The shocking life of Harriette Wilson

Louise Peskett is the creator of the ‘Notorious Women of Brighton’ walking tours, which she put on for the Brighton Fringe Festival, International Women’s Day, and other festivals and events throughout the year.  Louise blogs about her tours, lectures on historical women, and profiles interesting women here:  Her walks have been featured on BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour and have appeared in other magazines and publications.  Louise writes an occasional column on historical women for a local newspaper.  A couple of years ago, she co-organised Brighton’s first Women’s History conference.  A long career in museum education behind her, she is also a published creative writer.

A few years ago, heartily tired of talking about the lives of Great Men in my job as tour-guide at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, I started to look into the women who lurked in the shadows of my home-town’s history.  The material I uncovered, while pounding the streets and poring over documents at the local history centre, was nothing short of astonishing.  The discovery that some of Britain’s first women doctors and police officers, the first female barrister, boundary-shifting artists, and ground-breaking female entrepreneurs have trodden the streets around me, their voices hidden by Brighton’s dominant story that it was ‘discovered’ by the Prince Regent and set on the road to seaside gaiety ever since, was a revelation.

Thinking it was about time that people knew this, I put a walking tour together, visiting the places where some of these intriguing women were born, lived, or just passed through.  I called it ‘Notorious Women of Brighton’.  The title gave people problems.  ‘Why “notorious”?’ I was asked.  ‘Aren’t you being a bit over-dramatic?  I thought these women were supposed to be good.  Wouldn’t “brilliant” or “celebrated” be more apt?’   But what I didn’t want people to forget is that, in the worlds that most of these women lived in, creating something new, making a success of yourself, or just demanding an education equal to that of men would have raised eyebrows, stepped on toes, been considered unattractively uppity.  Dr Louisa Martindale, Brighton’s first GP, for example, courted controversy with her research into STDs and the health of prostitutes.  Lawyer, Helena Normanton’s decision to keep her passport in her maiden name upon her marriage in 1924, becoming the first woman to do so, would not have elicited deafening cries of ‘bravo!’.  When Ellen Nye Chart, a hitherto working-class woman took on the management of the Theatre Royal in 1876 people were telling her it was no job for a woman even while she was making it into one of the most successful theatres in Britain.  Show me a woman who pushed a boundary, however beneficial for society in the long run, and the words ‘scandalous’ and ‘shocking’ would have followed close behind.

As for being ‘good’?  Well, why should only well-behaved and high-achieving women deserve to have their stories remembered?  I include some women on my tour simply because they tore up the rule book.  Some, despite the promise of an easier life if they just conformed to what a woman should be, brooked no compromise and, against the odds, managed to remain true to themselves.

Step forward, then, Harriette Wilson, (1786 – 1845), the cleverest courtesan of Regency London, who captivated, charmed and dazzled her way to the heart of fashionable society, only to shock, anger and terrify her way straight back out again.  Far from being anyone’s role-model, Harriette, spirited, single-minded, and a fiendishly good writer as we see in her ‘Memoirs’ (1825)  ducked and dived through society making sure, in a world heavily weighted towards men, she was always on the winning side, her life story, although controversial, setting the early nineteenth century alight by holding up a mirror to the double standards that riddled male and female behaviour.   Just look, for a start, at the first sentence of those ‘Memoirs’.

‘I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of CravenWhether it was love, or […] 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…’   From the first paragraph we know this isn’t going to be a staid biography.

‘I resided on the Marine Parade at Brighton…’ she informs us next and goes on to describe how the ‘winning arts’ of paramour Lord Craven have now dwindled to an annoying habit of drawing cocoa trees for her entertainment. ‘It was, in fact, a dead bore.’  Only a few sentences in, she moves onto an unflattering description of his sleepwear. ‘Surely, I would say, all men do not wear those ugly cotton nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed in the first night of marriage.’  This voice, frank, dry, knowing, allows us to see why Harriette was, in the sprawling Regency demi-monde, a true original.

Far from being prostitutes, courtesans like Harriette were not coveted for their sexual availability alone, but for their company, their style, and the cachet they would bring to a man’s reputation.  For the Regency gentleman around town, having Harriette on your arm was the early nineteenth century equivalent of dangling the keys to a Ferrari in your friends’ faces.  The most successful courtesans were clever, accomplished, witty, able to hold their own in conversation, a sort of alpha girlfriend who charged for her time. For a man in pre-Victorian, anything-goes London, there was nothing seedy or shameful about being seen at the opera with a woman like Harriette and, unlike women, men could slip easily between the above-board world of the respectable married family-man and the rowdy, gossipy, heavy drinking and gambling milieu of the dandies. Lesley Blanch writes in her introduction to Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs (Century, 1985) ‘The courtesan was expected to provide all the shades of companionship without the oppressive limitations and implications of marriage. She offered not only the bed but the sofa, the dinner-table and the salon – all save the nursery and the kitchen.’  So, all the fun of a relationship without the hard bits.  It was a man’s world, but, if she negotiated properly and stuck to her guns, a woman could make it work for her.

Like many of her sister courtesans, Harriette had made a decent start in life.  She attended a good boarding school and experienced a convent education.  Twice she attempted to hold onto a proper job as a music teacher in elegant girls’ boarding schools. Twice she ran away, finding the governess’s life deadly dull. The second time she came home after her career at a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne stalled, her father beat her.   Too adventurous to reconcile herself to any of the ‘decent’ options for a woman – either to become a stay-at-home wife for a husband chosen for her or to become a governess –  she took her life into her hands and left home, Lord Craven with his night-cap and cocoa trees providing a convenient, if dull, launchpad.   If the price of seeing more of life was to play the charming ‘bit on the side’ to a powerful and vain man, then, I suppose she reasoned, why not?  If she played her cards right (as Harriette inevitably and very cleverly did, employing business nous and PR skills far ahead of her time) she could command a lavish lifestyle. Clothes, jewellery, appropriate accommodation at a fashionable address, the latest carriage, even a pension would be forthcoming. Unlike prostitutes courtesans never solicited, they were sought after and prospective suitors of Harriette were rigorously ‘interviewed’.  Contracts were set up, salaries agreed on, terms and conditions set.  Harriette aimed high, she was particular in her choices, and understood that creating a mystique around herself would make her the most coveted woman in London.

One man who – initially – didn’t make the grade was George, Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent. Harriette approached him during that first stay in Brighton while the Prince was visiting his new, lavish Pavilion. ‘I wonder, thought I, what sort of a nightcap the Prince of Wales wears…’ she tells us.  She began a letter to the Prince, at the time the most eligible bachelor in the country.  ‘I am told that I am very beautiful., so, perhaps, you would like to see me […] if you believe you could make me in love with you, write to me…’ Amused, the Prince wrote back suggesting a meeting in London. This wasn’t good enough for Harriette. ‘Sir, to travel fifty-two miles, this bad weather, merely to see a man […] would, you must admit, be madness, in a girl like myself, surrounded by humble admirers…’ she wrote in response. ‘…if you can do anything better , in the way of pleasing a lady, than ordinary men, write directly: if not, adieu, Monsieur le Prince.’

The most shocking thing that Harriette did, however, came much later.  In 1825, about to turn forty, she found her fortunes fading. Many of the men who had promised her a pension as part of the deal had conveniently forgotten about her or were busy pulling strings in high places to absolve themselves from their agreed-upon commitments.   At her wits’ end and with poverty on the doorstep, she hit upon a way to make them pay up.  She’d write her memoirs and hold nothing back. She’d give the men concerned notice and if they were worried about the most minute details of their relationships with her being made public, well, she’d exclude them – at a price.  Why not? She’d lived by putting a price on her attractiveness, so why not now charge for her discretion too? The Henry Heath cartoon attached (image 2) shows what happened: a positive stampede of men, wanting to pay the £200 that would ensure anonymity, ensued.   Barricades had to be erected outside the publishers’ premises to keep them at bay.  Published in episodes, the men involved would have known when their shaming was nigh. It was one thing being linked to Harriette in the past but people were older, times were becoming less hedonistic, families and respectable dynasties had been forged.  No one wanted the warts-and-all details of their relationship with her revealed for all the world to know.  Famously, the Duke of Wellington refused to have anything to do with them.  ‘Publish and be damned!’  he declared.  Consequently the hero of Waterloo does not emerge well. ‘Rather like a rat-catcher’ is how Harriette describes him when they first met.  As for his pillow talk, it was ‘like sitting up with a corpse’.  What Harriette did, having played power games with men all her life, was to snatch it back – and how – in the world’s first ever kiss and tell.  Harriette grew rich, making ten thousand pounds out of her ‘Memoirs’, which enjoyed many years as a best-seller before the Victorians relegated them to the top shelf.  She was never admitted into polite society again, however.   At the time, for a woman to write frankly and unashamedly about sex – and then to do well out of it – was considered depravity of the worst type.  I like to think that, perhaps by then, Harriette had had enough of ‘polite’ society anyway.

If Harriette had been born today I’d like to think she’d be at the helm of an incredibly successful business.  For pluck and entrepreneurial skills, for sticking to her principles, even if they were vastly different from the ones of everyone else at the time, for making more than a few people consider that, although it was fine for a man to stray from the family home, it wasn’t for a woman, sowing the seed for later nineteenth century feminists to mull over, and simply for telling the most eligible man in Britain she couldn’t be bothered to see him because the weather was bad, I think Harriette deserves the acclaim and praise of being one of history’s most notorious – and dangerous – women.



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