Cheryl Bolen, author of OH WHAT A WEDDING NIGHT shares her research
The Regency’s Most Famous Courtesan
Harriette Wilson is touted as “The Greatest Courtesan of Her Age.” Indeed, she was the most celebrated demimonde of the Regency period.
Those 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.
She pretty 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.
Nor will 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.
Born 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 Argyle.
Harriette tells us:
The respect 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.
Writing 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.
But first, 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 money.
While not much is known about her final years, it is thought her husband wasted the money away, then left her penniless.
Even the reading of her nearly 500-page memoir, 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.”
In fact, 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.
Just what 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.
She also 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 mistress.
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 claims 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 Harriette.
Harriette moved on to her wealthy “sugar baker,” Richard Meyler, whom she claimed had an enormous income of £30,000 a year.
She appears 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.
The noble lord kept his word.
Just how 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.
But during 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.
Her sisters 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 Berwick.
Upon her marriage, she cut her sisters.
Another 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.
Nowhere in 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.
Lord Hertford (in real life extremely profligate) is treated kindly, though she describes in detail his pleasure nest:
A small 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 incognita.”
Lord 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.
Scholars 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.
I recommend the British edition edited by Lesley Blanch. It’s worth the price of the book just to read Blanch’s luscious 56-page introduction.
About OH WHAT A WEDDING NIGHT
As Lady Sophia Beresford (recently Lady Finkel) passes through the gates of her new bridegroom’s country estate and he begins to whisper in her ear of the delights that await her in his bed, Lady Sophia realizes she has made a most dreadful mistake. There’s only one thing to do. She must bolt.
The bride-on-the-run is rescued by the exceedingly handsome William Birmingham who thinks she’s a woman named Isadore, and though he’s the richest man in England, she mistakes him for a common (but well-to-do) criminal. Since she’d rather be dead than wed to Finkel, Sophia pretends to be Isadore and take her chances with the provocative Mr. Birmingham. But how could she have known that her ruse would bring the gallant Mr. Birmingham into such peril from the wicked man she married? And how could she have known her enigmatic rescuer would ignite passions she’d never known she possessed?