Reviewing a classic: Memoirs of Harriette Wilson by Harriette Wilson

I am not going to include any synopsis here because it doesn’t make sense. How to summarize memoirs? One of the most famous ladies of ill repute of the Regency London (the beginning of the 19th century) tells you about some moments in her life. You can easily guess what they are about: beaux, lovers, friends, ennemies, prospective lovers, famous lovers, money, aquaintances, their children and lovers etc., etc. Mind you no sex. If you expect lurid descriptions of boudoir activities this is not a book for you.

Harriette Dubouchet Wilson was one of the fifteen children of a Swiss emigrant, John James Dubouchet (or De Bouchet), who kept a small shop in Mayfair and his wife Amelia, née Cook. Monsieur Dubouchet is said to have assumed the surname of Wilson about 1801, making himself more English; still because of his Swiss origin his children knew French very well.

Young Harriette began her career at the age of fifteen, becoming the mistress of William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven. At least three of her sisters, Amy, Fanny and Sophia, also became  courtesans. It was a kind of family business, at least when it came to the womenfolk. ;p The memoirs initially were published by Stockdale (1825) because Harriette found herself in dire straits (read: broke and without any reliable source of a steady income in a form of a rich protector) . Harriette was writing her memoirs a chapter at a time while she was living in Paris and sending them across the Channel. They  quickly attracted crowds ten rows deep outside the bookshop. The work could perhaps be described the best as being among the first “kiss ‘n’ tell” serialised memoirs, later to become celebrated in tabloid newspapers in the 20th century. She was well ahead of her times!

Still you should keep in mind one important fact: before publication, Stockdale and Wilson wrote to all her lovers and clients named in the book, including Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and the hero of the Battle of Waterloo, and Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, offering them the opportunity to be excluded from the work in exchange for a cash payment. Wellington famously responded with “Publish and be damned!”, a four-word exclamation that subsequently entered the English language as a household term but it is said many others paid.

Harriette Wilson – rather interesting than truly attractive

I also couldn’t help but notice that Harriette tried her best to exonerate herself and her beloved sibling, Fanny, from any blame related to the way they lived and financed their existence. In order to do so she included plenty of tear-jerking scenes showing great, noble charity acts, sense of humour and overall superior tastes of the Wilson sisters. What a pity they sounded a bit false even if they were completely true; you really cannot and shouldn’t be a judge in your own case. I don’t doubt that many aristocrats treated women like Harriette abominably, especially when their little dalliances were over and they tried to cut losses in every way possible. Still praising your own magnanimous generosity while exposing this or that lord or duke’s avarice makes you actually less, not more credible and noble, at least in my eyes.

All the flaws notwithstanding, this is one of books I believe every contemporary Regency romance writer treating their work seriously should read and know practically by heart. When I come to think about it I suppose the publishers should examine every prospective Regency romance author in Memoirs of Harriette Wilson. While reading it at least two-three good plot ideas crossed my mind and such details like clothes and language were simply splendidly done and small wonder, the good lady was living then and there after all.

A cartoon showing the influence of Harriette’s memoirs and some of her lovers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I loved her opinion about Duke Wellington and Lord Byron. I was a bit bored by too numerous descriptions of parties, opera outings, different quirks of lord-this and lord-that and such. It was painfully clear that a good editor would have improved this book beyond belief. Some fragments were good – witty, intelligent, interesting – but some were just unnecessary or too maudlin for my liking. Still I read on and on, comparing the memoirs all the time to the reality created by Wilson’s contemporary, Jane Austen. I do wonder whether both ladies would speak with each other or shake hands at all. I wish they would.

Final verdict:

An interesting non-fiction position and a historical source but with dubious credentials. Still the contemporaries spoke very highly of Wilson’s memoirs so why shouldn’t we? If you like Regency England and you want to glimpse a posh London society, so different from quiet, rural, close-knit communities described by Jane Austen, you’ll forgive this book many sins and tedious fragments. I believe you might also understand some of less pleasant Austen characters, like Maria Bertram or Mary Crawford, better.

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5 Responses to Reviewing a classic: Memoirs of Harriette Wilson by Harriette Wilson

  1. blodeuedd says:

    I am actually intrigued

  2. carolerae20 says:

    I really, really want to read this! I haven’t read a memoir in a long, long time. Biographies…yes.The last “memoir” I read was “Memoirs of a Geisha” and I was bored to tears, that was a DNF (was it actually a real memoir? I don’t even know). So I shall put this on my TR list.

    • “Memoirs of a Geisha” was most definitely not a real memoir as it was written by a man ;p. It is also a rather controversial book. After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel.

      Harriette Wilson might bore you from time to time but at least she is genuine.

  3. rameau says:

    I believe this is on our (E’s and mine) expanded Rory Gilmore reading challenge (+) list.

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