Valerie Grosvenor Myer
Introduction by Sue Limb
('Dulcie Domum' of The Guardian)
I wish I had written this book, but as usual Valerie Grosvenor Myer has beaten me to it. Last time I envied a book of hers it was her sparkling biography of Jane Austen, the good girl of the Regency. Now she has turned her attention to the bad girl, Harriette Wilson.
I remember when I first heard of Harriette Wilson thirty years ago, it was like hearing gossip about a contemporary, not historical facts from the dusty archive of the past. Harriette Wilson was the Duke of Wellington's mistress and when she was planning to publish her memoirs and tried to blackmail him, he replied: 'Publish and be damned!' You never forget such anecdotes - even though, as Valerie Grosvenor Myer shows, that particular one is unlikely to be literally true.
But there are plenty of other hot and spicy anecdotes about Harriette, and they are served up here with a saucy relish. She wrote to the Prince of Wales, inviting him to have an affair with her; she always went to bed elegantly dressed in case she died in her sleep; she once got rid of a troublesome IOU by swallowing it. And she enjoyed and endless succession of lovers, from pale, handsome foot-fetishist Ponsonby who haunted the parks accompanied by his Newfoundland dog, to Worcester, an Oxford undergraduate and the heir to the Beaufort estates, who became her adoring toyboy, and wanted to marry her, through his father the Duke bribed her to keep away.
Ponsonby and Worcester, along with most of her other lovers, were either already married when she met them or soon contracted prudent marriages to other, decent women, often heiresses. And beyond Harriette's insatiable progress through the breeches of the beau mondewe can detect the 'debts and terrifying insecurity' which haunted her and her many similarly naughty sisters.
Indeed it seems that she only turned to blackmail in desperation, when her attractions were on the wane, influenced by the proximity of the debtors' prison and a husband who was a bad influence. Yes, she did finally marry, though paradoxically her spouse Rochfort plays an insignificant part in her emotional history. Nowadays he would probably be known as her publicist.
Her Memoirson which Valerie Grosvenor Myer has satisfyingly drawn, evoke a scintillating and sensational society. Provincial England may, as Jane Austen suggests, have been all proprieties, rookeries and rectories, but the London over which Harriette Wilson triumphed was a hurly-burly of adultery, prize-fighting, wantonness and drunkenness. Harriette had her standards, however. She was always an elegant figure, dressed in white and wearing diamonds, and she insisted on 'respect' - one of many details which make her seem very vividly our contemporary.
Though her humble birth meant that to be a Lady of Pleasure was the only outlet for her personal magnetism, Harriette took full advantage of her sexual powers, not scrupling to manipulate her lovers, take bold initiatives to recruit new and distinguished admirers, and stand up to the most powerful figures in society if she found their conduct wanting. She rebuked Prince Esterhazy for hogging the fire and not removing his hat and, despite the almost masculine vigour of her wit and energies, she preferred lovers whose manners were 'luxuriously sly and quiet.'
Too often we experience the past, especially the Regency period, through a veil of reverence. Not here. Harriette's story is told with gusto, more tabloid than tableau. It's totally compulsive reading, whether one is glimpsing celebs at the Drag Ball held to celebrate peace with Napoleon, hearing Harriette tell us that Wellington looked like 'a ratcatcher', or watching her fascinate whole regiments of officers. It's rather like eloping with Lydia Bennet instead of staying at home and, as Valerie Grosvenor Myer suggests, 'behind Becky Sharp lurks the ghost of Harriette Wilson's Memoirs, bowdlerised'.
But Harriette was a real person, not a literary creation, and her story could not have been more triumphantly unzipped, or more shamelessly and enjoyably displayed.