During the month of October, I am featuring stories of “wild women” of the Regency era. This week, I am discussing the famous courtesan, Harriette Wilson.
Picture from Wikipedia.com
Sex scandals are nothing new.
In 1825, well-known courtesan Harriette Wilson published her memoirs in a British paper, despite the warnings of the first Duke of Wellesley: “Publish and be damned.”
Harriette was born with the last name De Bouchet, but she later assumed the surname Wilson. She was one of fifteen children of the Swiss merchant, John De Bouchet (believed to have taken the name Wilson around 1801).
You will never hear me glorify or in any way condone prostitution, so I don’t wish to mislead any readers with this post. In fact, I think Harriette’s story is as sad as any other teenager who is falsely led to believe that “high class prostitution" or "escort services” are somehow better than other types. Exploitation is exploitation no matter how it’s packaged.
In the 19th century, many men of rank and nobility regularly sought out prostitutes and courtesans (what we might today term as escorts). Courtesans were not simply for sex, although that was most certainly part of it. They were worn like an adornment—taken to parties and gambling establishments. The flipside of the illustrious parties and expensive gifts was that these women were often part of the stakes in a wager. Courtesans were educated and talents were cultivated. They were expected to play piano, sing, offer charming and interesting conversation, and endeavor to be as popular as possible. It was in this way they became “famous” or “sought after.”
Harriette Wilson’s memoir begins with the line, "I shall not say why and 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…"
Whether she allowed her seduction or was coerced, once seduced by the Earl, Harriette’s options were practically nonexistent. Courtesan was the only “career” open to women once “ruined” by a man. Nevertheless, Harriette went on to become the mistress of numerous men of nobility throughout her life, even turning down marriage proposals.
Sadly, three of Harriette’s younger sisters also became courtesans, despite Harriette’s attempt to keep her sister Sophia from such a fate.
Today, most women “in the life” don’t make it into their thirties. And in fact, it was when Harriette began to age into her thirties that the men who had so adored her turned to younger fare.
Penniless, Harriette’s purpose for publication of the memoirs was blackmail. The men were to pay up or she would publish their names amongst her writings. Much consternation and anxiety mounted amongst the gentlemen as each week they awaited a new installment. Would their name be mentioned? John Stockdale, the publisher of her memoirs was forced to blockade against the angry gentlemen who crowded the street in front of his shop.
As is the case in any scandalous writing, the memoirs were immensely popular, and over twenty editions were printed.
In the modern world, scandals are so commonplace that they all run together. The news talks about nothing but the scandal for a few weeks, and then it's forgotten again. Remember the Hugh Grant scandal from the 1990s? No? Yeah, forgiven and forgotten.
In the Regency, however, scandals of any kind were literally that … scandals. People did not forget about them. They were outrageous and shocking. They ruined reputations, livelihoods, and lives.
Do you pay any attention to scandals?
Ardelie, Susan. “The Magnificent Cheek of Harriette Wilson.” February 11, 2012.
Lark, Jane. “The darker side of Regency England, the story of how Harriette Wilson’s sister, Sophia, was seduced, and coerced, into the life of a courtesan.” April 21, 2013.
“Harriette Wilson.” Wikipedia.com