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The Life of a Regency Courtesan, Part II

Last week I blogged about Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs. This week I’ll talk about some more aspects of the Regency courtesan’s life.

Courtesans were expected to be witty and accomplished, capable of conversing with their aristocratic protectors and their friends. Harriette was well aware that education could help in this regard.

My sisters used to subscribe to little circulating libraries, in the neighborhood, for the common novels of the day; but I always hated these. Fred Lamb’s choice was happy—Milton, Shakespeare, Byron, the Rambler, Virgil, etc. I must know all aobut these Greeks and Romans, said I to myself. Some day I will go into the country quite alone, and study like mad. I am too young now.

In the meantime, I was absolutely charmed by Shakespeare. Music, I always had a natural talent for. I played well on the pianoforte; that is, with taste and execution, though almost without study.

Later, when Lord Ponsonby went out of town upon the death of his father, Harriette went into the country to study, in order to become “more worthy” of him.

The word study sounded very well, I thought, as I pronounced it; and, after arranging my books in due order, in the pretty rural room allotted to me by my civil landlady, I sat down to consider which of them I should begin with, in order to become clever and learned at the shortest notice…

As we talked about last week, money was an important issue. Being a courtesan carried serious business expenses. One had to dress well. Harriette was careful to be fashionable and wearing white was her signature style. Perhaps white was used in a way to emphasize her elegance and distinguish her from more vulgar professionals? A courtesan had to rent a box at the opera (kind of a shop window) and to entertain lavishly. Harriette makes fun of her sister Amy for eating black-puddings, but perhaps this was Amy’s way of being frugal.

Harriette was not frugal and wrote of always being out of funds. One thing she complains of frequently is of protectors being cheap. At one point Harriette asks her sister Fanny if things are going well between Julia Johnstone and Napier.

Oh, he is horridly stingy,” answered Fanny, “and Julia is obliged to affect coldness and refuse him the slightest favour till he brings her money; otherwise she would get nothing out of him. Yet he seems to be passionately fond of her, and writes sonnets to her beauty, styling her, at forty, although the mother of nine children, ‘his beautiful maid.’

Harriette was supposed to receive an annuity from the Duke of Beaufort for breaking off her relationship with his heir, Lord Worcester, but she reports being stiffed.

In the end, writing her memoirs was a last-ditch attempt to raise funds. Some paid to be omitted from them, although Wellington famously said “Publish and be damned!”

Another problem courtesans dealt with were lovers who were unattractive, unpleasant, who wanted “services” they were not comfortable providing, or even ones who were violent.

Her sister Fanny told her:

Ward wanted me to submit to something I conceived improper. When I refused, he said, with much fierceness of manner, such as my present weak state of nerves made me ill able to bear, ‘D—d affectation.’

Another risk was that of falling in love with one’s protector and getting hurt.

Harriette claims not to have thought about the pain she might be inflicting on the wife of Lord Ponsonby, the one man she appears to have loved deeply.

I am now astonished at that infatuation, which could render a girl, like me, possessed, certainly of a very feeling, affectionate heart, thus thoughtless, and careless of the fate of another: and that other a young, innocent and lovely wife! Had anybody reminded me that I was now about to inflict, perhaps, the deepest wound in the breast of an innocent wife, I hope and believe I should have stopped there; and then what pain and bitter anguish I had been spared: but I declare to my reader, that Lady Fanny Ponsonby never once entered my head.

Her sister Fanny was deeply hurt by the eventual desertion of her long time protector, Colonel Parker. Fanny died young, as did Julia Johnstone soon after. Harriette wrote that Julia’s “complaint, like her poor late friend’s, was a disease of the heart, and there was no remedy.”

However, it was not impossible for courtesans to marry into the aristocracy, as has sometimes been claimed by irate readers of some courtesan romances. Harriette reports that Lord Worcester frequently begged her to elope to Gretna Green with him (he was under age).

…I, who might, as everybody told me, and were incessantly reminding me, have, at this period, smuggled myself into the Beaufort family, by merely declaring to Lord Worcester, with my finger pointed to the North—that way leads to Harriette Wilson’s bedchamber; yet so perverse was my conscience, so hardened by what Fred Bentinck calls, my perseverance in loose morality, that I scorned the idea of taking such an advantage of the passion I had inspired, in what I believed to be a generous breast, as might, hereafter, cause unhappiness to himself, while it would embitter the peace of his parents.

Harriette’s younger sister Sophia did marry her protector, Lord Berwick, although she nevers seems to have liked him and cut her sisters afterwards.

I hope you enjoyed these tidbits on Regency courtesans. Now I am curious to read more about Harriette, to get a more objective account of her life. Googling around, I found there’s a new book about her, THE COURTESAN’S REVENGE by Frances Wilson (no relation), which looks interesting.

Have you read either Harriette’s memoirs or THE COURTESAN’S REVENGE? What did you think? Any other thoughts on Regency courtesans?

Elena

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Grace Elliot
11 years ago

Harriette was a fascinating woman – in my mind there’s little difference between her memoirs and those of a modern day politician – both selling their stories for money.

Dtchycat
11 years ago

I haven’t had the chance to read either of those books but they sound fascinating.

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

Courtesan’s Revenge is on my TBR pile. It still sounds as if a clever woman could make a future for herself, but all in all it sounds like a dreadful life.

Better than working in a brothel, though.

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

It would definitely take a certain mind-set to live the life of a courtesan successfully. Hadn’t heard of Courtesan’s Revenge. Another for the list!

Thanks for this great overview on the life of a courtesan. Great stuff.

Diane D - Florida
11 years ago

This is a new Author to me and, already I am fascinated from the great interview. There’s nothing that I love better than to find new Authors.

Thanks for this awesome opportunity.

dpd333(at)aol(dot)com

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Grace, I think that’s a true observation, though not just politicians, all sorts of celebs (and would-be celebs) do this. I wonder if any of them extort money from people to be excluded?

I agree with you, Diane. The life of a courtesan wasn’t all luxury and pleasure. It was also an ambiguous state, it seems, according to Harriette. She writes disparagingly about her sisters Amy and Sophia, who seem to have been more hardheaded about the money. She seems to have taken up with protectors who may have been less wealthy but she liked better. But this could also be how she wanted to paint herself. Which is why I’d like to read a more objective bio.

Louisa and Dtchycat, glad you found my posts interesting!

librarypat
librarypat
11 years ago

I’ve not read any of these books. I really don’t think the life of a Regency courtesan would be all that desirable. To me it would be a desperate move to make for a woman educated enough to be able to manage it rather than sink to common prostitution. It wasn’t an easy way of life and there were few guarantees that it would work out. Unless she were very careful or lucky, she could find herself in dire straits when she was older.

Thanks for both the posts. They were most enlightening.

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