In historical romances, we often encounter women who become prostitutes or courtesans in order to survive. An innocent girl is seduced by a blackguard and cast out by her family. A widow finds herself penniless. A governess is impregnated by the dissolute master of the house. Forced to fend for themselves, the women resort to the oldest profession.
It didn't always happen that way, though.
“I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of Lord Craven. Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, or the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify: or if it does, I am not in the humour to gratify curiosity in this matter.”
Thus begin the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson (1786-1846), the most famous of the Regency era’s courtesans. (Note re my last blog: Harriette was 15; the Earl of Craven was 31). She wasn’t the only one in her family to flee respectability. Her sisters left home, too (one at thirteen), to become Fashionable Impures. Harriette was and is the memorable one, however. Her memoirs, first published in 1825, are amazingly readable, and that is not something one can say about most early 19th C prose. As I’ve noted before, there’s a reason some authors live on and others don’t.
The memoirs offer many clues to Harriette’s popularity. Apparently, she was not deemed a great beauty. But she was great fun, as the insouciant beginning of her tale promises. Though what passed for wit then might make us scratch our heads, she could hold her own with the men. She was a saucy wench.
Being entertaining was a crucial skill in a courtesan’s repertoire–but to understand this, we need to understand what a courtesan was, and how she differed from prostitutes.
My shorthand definition of a courtesan is usually “high priced call girl.” That’s grossly oversimplifying and perhaps misleading. It’s hard to convey to a 21st century world what courtesans were.
Something like high-priced call girls did exist in Georgian times. One finds in Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies a “Miss ___, at Mrs. Ross’s, No. 7, Wardour-street.” She charged five guineas, where the majority charged half a guinea to a guinea. A guinea was one pound, one shilling. In today's money, that seems to be nearly £100 (about $200).
Women like Harriette were more closely related to the courtesans of, say, 17th century Venice (this painting is of the famous Veronica Franco) or ancient Greece, though not quite the same, either. The courtesans of earlier times were very well educated and cultured. They might dance, sing, play an instrument, write poetry (as Franco did). Harriette and her ilk were not educated in this way, yet they filled a similar function. Men associated with courtesans not simply for sex but for conversation and entertainment, in societies where marriages were made for political and dynastic reasons and wives and husbands tended to live in separate worlds.
Courtesans lived in the man’s world, a freer world. They paid a high price for their freedom, but one can understand why some chose this life. The aria “Sempre libera,” from La Traviata, might well be their theme song.
The respectable woman woman was bound by rules. No sex or even knowledge of sex before marriage. Stand so, sit so, speak so. She doesn’t want to appear too intellectual or too opinionated. Until she’s launched into Society, she’s had little to do with gentlemen outside her family. Being closely chaperoned, she’s not likely to learn much more about them until she marries one of them. Our young lady may be beautiful and have a delightful personality –but she’s an innocent, and men are expected to be on good behavior with her.
Scholars and others have pointed out that the only time a woman had power over men was during courtship. A gently bred girl gets a taste of this power (if she’s popular) during her Season, and one can certainly understand her wishing to prolong the experience.
But courtesans wielded such power over the course of their careers. They suffered the same–if not worse–vicissitudes their more respectable sisters endured but they had the power to say yes or no to men. If her protector was unsatisfactory, a courtesan could replace him. She might travel where she liked, see whom she liked, without asking anybody’s permission. She did not have to mind her Ps and Qs. She could tell dirty jokes, though she would avoid appearing too coarse. In short, she might behave more like a man.
This isn’t to say it couldn’t be the road to misery, or that choosing this path wasn't an enormous gamble, with the odds against her. A courtesan’s career was bound to be brief, and though Harriette lived a long life, many died young, often in the gutter. OTOH, being respectably married wasn’t security for everyone. A spouse might gamble away the family fortune. (Harriette did marry, and it was her husband who spent the money she’d made with her memoirs.) For the courtesan, venereal disease was practically a certainty. Yet it was a possiblity for the respectable wife of any man who’d had premarital or extramarital sex–and a large segment of the male aristocracy was promiscuous. The courtesan risked death in childbirth and miscarriage, and the death of children, as other women did. Titled ladies had no guarantees their marriages would be safe or stable. They might be abused or abandoned or divorced. Meanwhile, a courtesan might marry a nobleman. (Harriette’s sister Sophia married Lord Berwick–when he was forty-two and she was still a teenager.) Life wasn't easy on women, respectable or not. It's not hard to understand why some women went for pleasure and freedom: Play now, pay later.
Why did Harriette run away with Lord Craven? Was it for any of the reasons she suggested? Or was she a woman who chafed at the restrictions of her time–a woman better suited to the world of the early 21st century, say, than the early 19th? We’ll never know for sure. But when I recall that she was a teenager when she bolted, I find myself thinking that maybe Harriette was one of those girls who just wanted to have fun. At 15, how many think of consequences?
photo credit (image of Harriette from Frontispiece of the 1825 edition)
So let’s have some fun and pretend. Imagine you’re a young woman of Harriette’s time. What path do you think you'd follow? Would you believe in the rules and do your best to follow them? Would you follow the rules but chafe under them? Or would you to take the gamble of being a Bad Girl?