Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Harriette Wilson: Regency Courtesan Par Excellence

by Regina Jeffers

A celebrated British Regency courtesan, Harriette Wilson was one of fifteen children of a Swiss clockmaker, John James Dubouchet, a Mayfair shopkeeper. She became the mistress of William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven, when she was but fifteen years of age. Among her lovers, one finds Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, and four future Prime Ministers.

Sexy and quite avaricious, Harriette was known to change lovers often. One must recall that mistresses negotiated hefty contracts with their protectors. If exclusive rights were in question, the man and his mistress followed a particular protocol in forming an alliance. Friends were employed to negotiate the terms rather than the principal participants. In J. Lees-Milne’s The Bachelor Duke: William Spencer Cavendish, Sixth Duke of Devonshire, Walter Scott supposedly said of Harriette, “She was far from beautiful, but a smart saucy girl with good eyes and dark hair, and the manners of a wild school-boy.”

The Duke of Devonshire set Harriette up in a London house in Dorset Square, presented her with a second home in Brighton, gave her an allowance of £1600 a year, carriages, jewelry, furs, etc., including an aviary. However, Harriette Wilson had few kind words for her benefactor.

Harriette kept several lovers competing for her favors. The most consistent of her followers were the Marquess of Lorne, son and heir of the Duke of Argyll; the Marquess of Worcester, son and heir of the Duke of Beaufort; Lord Frederick Bentinck, son of the Duke of Portland; and Frederick Lamb, son of Lord Melbourne.

As much as Harriette loved the attentions of young men, older ones had more money. Recall that Scott called her “a smart saucy girl.” She chose the older Duke of Leinster over his younger cousin, the Marquess of Worcester. Harriette was known to keep company with Henry Brougham, a Liberal MP, and Wilson Croker, the politican and diarist. She had an on again, off again, affair with the Duke of Wellington, while also plying her trade with the Duke of Argyll.

A mistress kept a box at the opera and at Drury Lane, where men – married or not – made an appearance in her box. Opera nights at Covent Garden provided the women with an opportunity to be seen by potential customers. Unlike a wife, a mistress had control of her own money. Harriet was educated; she read French and took an interest in the political tenor of the country. She regularly read Voltaire and Roman history.

The Duke of Beaufort “bought off” Harriette in order to save his heir, the Marquess of Worcester from the woman. In writing, Worcester had begged Harriette to marry him. On advice of her solicitor, Harriette was told the letters would be worth £20,000 in a breach of promise suit. The Duke refused her request, and Harriette turned to Henry Brougham, a celebrated lawyer of the time (and one of her ex-lovers). The Duke managed to convince Harriette to retire to Paris, with a promise of £500 per year for life.

When Worcester married, the Duke reneged on his promise and stopped paying Harriette’s allowance. Harriette retaliated by selling her memoirs for publication. If Beaufort thought to keep his son’s foolish infatuation secret, Harriet’s book, Publish and be Damn’d: The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson brought those hopes to an end. The book was an instantaneous bestseller.

An uproar ensued. Surprisingly, Harriette offered each of her former lovers the opportunity to be omitted from the book – that is for a hefty price. Each refused to be blackmailed. Her memories proved inaccurate in places and a bit vindictive against her former lovers for refusing to pay her blackmail. She gossiped about each of the men in her life. Her insights into the most popular men of the time made great fodder for the gossips.

Harriette complained of the violence with which Frederick Lamb made love, and in sharp contrast she describes the boredom she felt with Lord Craven. She described Devonshire as stingy. Harriette and her fellow courtesans knew the price of love was high.

BBC Radio 4 series Classic Serial by Ellen Dryden adapted Harriette’s memories for broadcast in June 2012.


  1. Wonderful, well researched, fantastic, Darlene!Publishing it on my page, on FB, Until death do us part. Superb!

  2. All shares are greatly appreciated, Julia. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting on the post.

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  4. Fascinating article, Regina--thank you for posting it. It's amazing how innocent she looks in the picture. I can't help wondering what she might have accomplished in her life if her business hadn't been sex.

  5. Several members of her family turned to the life of a kept woman.
    Being one of 15 children would not have left Harriette too many choices.

  6. I've read her memoirs, and came away not altogether impressed with Miss Wilson. Among other things, she never spoke about current events, never used specific dates (was her memory really that bad?) and foolishly spent everything on extravagances, leaving herself destitute in the end. (She had plenty of opportunity to lay aside a nest egg.) I suppose I also disliked the vindictive nature of her comments, but her account of the duke of Wellington makes me laugh to this day. Thanks for the post.