The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, The Woman Who Blackmailed The King, by Frances Wilson (Faber and Faber)

Like other professions, the oldest of them all has a hierarchy. At the bottom-most rung of the career ladder are the streetworkers: unskilled, no workspace of their own, poorly paid and with little opportunity of advancement. It was always thus. In 1793, a court magistrate calculated that there were 50,000 prostitutes working the streets of London, a city that at that time numbered one million people. At the upper-most rung were the courtesans, the most celebrated of whom were wealthy, had furnished houses and servants of their own, socialised among society’s elite, and could command a fee as much as ?500 where a prostitute might earn a few shillings.

This biography is the story of one such courtesan, Harriette Wilson, who became the lover and confidante of many of the most powerful men in Regency England. Wilson – no relation, I gather, to her biographer – was the most famous courtesan of her day, and included in her list of lovers the King, four Prime Ministers, the Duke of Wellington – pretty much the whole of Debrett’s, with the exception, perhaps, of some minor barons.

What Frances Wilson evokes in this entertaining, racy and atmospheric account is the mind of a society, a society now utterly vanished and yet with odd similarities to our own. The world in which Harriette Wilson moved was obsessed with sex, money, property and status. The marriage contracts of the upper classes were property transactions no different, in principle or substance, from the lower classes’ selling of their daughters on the street, and had more to do with the establishing of alliances and the consolidation of estates than they did with any notion of mutual attraction.

Dr Johnson, that great pundit on eighteenth century mores, observed that “chastity in woman is all important because the whole of property is involved in it”, but this dictum did not apply to the demi-monde. A courtesan’s upward mobility and value depended not on her chastity but on her CV: as the distinction of her lovers increased, so did her ability to attract still more distinguished men. Harriette’s rise was spectacular partly, at least, thanks to shrewd decision-making: she would drop one lover and choose another with all the skill of an investor who successfully anticipates the trends of the sharemarket.

But if she were only shrewd, her own stock would not have reached the heights it did: she was obviously clever, resourceful, self-confident and tremendous fun. We know so much more about Harriette than we do about her contemporary courtesans because unlike them, she wrote it all down. Her Memoirs were the crowning audacious move at the end of a career that was always adventurous. With an effrontery one can only admire, she wrote to her many titled lovers before publication, offering to expunge their names from the record in return for a small token – ?200 each – to contribute to her retirement.  The Duke of Wellington memorably replied, “Write, and be damned.” King George IV, on the other hand, through his functionaries, paid up.

Harriette duly wrote, and she was damned in many quarters, and read in many more. Although primarily a blackmail enterprise, her published Memoirs – those fragments reproduced here, at any rate – reveal a more than competent writer. The scandals cooled long ago, and this engaging biography leaves one with the impression of a woman who lived bravely by her charms and her wits, and when her charms failed her, by her wits alone.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets