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The last couple of weeks, I’ve posted on the lives of ladies-in-waiting at Court. This week, I decided to take a slightly different angle, and explore the history of another segment of female society–courtesans. (Plus, it’s a very hot day here, in the 90s, and I’m feeling very, very lazy. Just reading Megan’s post from yesterday is all the Literature I can take in right now! So I pulled up a short article I wrote for the “Regency Reader” using research from my book LADY MIDNIGHT. I have a lot more info in my notes–if anyone wants to hear more, just email me!). Here’s the article:

“A great courtesan was no mere prostitute. She was highly cultured, witty, charming, elegant, companion to the great men of her day. According to Susan Griffin, the greatest distinction between a prostitute and a courtesan was that courtesans were “personages”–celebrities who were written about in the journals and papers of their day, gossiped about for their fashions and love affairs, arbiters of tastes and trends. The greatest courtesan could use her body and her brains to enjoy the benefits of marriage, such as companionship, property, and financial stability, without the social constraints and loss of independence. It was not all positive, of course. There was little companionship with other women, and when romance soured there could be dire financial repercussions, and even physical revenge (not to mention the threat of disease). But it was often the best of a very narrow set of options.

In English polite society of the 18th and early 19th centuries, arranged marriage was the norm–husbands and even wives had great freedom in seeking their affections elsewhere, provided there were proper heirs and the partners were discreet. “One exists with one’s husband–one LIVES with one’s lover,” says the Marquise de Vandenesse in Balzac’s “Une fille d’Eve.” Thus the courtesan played a very important role in this period–not “received” in polite society, but with her own important world, the demi-monde, with its own society, etiquette, and protocol. She was paid for her personality and style, her ability to attract attention and celebrity. To show her off was a sign of prestige. To stay at the top of her game, she had to be witty, smart, independent, and charismatic, for mere prettiness was common, and soon faded.

The most famous courtesan of her day was Harriette Wilson, one of five sisters who became well-known members of the demi-rep. She was not beautiful, but she was very witty and fashionable. She and her sisters showed off in their own opera box (200 gineas a year!) and in their fancy carriages in Hyde Park. For men, to be introduced to her was the height of social success. But her stylish clothes and household were very expensive, and she fell into a debt and a bad relationship with a swindler named Rochfort (beware of men named after stinky cheeses). By the end of her career, she was in poverty in Paris, and undertook to write her Memoirs to raise some needed cash.

The Memoirs were published in twelve parts between January and April 1825, and were an immediate sensation. At the end of each installment was an advertisement giving the names of people mentioned in the next part, giving them time to buy themselves out if they hadn’t already. Harriette made about 10,000 pounds, but most of it was soon squandered by Stink Cheese Man, and she died in complete poverty on the Continent in 1845.”

Here are a few books I found helpful (and very interesting!);
Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs (my version was edited by Leslie Blanche and published in 2003)
Paula Byrne’s “Perdita” (about Prinny’s first love, actress Mary Robinson)
James Davidson’s “Courtesans and Fishcakes” (way out of “our” era, it’s about ancient Greece, but great)
Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans”
Katie Hickman’s “Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the 19th Century”
Valerie Grosvenor Myer’s “Harriette Wilson: Lady of Pleasure”
Nickie Roberts’ “Whores in History”
Margaret Rosenthal’s “The Honest Courtesan: The Life of Veronica Franco” (another one out of our period, but a terrific read, and the basis for the fab movie “Dangerous Beauty”)
Francis Wilson’s “The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King”

I asked in my last article if you would be a good lady-in-waiting–now for something much more fun. 🙂 Would you have been a good courtesan???

Since my confession last week that I’m a commuter reader, I wanted to tell you about my current sensational read on the train, The Courtesan’s Revenge by Frances Wilson, subtitled Harriette Wilson, the Woman who Blackmailed the King. And what a wild ride it is!

“Revenge writing is a female genre,” comments Wilson. “Men who have been left by women or made cuckolds by rivals either lick their wounds in humiliated silence or start the Trojan Wars.” Harriette Wilson had a grand time gleefully mocking her aristocratic lovers in her infamous Memoirs, published in installments to an enthralled public. Full of inaccuracies, but equally full of life, the Memoirs are the best in creative non-fiction. But her voice is true, impudent, and devastating. Here’s an encounter with the Duke of Wellington (in whom she later inspired the comment “Publish and be damned”):

Wellington called on me, the next morning before I had finished breakfast. I tried him on every subject I could muster. On all, he was inpenetrably taciturn. At last he started an original idea of his own…
“I wonder you do not get married, Harriette.”
(Bye-the-bye, ignorant people are always wondering.)
“Why so?”
Wellington, however, gives no reason for anything unconnected with fighting, at least since the convention of Cintra; and he therefore again became silent. Another burst of attic sentiment burst forth.
“I was thinking of you last night, after I got into bed.”
“How very polite to the Duchess,” I observed.

On another gentleman …[he] had long been our family’s friend, equally at hand to congratulate us on our marriages, our simple fornications, our birthdays, or our unexpected deaths…

As a courtesan she occupied a unique position in society–because she was fashionable, both the respectable and the dissolute were drawn to her. One of my favorite excerpts in the book is an account of a journey she took (to chase down her current protector and the money he owed her) in the company of a friend’s maiden aunt with the family’s full blessing and some emergency updating of the lady’s twenty-five year old wardrobe.

“I am old enough and thank God I am no beauty,” Aunt Martha declared, “and I may do what I please with my little fortune. I have never been ten miles from my native place and I want to see the world!”

Now that’s a mind-boggling thought–Mary Crawford on a road trip with Miss Bates. One of those things you’d never get away with in fiction…

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?


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