13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 52

The harlot's progress

Jane Ridley

HARRIETTE WILSON: LADY OF PLEASURE by Valerie Grosvenor Myer Fern House, L1750, pp. 178

shall not say why and how I became at the age of 15 the mistress of the Earl of Craven.' Thus Harriette Wilson, courtesan extraordinary, began her autobiography in 1825. Valerie Grosvenor Myer has chosen a rich, earthy subject: a whore's eye view of Regency London. Harriette Wilson reigned as queen over a gamy, violent, no-holds- barred man's world of devilled bones, bug- gers' handlebars and brothels.

Harriette was born in Mayfair, the daughter of a foul-tempered Swiss watch- maker named Dubochet and his down- trodden English wife, who mended stock- ings for a living. Prostitution was a family business and Harriette worked with three of her sisters who were also on the game. The list of her conquests reads like the index of a history book. She slept with the curt, husky-voiced Duke of Wellington, and was kept by Fred Lamb, brother of prime minister Melbourne. She made love with the Duke of Argyll and lost her heart, or so she said, to John Ponsonby, cold, cruel and beautiful, who jilted her. Harriette made out that she only took one lover at a time, but, as Grosvenor Myer says, she probably had several on the go at once. She pretend- ed she had an ethical code, but she was greedy for money and sexual adventure, and she did it for business, She became the fashion. Dandy Beau Brummell was always on hand with a witty one-liner, and Oxford undergraduates queued for her favours. Men quizzed her in the box she hired at the opera and jostled for invitations to her inti- mate 3.00 a.m. suppers. She never met respectable ladies, but she wasn't resentful — far from it, their lives seemed so dull compared to hers.

Being a high-class tart was a bit like being a tennis player or James Hewitt. As Becky Sharp understood so well, you were only as good as your looks. After 30 things got thin. One survival strategy was to pro- duce a brood of children and hope to get yourself kept by their father, but this was risky, and anyway Harriette had no chil- dren — she seems to have been remarkably skilful at not getting pregnant. Amazingly she avoided venereal disease too. Some courtesans were clever enough to pull off marriage as second wife to a rich but dis- gusting older man, as Harriette's sister did (at 15 she married Lord Berwick, who was past 40). Harriette could have become Duchess of Beaufort if she'd played her cards better. The undergraduate Lord Worcester had a calf-like obsession for her, lived with her for three years and begged her to marry him. As he neared 21 his par- ents took fright, terrified lest he make a harlot his marchioness. Feckless Harriette, who was bored of him, returned his letters and agreed not to marry him in exchange for cash. Perhaps it was just as well; he seems to have become rather mad.

Instead Harriette turned to blackmail. Guided by her legal adviser, Lord Brougham, whom she paid in kind, she threatened to expose all her old lovers in her memoirs unless they paid up. The Prince Regent paid hush money and so did Brougham. Others jibbed at paying twice over, and the Duke of Wellington allegedly replied, 'Publish and be damned.' (Sadly this bon mot is probably apocryphal.) Any- how, publish Harriette did, and the result was a bestseller, but it earned her no favours. By the end she was a pathetic, lonely figure, swollen, bloated and gouty.

Valerie Grosvenor Myer has taken Har- riette's own story and made it spicier. She writes raunchily about Harriette's sex life, unrestrained by stays (apparently she wore no knickers either). But though Grosvenor Myer has researched the underwear, I wish she could have written a fuller book. Few courtesans can have left so much pillow talk as Harriette — she deserves a proper life.