by Loretta Chase

“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 HARRIETTE WILSON'S MEMOIRS (Harriette Wilson, 1786-1845). She's famous mainly for blackmail: She offered to leave her former lovers out of her memoirs for a price. But that's Harriette. She was shameless, she wouldn't kowtow, and she was funny.

I recently finished a modern biography of her, THE COURTESAN'S REVENGE, by Frances Wilson. It's part of an ongoing process of trying to understand the Regency era and its people and what made them tick. Lately, though, I'm particularly interested in Fallen Women, the topic of my current series.

Thanks to the Victorians, the general view of Fallen Women is dark. They always seem to come to a bad end, usually while still young. Harriette lived to nearly 60--a ripe old age in that era, when an alarming percentage of women died in childbirth and there were no antibiotics and few vaccines against many, many deadly diseases. Her life, while not the happiest, isn't exactly a tragedy. She certainly didn't see it that way, as the insouciant opening to her memoirs makes clear.

She's not the model for Francesca Bonnard, the heroine of YOUR SCANDALOUS WAYS, but she did inspire Francesca's attitude. (There's more about Francesca, secret agent James Cordier, naughty plaster work and other topics at my YouTube channel.

Harriette made me wonder how many courtesans came to good ends: saved their money, lived into a ripe old age, maybe found a spouse or long-term honey. No one writes about them. Does it mean there weren't any? Hard to say. Most courtesans simply disappear from history's pages after their heyday. We have no idea how many ended their lives happily. Certainly, in the Victorian era, no one's going to give that story a happy ending unless the bad girl repents and suffers--and that's not really my idea of a happy ending.

Reading about Harriette and other courtesans, also made me think about how much they had in common with modern women. Not all modern women, certainly. But they had a freedom their more respectable sisters lacked. They had not only sexual freedom but personal freedom. A courtesan might travel where she liked, see whom she liked, without asking anybody's permission. Her money, unlike a married woman's, was her own to save or squander. She did not have to mind a strict set of Ps & Qs and she could poke fun at the great men others deferred to.

Yes, certainly, there was a downside. When her youth and beauty went, so did the popularity and money. A host of deadly diseases could kill her. But I find myself looking at the life of a conventional, respectable woman--who was exposed to many of the same dangers of childbirth and disease, philandering and/or abusive spouses, poverty with no safety net of any kind--and I wonder: When I was young and incautious, would I have stuck it out, played it safe, been a good girl? Or would I have busted out, the way Harriette did, and taken my chances on freedom?

I think I know the answer to that one, but what about you? It's the early 19th C. You're 15. A hot aristocrat wants you to run away with him. What would you do?

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said:

Hi Loretta!

I cannot wait to read this one. I also want to read about Harriet Wilson. I am sure to love your heroine with a great attitude.

It seems like she'll stop at nothing and is smart about it.

I love reading reseach books on that time period as much as the romance novels. Thanks for a great post! ~Laura T

5:12 PM  

Blogger BaLQiz said:

I would run away with him :-)

11:52 PM  

Blogger Book Maniac said:

Can't wait to read this.

2:13 PM  

Anonymous LorettaChase said:

Laura, my heroine has some excellent jewelry--that was fun to research, absolutely! __Balqiz, I have a feeling I would, too--if I were fifteen. ___ Book maniac, I hope you like it!

10:53 PM  

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