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?


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Jane O
Jane O
11 years ago

Independence? Surely you jest (or they deluded themselves).
Any illusion of independence is just that-an illusion. Pretending it isn’t prostitution is only pretending. A courtesan is always completely dependent on the whims of the man who pays the bills, no matter how much they wrap it up in tales of high romance. She has even less protection from the law than a married woman did, and no support from society as a whole. Her likely fate was to die in poverty, as Harriette Wilson did, frequently diseased as well.
The best one can say for the life of a courtesan is that it was for these women the best, or the only, way to survive.
I am not condemning these women, but I see no point in glamorizing what was a humiliating fate.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Jane O, I don’t jest. This is what I read and this is what some of the recent biographers of courtesans are saying. But I share some of your objections, which is why I wrote about my own suspicion that it was indeed the best way they knew to survive.

The one freedom they had was that they could switch protectors more easily than a married woman could switch husbands. Some of them seemed to be quite happy for a while, reigning in their particular sphere. Of course that made the eventual downfall worse for most of them didn’t appear to save for the future.

None of the courtesans I have read about so far had what we’d consider a romance ending. Harriette’s sister Sophia did end up married to her protector, but it appears she never liked him. It was a purely practical decision.

This is all probably why I haven’t written a courtesan story yet.

Artie Mesia
11 years ago

I’ve read quite a few biographies of courtesans although most of them were with kings. I think part of it was about power or at least when the woman was sleeping with a high powered man. Pillow talk was a place where the courtesan could voice her opinion and at times her ideas would become law or the rule. Nell Gwyn did this quite well.

I first became interested in this because of a documentary on Betty Pack. Betty was a WWII spy, but I look at her as a bit of a courtesan. She made friends with and slept with high powered men to get military secrets. She saved over 10,000 British lives. I asked my sister if she could sleep with someone to gain power and information. She said yes immediately. I know I couldn’t do it. I think that might be my fascination. I couldn’t live that lifestyle so it intrigues me.

One of my favorite courtesan books is My Lady Scandalous, which Risky’s has talked about before. And Elena, I do agree with you. I think there was a bit of independence, but it was a unique form of independence. It was won for a brief period, but could disappear just as quickly.

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

I think it could be an independent life if you never, ever fooled yourself into believing it was anything other than what it was – a job. A smart woman with looks and charm, a good banker and a great lawyer could get into the profession, amass the where-with-all to live comfortably for life and then get out before any of the damage was done.

True independence comes with no illusions as to what you are and what you have done to survive.

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

I agree with Louisa. I think a woman could gain independence if she treated being a courtesan like a job and if she invested in a “retirement” plan, but I think the woman might not understand the emotional consequences of lovemaking.

11 years ago

I am most interested of the process of separation and finding a new protector. Did the courtesan sell that lovely parting gift, and invest, or did they end up old and broke? Very curious.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Artie Mesia, Betty Pack sounds fascinating. On my list to read more about her now.

Louisa and Diane, I can imagine this sort of woman, though Harriette didn’t do it that way. The expectation that these relationships were supposed to be based on love would be in conflict with the goal of treating it like a job. One would have to be a very hardheaded actress.

Sheila, I have read about that lovely parting gift in many novels but Harriette doesn’t mention such. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, of course, but she complained more about men who didn’t pay what they had promised. It’s possible a courtesan would save for the future, but Harriette didn’t.

11 years ago

Two of my favorite courtesan books are “Sleeping Beauty” by Judith Ivory and an older Regency, “Fortune’s Mistress” by Margaret Chase Comstock. The Ivory book is a wonderful romance, but it is the Comstock that gives a true sense of what it meant to be a girl of good family, ruined and with nowhere to turn but to become a courtesan. There is a scene early in the book where Marianne, heavily veiled, goes to a park in order to talk to her sister, since neither can go to the other’s house. The two sisters love each other, and the meeting is understated yet heartbreaking (of course, Marianne gets her HEA in the end).

Marianne at least has been smart with her money, but all too many of these women were not. One would think they would know that they had a short shelf life and save accordingly, but I think there was pressure to live large and entertain lavishly, much to the detriment of their retirement.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Susan/DC, I enjoyed BEAUTY too, though I haven’t read the other one.

As to managing money, I think courtesans were kind of like some celebs and athletes now, living the life and deluding themselves that it will never end. And to a degree, elegant living was a job requirement.

I’ll talk more next Saturday.

Artie Mesia
11 years ago

Elena, the best book about her is called “Cast No Shadow.” It’s out of print.



There are a few copies. I highly recommend it. And I don’t know where you post from, but you can find out more about her at the International Spy Museum in DC. She has her own little sections in one of the many rooms. You can read about her in other books too, but there are just chapters. She truly is fascinating. Amazing story.

11 years ago

I have not read many courtesan stories. I am a bit surprised of the degree with which they were “accepted” in society. The women knew they existed, the men openinl//////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// (I really need to get to bed earlier so I can make it through more blogs before falling asleep at my computer)
The men openly discussed the women in their lives. I think with the number of men who cared deeply for their mistresses was probably higher than we might think. With so many marriages based on something other than love , it isn’t much o surprise.
It seems women got into the business to avoid a loveless union or were forced into it by other circumstances.

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