Book Review: Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs by Lesley Blanch

Nineteenth century London produced a fine flowering of eccentrics and individualists. Chief among them was Harriette Wilson, whose patrons included most of the distinguished men of the day, from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Byron. She held court in a box at the opera, attended by statesmen, poets, national heroes, aristocrats, members of the beau monde, and students who hoped to be immortalised by her glance. She wrote these memoirs in middle age, when she had fallen out of favour. She advised her former lovers that for 200 she would edit them out. ‘Publish and be damned!’ retorted the Duke of Wellington. The result is an elegant, zestful, unrepentant memoir, which offers intimately detailed portraits of the Regency demimonde. First published in 1957.

It’s very entertaining. It is impossible not to like Wilson. At times, she is funny. She writes, “I have one advantage over other bad females writers and prosing ladies, which is, that I do not think myself agreeable”. Sometimes she is very modern in her comments on how society sees women, “She is a bad woman the moment she has committed fornication, be she generous, charitable, just, clever, domestic, affectionate, and ever ready to sacrifice her own good to serve and benefit those she loves, still her rank in society is with the lowest hired prostitute”.

Still, at times, one wonders if Wilson isn’t playing a final game with her readers, giving them what they want instead of the truth.

My Gemstone Rating:


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