Sisters of Ill Repute: The Regency’s Harriette Wilson and Her Profligate Sisters by Cheryl Bolen
Today, Cheryl Bolen gives us a biographical sketch of a coterie of notable Regency Cyprians. Most Regency devotees are well-aware of the notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson, who blackmailed scores of powerful and famous men when she was writing her memoirs. But did you know she had three sisters who joined her in her scandalous profession?
The names of very few members of the demimonde from Regency England survive. A noticeable exception is Harriette Wilson (not her real name). Her entré into history was provided by her own witty pen. The women who once moved in the same circles with Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, and other aristocrats penned her tell-tale memoirs some years after age and circumstances robbed her of her once-lofty position. And those memoirs are still interesting reading today — even though the bedroom door stays closed.
At the age of fifteen, Harriette became the mistress of Lord Craven. Though she had been born Harriette Dubouchet, she adopted the surname Wilson, probably in an effort to protect the respectable members of her family. She was one of fifteen children born in London to John Dubouchet (a Swiss) and his wife Amelia, who was thought to be the illegitimate daughter of a well-to-do English gentleman.
Four of the Dubouchet sisters were to become Cyprians. Besides Harriette, these profligates included Fanny, Amy (who bore a son of the Duke of Argyle), and the youngest, Sophy (who brought the family a degree of respectability by marrying a peer).
At age thirteen, Sophy became the mistress of Lord Deerhurst but while still very young managed to persuade Lord Berwick to marry her.
During Harriette’s brief reign over London’s demi rep, she lived in fashionable houses with a staff of servants, patronized the best modistes, and even had her own box at the theatre (where all of London could view the notorious woman).
In her memoirs, Harriette writes of her mother with great affection, explaining that what her mother lacked in fortune she bestowed tenfold in giving her children a fine education. All the children were as fluent in French as they were in English.
Harriette insists that no blame for hers or her sisters’ lifestyle should attach to the mother. “The respect I feel for the memory of a most tender parent,” Harriette wrote, “makes me anxious that she should be acquitted from every shadow of blame, which might, by some, perhaps, be imputed to her, in consequence of her daughters’ errors, and the life they fell into.”
It was some consolation to the parents when Sophy snagged a title.
Sadly, the other sisters did not fare as well. Fanny died a painful death after the love of her life left her. The circumstances of Amy’s later years are not known, and though little is known of Harriette’s later years, it is thought she died in poverty.
© 2006 – 2012 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Regency Reader in November 2009.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.