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…