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HARRIETTE WILSON-Regency courtesan

Harriette Wilson, appears in my first book 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling'. She was one of the four Dubouchet sisters who all earnt their living as courtesans in the Regency era.

Harriette Wilson
Harriette Wilson

Amy first sees her at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, when Lord Duncannon points her out and informs her about the three famous Dubouchet sisters, known as the 'three ugly sisters'. Amy later meets her in person, when Harriette visits her in Brook Street whilst she is living with Henry Branham, but by this time she had aged and her looks were gone. She was now earning her living blackmailing her former clients by asking them for large sums of money so as not to print their names in her memoirs.

 Harriette in an illustration for her 1825 'Memoirs'
Harriette in an illustration for her 1825 'Memoirs'

She was born Harriet Dubouchet in 1786 in Carrington Street, Mayfair, -not far from Curzon Street-, one of fifteen children of a Swiss stocking maker, James Dubouchet, and his wife Amelia Cook. Her father was controlling and despotic, and her eldest sister, Amy Dubouchet, wasted little time in escaping from their father's house and 'going on the town' as prostitution was known then. The next sister, Fanny, then followed suit, by which time the two sisters had met an arranger who introduced them to a host of well-healed clients.

It was through this arranger that the renamed Harriette Wilson, aged 15, met her first client, the Earl of Craven, who was 31. She said in her later 'Memoirs' that she changed the spelling of her first name to sound more French, and her surname to sound more generically English!

 Amy Dubouchet
Amy Dubouchet. Harriette followed her sister into her profession.

Sophia Dubouchet
Sophia Dubouchet. Harriette's younger sister who also became a courtesan.

Much of the information about Harriette's life comes from her own 'Memoirs', but she fictionalises large parts of it, as when she claims to have met Lord Byron at a masquerade ball in Burlington House, even though Byron was in another part of the country at the time. Although, it was true that she did become the mistress of Lord Craven when she was only 15, and she recalls that he bored her to tears with his tales of his sugar estates in the West Indies, and she quickly became repulsed by sight of his month-eaten nightcap.

She then moved on to other lovers, most notably the young Marquis of Worcester, heir to the Duke of Beaufort. According to Harriette, she went to live with him in Brighton where his regiment was stationed, and that he would only get out of bed in the mornings if she did so too. He insisted that she come with him to the parade ground at Brighton Barracks and follow him around on a horse, and that they even had matching his and her outfits. This story also comes from the 'Memoirs', and as it isn't corroborated by anyone else, it was either exaggerated, or just made up.

Illustration from the 'Memoirs', showing her with the Marquis of Worcester
Illustration from the 'Memoirs', showing her with the Marquis of Worcester

The Marquis of Worcester's parents, the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, soon heard of his antics with Harriette and they forced him to part with her. She later claimed that when she met the Duke at his London house, he made a pass at her, until his wife entered the room and threw her out of the house. They later offered to pay her an annuity if she agreed to leave their son alone, which she accepted, but she then lost it when she pursued him and restarted their affair.

Harriette and her two sisters, Amy and Fanny, together with their fellow courtesan Julia Johnstone, would hire a box at the Opera House in Covent Garden and display themselves to attract potential clients from amongst the 'haute ton'. She didn't get on with her eldest sister Amy, as she would later accuse her of stealing all of her lovers, most notably the Duke of Argyle, with whom Amy had a child. But, she got on very well with Fanny and stayed friendly with her throughout her life. Her younger sister Sophia also became a courtesan and she later married Lord Berwick.

Harriette says the love of her life was Lord Ponsonby, who she first saw riding his horse along Piccadilly. According to her memoirs they soon became lovers, but he later left her when he married Lady Elizabeth Villiers, and she was left heartbroken. This story, once again, is not corroborated by any contemporary references, and as with the Byron story, is only mentioned much later by her in the 'Memoirs'.

Harriette's most famous conquest was the Duke of Wellington, who had become estranged from his wife after returning from Waterloo, and he was introduced to Harriette by an arranger. Wellington would later deny ever having met her when he was named in the 'Memoirs', and he is credited with the saying, 'publish and be damned', after she threatened to name him if he didn't pay her a hefty sum of money.

Caricature of Harriette's lovers who were named in the 'Memoirs'
Caricature of Harriette's lovers who were named in the 'Memoirs'

'The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson Written by Herself' was published by John Stockdale in 1825. He specialised in risqué novels and kiss-and-tell memoirs such as Harriette's, so he might have been responsible for some of the more far-fetched tales in the 'Memoirs'. She was successful in that some of her lovers paid her money to have their names left out, and the 'Memoirs' ran to three separate editions and, at first, sold well. But once all the fuss had died down, and Harriette had spent all of the money she had made, she settled in Paris.

With her looks now gone, she tried becoming a novelist and wrote 'Paris Lions and London Tigers' which was also published by Stockdale, but it wasn't as successful as the 'Memoirs', and she returned to London, almost penniless.

Harriette after she returned to London
Harriette after she returned to London

She met William Henry Rochfort, who was ten years younger than her, and they were supposed to be married, but she later found out that he was already married and was also a con-artist. He regularly beat her and stole what money she did have, until she eventually had the courage to leave him and settle in Chelsea, where she died in abject poverty in 1845, at the age of 59.

Sources: 'The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson Written by Herself'

'The Courtesan's Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson' by Frances Wilson.


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