I am the thing itself

Rosemary Hill

  • Harriette Wilson’s ‘Memoirs’ edited by Lesley Blanch
    Phoenix, 472 pp, £9.99, December 2002, ISBN 1 84212 632 6
  • The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson
    Faber, 338 pp, £20.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 571 20504 6

Most people know two things about Harriette Wilson, one of which is untrue. She is rightly famous for that most tantalising of opening sentences: ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.’ With it she ushered in her Memoirs, published in 1825 as a frankly commercial venture. As well as making money in the usual way from the sales of what she wrote, she was willing and indeed anxious to take it from former friends and lovers in exchange for what she left out. That the Duke of Wellington told her to ‘publish and be damned’ is the untrue thing.

The truth, that she was an interesting woman and an unusual and sometimes good writer, has ever since been overshadowed by the untruth, which casts her as a grubby blackmailer cut down to size by the greater moral fibre of her betters. Even now, when so many minor women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, some very minor indeed, have been rescued from obscurity and set up in respectable scholarly editions, Wilson’s Memoirs have been shunned by academics. ‘Harriette Wilson’s life was deplorable – but how readable!’ Lesley Blanch exclaims in her introduction to this latest reprint, anxious, like almost everyone else who has written about Wilson, especially the women, to distance herself from her subject.

Virginia Woolf, whose essay on Wilson was published in The Moment and Other Essays, in 1947, was extraordinarily ambivalent. The author of A Room of One’s Own is contemptuous of Wilson’s ‘scribbling for cash’ and, drawn reluctantly to admiration for aspects of the writing, she evinces an almost physical desire to push away this writer who is ‘merely a bustling bouncing vivacious creature with good eyes’, to insist that nothing can redeem her ‘rambling verbosity and archness and vulgarity’.

Blanch’s editing of the book consists of the excision of roughly a quarter of the text, or perhaps more, with no indication of where it has been cut or why, beyond the need to remove repetition and ‘padding’. The padding removed includes Wilson’s first exchange with Byron and her earliest literary venture, a translation of Molière’s Malade imaginaire, which she tried unsuccessfully to get produced, despite her theatrical connections. Blanch has also altered the punctuation and chopped the narrative into chapters. It seems that Harriette Wilson the author, like Harriette Wilson the historical figure, is the sort of woman whose reputation is so tarnished that any liberty may be taken with her. As she remarked when she found that the Duchess of Beaufort had read her private letters, it is ‘dishonourable and dishonest: at least it would have been called so if I had done it’.

The initial motive for writing the Memoirs was certainly blackmail, or ‘a desperate effort to live by my wits’, as Wilson describes it. She was in her thirties, her looks were beginning to go, and the annuity she had been promised by the Duke of Beaufort in exchange for leaving alone his heir, the Marquis of Worcester, had been cut off. It turned out to be a false economy on the Duke’s part. Yet to say, as James Laver did, introducing the 1929 edition, that there was ‘no creative impulse’ behind the Memoirs is quite untrue.

Once she got going Harriette Wilson clearly wrote for the pleasure of writing. Many of the people she depicts are obscure; she simply enjoys writing about them. Her sisters – Fanny whom she loved, Amy with whom there was a constant battle for the limelight and Sophia whom she despised – are characters who recur throughout the book. Sophia became Lady Berwick and so was in a position to be embarrassed: Wilson chose to do it by depicting her as a simpleton who agrees with whatever is said to her and whose only enthusiasm is dinner. The result is a girl who might be a dim and not so distant cousin of the Bennet family. There are also bit parts when the narrative needs them: ‘the tawdry red-rouged housekeeper’ and ‘the sort of man who would rather have died than not been a member of White’s’.

Wilson’s portraits of the famous are sharply drawn – they are caricatures not travesties. The Duke of Wellington, whom she knew when he was still Arthur Wellesley, in fact comes out of it rather well: dry, but kind in his way, and unpompous. She found his famous taciturnity exasperating: ‘tried him on every subject I could muster’ but it was ‘very uphill work’. What she liked was his directness. On his return from Spain he found her ill and the account she gives of their exchange spares neither of them:

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