husband wasted
the money away, then left her penniless.
reading of her nearly 500-page book, though, will not give the reader
any kind of picture of the chronology of Harriette's life. She is
especially vague about dates, and does not even correspond happenings to
her own age at the time. Nor does she give the reader a sense of how her
age compared to that of her various "protectors."
she refers to many of the men she knew as young(er) men by the titles
conferred upon them at much later dates. One case in point: the Duke of
Wellington, whom she always refers to as either His Grace or Wellington,
when in fact he was a peninsular officer still using the name Wellesley
during the years she had dealings with him.
these dealings with Wellington were, however, one has to assume. She was
never formally under his protection, but he was keen on several
occasions to spend time with Harriette.
refers to one of her earlier protectors as Argyle, when the Duke of
Argyle was merely the Marquis of Lorne at the time Harriette was his
Much of the
book is taken up with the underage Lord Worcester, with whom she lived
as husband and wife. According to Harriette, Lord Worcester begged her
to run off to Gretna Green and marry him, but in consideration of the
disparity in their stations and her concern for his parents, the Duke
and Duchess of Beaufort, she refused.
she freely gave the duke his son's letters professing his intention of
marrying her when he came of age, even though lawyers told her they were
worth £20,000. Later, Worcesters' father sent him to battle in the
peninsula to get him away from Harriette, and Harriette succeeded in
getting an annuity from the duke. But the annuity was stopped when the
duke discovered Harriette had broken her promise and written to his son.
By the time
Worcester returned to England, he no longer fancied himself in love with
moved on to her wealthy "sugar baker," Richard Meyler, whom she claimed
had an enormous income of £30,000 a year.
not to have fancied herself in love with any of her protectors. The love
of her life was Viscount Ponsonby, a handsome man she worshiped from
afar — without even knowing his identity. Eventually she contrived to
meet him, and they subsequently became lovers. When his wife found out
sometime later, he promised his wife he would never again see Harriette.
lord kept his word.
many years Harriette reigned over London's demimonde is unclear.
Probably less than fifteen years, from approximately 1801 to 1815. When
she faded away is also unclear.
the years of her young womanhood, she lived a lavish lifestyle. Her box
at the opera (King's Theatre) cost £200 a season (approximately $20,000
in today's dollars). She had her own carriage, a staff of servants, and
fashionable houses and clothing.
Fanny (her favorite), Amy (whom she disliked), and Sophy all partook of
the loose lifestyle adopted by Harriette. Amy came under the protection
of Argyle after Harreitte and bore him a son. Sophy, the youngest, fared
better. After becoming mistress of Lord Deerhurst (a man who did not
wash) at age thirteen, Sophy captured the heart of Lord Berwick, who
became obsessed with her, even though she could not stand him. Given
that Lord Berwick was exceedingly wealthy and titled, Sophy eventually
favored him with her affections — in exchange for the title of Lady
marriage, she cut her sisters.
sister, respectably married and shunning her sisters' disreputable
lives, Harriette refers to as Paragon. Harriette claims Paragon allowed
her children to run around the house naked, and Harriette intimates (in
a humorous way) an incestuous relationship between Paragon's children.
the memoirs does Harriette profess any guilt about her self-described
"perseverance in loose morality."
Only a few
peers are revealed in all their lecherous glory. Among these is Prince
Esterhazy, whom she accuses of having a penchant for very young girls.
Hertford (in real life extremely profligate) is treated kindly, though
she describes in detail his pleasure nest:
detached building, which he had taken pains to fit up, in a very
luxurious style of elegance. A small, low gate, of which he always kept
the key, opened into Park Lane, and little narrow flight of stairs,
covered with crimson cloth, conducted to this retirement. It consisted
of a dressing-room, a small sitting room, and a bedchamber. Over the
elegant French bed was a fine picture of a sleeping Venus. There were a
great many other pictures, and their subjects, though certainly warm and
voluptuous, were yet too classical and graceful to merit the appellation
of indecent. He directed our attention to the convenience of opening the
door, himself, to any fair lady who would honour him with a visit
Hertford, whose mother was a mistress of the regent, is just one of the
members of the haute ton who merit mention in the memoirs. Lord Byron,
Beau Brummel, Tom Sheridan, Lord William Alvanley, Lord Fred Lamb, Lord
Frederick Bentinck, Lord Hugh Ebrington, Henry Luttrell, and Henry
Brougham are frequently mentioned. Though she was not intimate with
Byron, he answered her later request for money.
have found Harriette's memoirs to be the most readable of all such
tell-tale books. Her style is as humorous as it is entertaining.
the price of the book just to read Blanch's luscious 56-page
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in