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:

‘How much money do you want?’ said this man of sentiment, drawing near the table, and taking up my pen to write a draft.

‘I have no money,’ I replied, ‘not a single shilling; but this is not the cause of my sufferings.’

‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ rejoined Wellington, writing me a check . . . His visit made no impression on me, except that I was grateful for his kindness in leaving me the money I wanted.

Her exchanges with Byron are also persuasive. They didn’t have an affair (despite what the jacket copy on the new Phoenix edition implies) and the Memoirs describe his visits to her as the meeting of two scandalous public figures able to relax in company where neither has anything to hope for or fear from the other. Harriette wonders why he should have minded his bad notice in the Edinburgh Review: it was not as if he was a ‘stupid, prosing poet’ who might ‘feel his inferiority’. ‘And where did you ever see a stupid, prosing poet, who did feel his own inferiority?’ Byron replies.

In fact Wilson never met Byron, although they corresponded and he clearly had some liking, even affection, for her. This part of the Memoirs is fiction, but it is good fiction: much more than the ‘fabric of lies’ that Woolf accused Wilson of running up. It is rather an instance of that peculiar mixture of diary and epistolary novel, spontaneous outpouring and literary self-consciousness, that gives the Memoirs their peculiar tone, and for which they deserve to be taken more seriously than they have been yet.

The book is uneven, it is too long, and it runs out of steam towards the end, partly, as Wilson explains, because the protagonists of some of her best stories had by then bought themselves out. What is remarkable is its point of view. The ‘I’ who narrates it is both entirely original and, as a cross between Moll Flanders and Tristram Shandy, quite familiar. It can shake the slightest of the social events which are its principal subject into comedy: ‘The Duc de Berri next came; and we all stood up till he was seated, as bound by etiquette; and then followed my young, new acquaintance, the Duke of Leinster, who stood up by himself, like a noun substantive, for want of a chair.’

What is unfamiliar is that the narrator is not a fictional character or a man in disguise. As Wilson wrote to Bulwer Lytton some years later, ‘there is this advantage in not reading, you are all of you copies and I am the thing itself.’ As it happens, she was better read than most women of her age and fluent in French. What makes her ‘the thing itself’ is the freedom with which she uses literary conventions and the frankness with which she addresses the reader. There had been ‘sensational’ memoirs by women before, but they were often written in the third person, or ghosted, or, like Laetitia Pilkington’s, cast as confessions and published ‘not as an example but a warning’. None of them was sufficiently unembarrassed to create in its central figure a compelling and complex character.

‘I love a masquerade,’ Wilson writes, ‘because a female can never enjoy the same liberty anywhere else.’ In the Memoirs she discovered another place where she was free to say and do as she liked and to take on one character or another. Coming from a woman who, in the terms of the time, had no character at all, this was daring. Except as Byron’s special friend the roles she assigns herself are self-parodying rather than idealising. This, she suggests, is her ‘one advantage over other bad female writers and prosing ladies . . . I do not think myself agreeable.’ Her sister Fanny objected that she made herself out to be worse than she was, to which Wilson replied: ‘Never mind . . . plenty of people are left to make the best of themselves. One wants a little variety in life.’

Uncomplaining, unapologetic about her life and her enjoyment of sex and good company, Wilson considered that ‘generally speaking . . . the world acts fairly and often very liberally towards me.’ What infuriated her was the social and sexual double standard which was already beginning, by 1825, to push her out from the circles where she had moved as an equal when she was young and pretty and where, after the publication of the Memoirs, she would be a pariah.

The mores of late Georgian England, sceptical and sometimes callous, seem refreshingly frank. ‘I always liked very old people when they were clean and appeared respectable’ is something Wilson can say without blinking. Not only was there less hypocrisy about sex and marriage than there would be twenty years later, there was no sentimentality either. Whichever side of the pale of respectability a woman lived, her destiny was inextricably linked to her financial value and marital status. This is the theme of Pride and Prejudice as much as it is of Wilson’s Memoirs, and beyond the horizon of both, but casting visible shadows, lies the outer darkness, the world of Jack Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, in which women were described and rated like horses: ‘Perfectly sound in wind and limb. A fine Brown girl rising nineteen . . . Fit for High Keeping with a Jew Merchant.’

When Wellington left Wilson to go off to the Peninsular War, his campaign orders included the instruction that ‘there shall be six women to every hundred men and these shall be drawn by lot before embarkation . . . The women shall be on half rations and no wine however salt the meat.’ In a society where any kind of woman could be treated like that, every kind of woman had to be careful. This was the reality behind what Phoenix thigh-slappingly describes as ‘the glorious highs and scandalous lows of Regency England’. Wilson knew it, and Jane Austen understood it much better than the made-for-television National Trust and pot-pourri version of her would suggest. In the demi-monde that Wilson inhabited, the way up was through marriage, and those who did not rise almost always fell. It is her determination to stay afloat on her own terms that propels the action of the Memoirs. It was an attempt doomed to failure. After their publication, things went from bad to worse.

Now, however, Wilson has attracted a serious biographer who neither condescends to her subject nor camps the story up, but sets it in historical context. Frances Wilson writes with footnotes and without exclamation marks, but at the cracking pace the story needs. This occasionally gives her book the flavour of a sensationalised Jennifer’s Diary, but it also makes clear why Harriette Wilson felt it unfair that her behaviour should be seen as especially scandalous. ‘The Marquis of Lorne . . . married Lady Caroline Paget, the divorced wife of the Marquis of Anglesey. Amy had borne the Duke a son . . . [she] retaliated by ensnaring the Honourable Berkeley Paget, Lord Anglesey’s brother, who left his wife and children in order to live openly with her’; ‘also in Paris, having run away with and then from Mrs George Lamb, was Henry Brougham’; and so it went on until the early 1820s, when the music slowed and then stopped and Wilson found herself without a protector.

It is a pity that Frances Wilson is not more interested in discussing her subject as a writer, but she has done a great deal of work on her life. Her researches in the Badminton archives and the Public Record Office show that, on the whole, the Memoirs were most truthful where most scandalous, and although Sophia might reasonably have complained about the way she was depicted, the Beauforts could not and George IV got off very lightly indeed.

Wilson was born Harriette Dubouchet in Mayfair in 1786. The daughter of a Swiss mathematician and his genteel but downtrodden wife, she was the sixth girl in eight years. Her childhood was far from indigent, but her father beat his children, the house was overcrowded and her parents’ marriage a depressing spectacle. She loved both her parents, her mother especially, but ‘the miseries of two people of contrary opinions and character, torturing each other to the end of their natural lives’ made her resolve before she was ten to be as independent as possible. Her only choice was between teaching or high-class prostitution.

After six months of misery at a school in Newcastle, getting up at six to sit in a freezing classroom sewing buttonholes and listening to the ‘vile French’ and clumsy piano-playing of the pupils, she came home. She was no Charlotte Brontë. London had already given her glimpses of an altogether brighter kind of life. She suggested acting but her father would not countenance it, and so after more quarrels she decided that rather than ‘teach the verbs “avoir” and “être” from fifteen to fifty years of age and then . . . retire withered and still more forlorn to a workhouse’, she would become a kept woman. There were plenty of rich and titled men in Mayfair ready to show a pretty girl a good time, and Wilson did not so much run away as saunter off to Berkeley Craven’s house in Charles Street, reasoning that the Cravens ‘were our near neighbours, and old acquaintances, and they were gentlemen.’

She took the name of Wilson (quite why is still not clear) and from then on life was a succession of lovers. At least, according to Wilson it was a succession: her biographer more plausibly suggests a certain amount of overlap. She was not, as Woolf wrote, ‘always falling in love’. She says quite clearly that the only man she loved was Lord Ponsonby, who was married. For the others her feelings are a combination of affection, sexual attraction and opportunism. Clever and obviously good-looking, she could no doubt have married into the aristocracy and probably become Duchess of Beaufort had she been calculating as well and less inclined to answer back. The Marquis of Worcester emerges as nice but ‘an ass’, a man whom she hadn’t the heart to leave or the will to attach herself to permanently. This was her mistake.

The ensuing row with his parents about her annuity gave Wilson the only sort of bad reputation that mattered in her circles, that of being troublesome. The relative independence she and the other demi-reps enjoyed was based on the understanding that they would at least control themselves if they didn’t want men to do it for them. Wilson’s fortunes began to decline and the idea of the Memoirs was born. The extent of her ambition as a writer as well as her ingenuousness are revealed by the fact that she went first to Byron’s publisher, John Murray, who treated her with ‘much rudeness’. It was Joseph Stockdale, the Methodist pornographer of Covent Garden, who finally took the book on.

Frances Wilson’s account of the scandal that followed publication is the best part of her book. The impact of the Memoirs was colossal. Nothing since compares with it; Profumo is a mere hiccup in comparison. The whole Cabinet sent for copies and there were emergency meetings in the clubs, for Wilson had cut a swathe not only through the aristocracy but through the world of politics as well, much as the subject bored her. Canning and Palmerston were among those who paid in cash to be left out. Lord Stuart and Henry Brougham decided to pay in kind, Stuart letting Wilson, who was living in Paris, use the diplomatic bag for manuscript instalments and Brougham putting the most brilliant legal mind of his generation at her disposal when the inevitable writs came in. Thus one part of the establishment set itself against another as everyone tried to save themselves.

The fat, unpopular George IV, ‘a 20-stone drug addict’ was terrified of what might get out, not only about his relations with Wilson but also about the past career of his mistress Lady Conyingham, and, according to The Courtesan’s Revenge, there was ‘panic at the Palace’. Lady Conyingham’s letters had come to Wilson via Ponsonby, who was inclined to stand up to Wilson and so had to be got out of the way. He was surprised and annoyed to find himself suddenly appointed Ambassador to Buenos Aires. Even more exasperating than being sent to this ‘odious’ country full of ‘mud and putrid carcasses’ with no theatres was his discovery on arrival that the Memoirs were a great success in Argentina, and everyone was longing to meet him.

Attempts were made at the highest level to extradite Wilson, but she remained in France. The most damaging consequence of the Memoirs’ publication was another book, Confessions of Julia Johnstone, written by herself, in contradiction to the fables of Harriette Wilson. Johnstone was that ominous figure in any woman’s life, the former best friend. She had put out a rumour of her death, hoping to start a new life, and Wilson, believing her, or so she said, probably truthfully, had gone into great and not unsympathetic detail about her career, her loves and her many illegitimate children. Johnstone was furious.

It is in the Confessions that Wellington is, almost, given his famous line: he is said to have returned one of Wilson’s letters with ‘write and be damned’ on the back. Johnstone’s book is exactly the self-justifying, spiteful, hair-pulling effort that Wilson might have written but didn’t, yet her version of events has often been preferred – perhaps because she cuts the unattractive figure that conventional morality requires of such a woman, and which Wilson obstinately fails to become.

Although she made some money from the blackmail letters, Wilson’s fortunes declined by predictable stages into poverty, indignity and drink. The deaths of her mother and Fanny, Frances Wilson suggests, undermined her as much as the scandal. Her literary ambitions predated the Memoirs and they outlasted them. She wrote two more books, including a novel, but it was a feeble effort, for she had lost her best character, herself. By 1832 she was living in Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from the Elephant and Castle, where Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s sister to have been buried. ‘Lively! Pastoral!’ Wilson noted in a letter.

However low she sank, and she was never destitute, she probably didn’t regret the school in Newcastle. She died in Chelsea in 1845, an unlikely Victorian. Having got an estimate for her funeral and struck off the inessential items she left it with a note for Brougham, asking him to raise the money for it. He asked Worcester, now Duke of Beaufort, for a contribution for their ‘old acquaintance’, ‘either £5 or £7 it will be quite enough and very handsome.’ In the moral currency of the day it was.