The Life of a Regency Courtesan, Part I

I just finished HARRIETTE WILSON’S MEMOIRS. Though I don’t trust her on details of dates, persons or places, I find her memoirs highly satisfying Regency research, for at least two reasons. One is her use of language, which feels so conversational. The second is what they reveal about the lives of Regency courtesans: Harriette herself, her three sisters and her friend/rival Julia Johnstone.

Courtesan heroines used to be somewhat taboo in romance, but now I think they are becoming a trope rather like dukes (i.e. shorthand for glamorous and sexy). Actually, one of my favorite courtesan stories is GAMES OF PLEASURE by Julia Ross, in which the hero is the heir to a dukedom. But I digress!

I don’t have a courtesan story on the backburner, but I never say never. If I ever write a courtesan story, just as with dukes, I would write with an awareness of the reality as well as the fantasy. There’s some of both in Harriette’s memoirs.

One aspect I find interesting is the motivation for taking up such a life. Recent biographers of courtesans suggest a desire for independence, and this is borne out by Harriette’s account.

“I am afraid my conscience has been a very easy one; but, certainly, I have followed its dictates. There was a want of heart and delicacy, I always thought, in leaving any man, without full and sufficient reasons for it. At the same time, my dear mother’s marriage had proved to me so forcibly, the miseries of two people of contrary opinions and character, torturing each other to the end of their natural lives, that, before I was ten years old, I decided, in my own mind, to live as free as air from any restraint but that of my conscience.”

However, I don’t doubt the motivations to become a courtesan were complicated and as varied as individuals. None that I’ve read about had the connections or fortune to be likely to make a good marriage (although a few did eventually). Some were “ruined” when very young. So becoming a courtesan may have been an attractive alternative to the otherwise limited opportunities women had for interesting and gainful employment. Perhaps for some it was a way to gain some power.

I get the impression from the memoirs that neither Harriette nor her fellow courtesans thought of themselves as high-end prostitutes and showed much the same disgust for them that one would expect of a respectable woman. She tells a story of going to the play with a friend and then mistakenly leaving through the wrong room: “Oh, dear me! Good gracious, Mrs. Prude, we are in the lobby, with all the very worst women!” When she goes to Melton (having been previously told it was not the thing to join the men there during hunting season) she is shocked at the “wretched, squalid prostitutes”.

I think there’s more here than the contempt of the elite for the less glamorous practitioner. In the career of a courtesan, for instance, companionship and lively conversation were important as well as sex. There are many places in the memoirs where the courtesans and their pretenders live a sort of mock-marriage. Love, or at least the semblance of love, seemed often to be important to one or both parties.

Here’s an exchange in which Harriette urges Julia Johnstone to take up with Napier:

“Napier is your man. Since you could be unchaste to gratify your own passions, I am sure it cannot be wrong to secure the comfort and protection of six beautiful children.”

“But Napier’s vanity makes me sick,” retorted Julia, impatiently. “The possession of my person would not satisfy him. He wants me to declare and prove that I love him; and the thing is physically impossible.”

Here’s a bit about her sister Sophia and a prospective lover:

Sophia continued to hint, with proper delicacy and due modest blushes, that her living with him or not, must depend on what his intentions were: in other words, she gently intimated that, as yet, she was ignorant what settlement he meant to make on her. The gay handsome Colonel Berkeley’s vanity being now deeply wounded, he in his sudden rage, entirely lost sight of what was due to the soft sex, at least to that part of it which had been so hard upon him. “Do you fancy me so humble and so void of taste, as to buy with money the reluctant embraces of any woman breathing?”

Harriette writes of Lord Ponsonby and “…how he, one day, one night I mean, called me his angelic Harriette! and further declared that, had he known me sooner, he would never have married any other woman?” In other places, he calls her his “angel-wife.”

I’ll talk more about Harriette in a later post, but for now, do you enjoy courtesan stories? What do you find most interesting about the life of a courtesan?

Elena

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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