The 19th-century courtesan Harriette Wilson revised her memoirs depending on which of her aristocratic lovers paid for her discretion. That flexibility with the truth presented her biographer, Frances Wilson, with some difficulties.
"How," exclaimed Virginia Woolf when she began her biography of Roger Fry, "can one make a life of six cardboard boxes full of tailors'
bills, love letters and old picture postcards?" Well might she ask; all that was left of Harriette Wilson when I began to write her life was a scandalous book and a scattering of extortion letters.
Courtesan, memoirist and blackmailer, Wilson presents her biographers with quite a challenge. From being one of the more notorious figures of her day, as famous in Mayfair circles as Byron and Beau Brummell, she has long been on the list of history's missing people. She was one of Regency London's most and least visible figures, always on display in her opera box or her carriage, yet vitally separate from the members of high society who courted her.
Wilson lived on the far side of the sword, as Woolf describes the shadow dividing the respectable world of marriages and mistresses from the sexual underworld, a realm whose existence was rarely admitted to by the men who crossed with regularity from sun to shade. There is scarcely a mention of Wilson in the biographies of her many protectors, men such as the Duke of Wellington, George Canning and Lord Palmerston (to name just the prime ministers) or Henry Brougham, who became Lord Chancellor soon after Wilson began blackmailing him.
As one might expect given the nature of Wilson's letters, all but a few have been destroyed. Only those to Brougham and to her adored Lord Ponsonby survive to tell the tale of her remarkably successful attempt to hold the British aristocracy to ransom.
And if one challenge faced by Wilson's biographer is the absence of source material by or about her, another is the way in which she is represented by those who do mention her. The facts of Wilson's life have eroded away to be replaced by the usual errors and fantasies attributed to those whose lives seem too unimportant, or immoral, for it to matter much what was said about them. And while the fantasies she inspired in her lifetime fuelled Wilson's reputation as one of London's most popular "fashionable impures", those perpetuated since have done little for her posthumous existence.
Any mention of Wilson is usually followed by a litany of misinformation; there is barely a reference to her in which the details are correct. To take two random examples: an exhibition of Regency Lyme in Lyme Regis claims that Wilson went there to give birth to her illegitimate children.
The curator has confused Harriette Wilson, courtesan, who was childless, with Harriet Wilson Lowndes, respectable wife of a Knightsbridge property developer, who did indeed have her children baptised in Dorset.
Most recently, Julie Peakman in Mighty Lewd Books, a study of 18th-century pornography, writes that Wilson's memoirs were banned and that she avoided prosecution by escaping to Paris. Neither of these assertions is true. Her memoirs, unprotected by copyright laws, were widely pirated and sold astonishingly well; it was Wilson's publisher who was liable for prosecution, and when she went to Paris it was to join her husband, who was escaping from his creditors.
Previous biographies of Wilson seem equally unconcerned with the historical reality of their subject. Unable to confirm the date of Wilson's death, Angela Thirkell, whose Fortunes of Harriette was published in 1936, concludes her book with the disinterested remark, unusual for a biographer, that such details are not "of very great matter". And Valerie Grosvenor Myer's 1999 book Harriette Wilson, Lady of Pleasure replaces research with erotica in a manner unusual among even the most liberal biographers. She writes: "Blood sang in her ears; her nipples rose unbidden in response; her clitoris swelled, throbbed and ached."
Not that Wilson would object to those writers who deal in myths, mistake her for other people, trade reality for fantasy or disregard the importance of dates. Part of what makes her such a difficult person to write about is her continual blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction, her blithe admission that "dates make ladies nervous and stories dry", and her dismissal of conventional biographical form.
The most substantial source for Wilson's life are her Memoirs, published in nine paper-covered instalments between February and August 1825. It is here that her biographer's real challenge begins. What does Wilson herself have to say about how to construct or reconstruct the story of her life?
Having retired, Wilson asked various of her protectors to supply her with an annuity, something she had presumably been promised in moments of passion. Their subsequent refusal resulted in her decision to avenge herself. "I never attempted to expose them," she wrote, "till all my civil, humble, and abject prayers and protestations had failed to wring from their impenetrable hearts one single paltry hundred a year."
Memory is conventionally regarded as the very signature of truth; Wilson turns this equation on its head. Bearing little relation to memory, her memoirs reveal a number of unpalatable truths. They were written as an exercise in blackmail on a grand scale, and they implicate in some way almost the entire establishment. Wilson would revise any memory for a fee and thus allowed the official story of her life to go in any direction, depending on the outcome of negotiations with key players.
Before publication, Wilson and her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale, wrote to 200 or so of her former lovers and acquaintances, giving them the opportunity to buy themselves out for £20 a year or a lump sum of £200. Some took up the offer, such as George IV, who lay on his deathbed four years later cursing "Harriette Wilson and her hellish gang"; others, such as the Duke of Wellington, challenged her, the legend goes, to publish and be damned (a rebuke that, like so much in Wilson's story, is not based on fact).
Those men who bought Wilson's silence had the passages in which they featured simply crossed out.
Occasionally, if she felt malicious, lovers who had paid up would get a very handsome write-up, which the canny reader would recognise for the underhand exposure it really was. Brougham, for example, who represented Wilson's legal interests in exchange for her silence as well as paying her an annuity, was praised by her as a man of "brilliant talents", actuated "solely by the spirit of philanthropy". The higher the payment, the greater the flattery.
On the other hand, minor figures in Wilson's life such as the Duke of Wellington, with whom she had a brief liaison before his marriage, or Frederick Lamb, brother of Lord Melborne, Queen Victoria's first prime minister, take on major roles in the Memoirs as a result of sufficiently irritating Wilson when she was demanding payment.
But there was no escape even for those who did pay. Before publication of the first instalment, Stockdale, who had a genius for publicity, advertised the list of names that would appear, in order of rank, unless they did something about it, and he continued this tactic for future instalments.
This allowed Wilson's readers to follow the ever-evolving developments of the plot, to watch as terrified statesmen bought themselves out, and to observe, in an extra-textual drama, how Wilson was gaily allowing the official story of her life to be constructed in this ad hoc manner. Readers were able to work out, from the list of names on the back of the previous instalment, who had bought himself out from the present one. The newspapers joined in the game, commenting on the lateness of the next expected part and speculating on the back-stage negotiations that were delaying publication.
As names paid, Wilson's narrative had always to elastically re-form itself around the subsequent ellipsis, regardless of the readers' being perfectly aware of the artificiality of this act. Readers knew that they were reading not the truth of Wilson's lived experience, but an edited version, that her eventual printed account had a very strained relation to fact, and that Wilson herself had little control over the narrative form her autobiography would take. The Memoirs were, for her readers, both a documentary-in-the-making and a highly edited fiction. She stands apart from other memoirists less for the scandalous content of her book than for its scandalous form.
The art of biography is, among other things, an attempt to get at the truth of the subject's life and to give to that life a shape and a form. Perhaps it is Wilson's unashamedly problematic relation to truth, shape and form in her Memoirs that has inspired those others who have written about her to let slip their own adherence to fact or to the form of standard biography.
They simply followed her lead.
Frances Wilson teaches English literature at Reading University. A Courtesan's Revenge was published this week by Faber, £20.00.