Courtesan and Blackmailer
Born 1786 Died 1846
I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven. Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof, and place myself under his protection, does not much signify; or if it does, I am not in the humour to gratify curiosity in this manner.
So began the memoirs of Harriette Wilson, daughter of John Dubouchet, a Swiss clock maker who eloped with Amelia, an illegitimate daughter of the essayist Isaac Hawkins Browne. Isaac and Amelia eventually raised a family of fifteen children, Harriette being child number six.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, Harriette and her sisters Amy and Sophia made their move on London Society and created something of an impression, becoming collectively known as the Three Graces. Harriete was herself, according to John Gibson Lockhart "far from beautiful, but a smart, saucy girl, with good eyes, hair and the manner of wild schoolboy." Being smart and saucy was presumably sufficient enough to attract the attentions of the Earl of Craven, (although it is very likely that he wasn't the first of her many lovers) and once he'd finished with her she took up with the Duke of Argyll who installed her at his London home. Although Hariette appears to have been pretty keen on the Duke of Argyll, he seems to have disappointed her by having an affair with her sister Amy and then marrying a daughter of the Earl of Anglesey.
Although the 3rd Duke of Leinster then paid court to her, she regarded him as a good natured fool and it does not seem as if she allowed him to share her bed. The Duke did however introduce her to the Marquess of Worcester, the eldest son and heir of the Duke of Beaufort, who soon wanted to marry her. His parents very naturally disapproved of such an idea and arranged for their son to be posted to Spain and agreed to pay Harriet an allowance. Harriet broke the terms of the deal by communicating with the Marquess, the Duke suspended payment and Harriet threatened to sue. She was eventually paid £1,200 to end the affair.
Thereafter Harriette attracted a number of other wealthy clients including (allegedly) George IV, the Duke of Wellington, the Viscount Palmerston, or basically any man with money. Her attitude to such matters being pretty straightforward; "a fifty pound note will do as easily as an introduction". In this manner Harriet made her living, but as the years went by, her physical appeal declined, as no doubt did her earnings. Having reached the age of forty she decided to secure her financial future by publishing her own kiss-and-tell autobiography.
There was nothing particularly unique in her decision to publish a version of her life story. One might go so far as to say that her Memoirs were yet another example of the well-established genre of 'prostitutes confessions', based on the evidence of the long list of works included in the eight volumes of Whore Biographies, 1700–1825 published by Pickering and Chatto. What distinguished Harriette's work was her willingness to name names, and the fact that the she had such a long list of illustrious names from the king downwards, to actually name.
Perhaps inspired by the example of Mary Ann Clarke, former mistress of the Duke of York, who had been paid £10,000 not to publish her own memoirs, it seems to have occured to her and her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale that there was more money to be made in not publishing her story. Thus they began circulating drafts of Harriette's work to the various men mentioned therein, suggesting that the passages in which they were mentioned might well be omitted in return for a suitable donation. Not that Harriette and her publisher were actually that subtle about the matter. They simply wrote to around two hundred or so of her former clients and demanded the payment of £20 per annum or a lump sum of £200 in order to procure her silence. It was in response to such a request that Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington produced his famous retort "Publish and be damned". (Or so it is said, since sadly there is no definitive evidence that he did so.) As a consequence Wellesley appeared in Harriette's memoirs where she described him rather unflatteringly as looking "very much like a rat catcher" but admitted that "he had relieved me from the duns. God bless you Wellington".
Her Memoirs, subtitled Beauty, Marriage-Ceremonies, and Intercourse of the Sexes, in all Nations; Systems of Physiognomy, etc duly appeared in nine installments between February and August 1825 and quickly became a best seller. In order to drum up interest in the first installment Stockdale advertised a list of those whose names which would be appearing, and continued to advertise on the back of each installement the names to come in subsequent installments, thus providing an additional inducement for those named to pay up. As an exercise in blackmail on a grand scale, this takes some beating and the Memoirs soon became the talk of Society. Their publication even caused concern at the highest levels of the British government who were worried that any revelations she might make regarding George IV might further damage the reputation of the already unpopular king. As it happens George was not mentioned; presumably he paid up, as it said that he later cursed "Harriette Wilson and her hellish gang" on his deathbed in 1830.
Disappointingly for the modern reader her memoirs included nothing that was particularly sexually graphic, instead she relied upon a few suggestive remarks coupled with generally disparaging comments about her many lovers. Harriette adopted a rather flexible approach to the truth, or she explained herself "Dates make ladies nervous and stories dry". Or to put it another way she was a notorious liar; she included in her Memoirs an account of her meeting with the famous Lord Byron (a man whom she greatly admired) which is known to be entirely fictitious, and we can therefore safely assume that much of the rest of her work was subject to similar embellishment.
It seems unlikely that Harriette profited directly from the publication of her Memoirs (apart, that is, from the receipt of the blackmail amounts). Most of the sales were accounted for by the numerous pirated editions which appeared, which often spiced up the otherwise demure content with a few racy illustrations, whilst her publisher became involved in a succession of court cases resulting from its publication which must have eaten into the profits.
Soon after the publication of her Memoirs she went to live in Paris, joining her 'husband' William Henry Rochfort, who had fled there to escape his creditors. There she decided to try her hand at fiction and wrote Paris Lions and London Tigers. This work, like all her later literary output, was not well received and sold poorly. Based on the evidence of her fiction it appears that Harriette possessed no literary talent whatsoever, and the contrast in style and quality between her later works and her initial Memoirs leads many to conclude that the latter was largely ghost written on her behalf.
Denied a literary career she found more success in returning to her old profession, and acted as the procureress of young women, eventaully dying in poverty in 1846.
- William Donaldson Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix, 2004)
- Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)
- Frances Wilson, The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson:The Impossibility of Biography. The Eleventh Annual Johnson Lecture 2 March, 2004
- Whore Biographies, 1700-1825 published by Pickering and Chatto
The Chawton House Library and Study Centre has an online edition of Paris Lions and London Tigers See
Frances Wilson The Courtesan's Revenge (Faber and Faber, 2003 )