Harriette Wilson, the daughter of John and Amelia Dubochet, was born in London on February 22, 1786. Her birth is recorded in the Parish Register of St. George, Hanover Square, and her father’s name appears in the List of Rate Payers (1786) as residing at 2 Carrington Street, Mayfair. The house still exists, and its external structure seems to have been unaltered since the time it was built.
In old peerage volumes Dubochet, whose daughter Sophia married the second Lord Berwick, is vaguely described as M. Dubochet of Switzerland, but there is good reason for assuming that he was a clockmaker. The article on Harriette Wilson in the Dictionary of National Biography states that she was born about 1789, that her father kept a small shop in Mayfair, and that she flourished between the years 1810 and 1825. There can be no question, however, that she was on terms of intimacy, about 1805, with the sixth Duke of Argyle, and that in the following year she became the mistress of John, afterwards Viscount, Ponsonby, a handsome man of whom George IV. was jealous on account of Lady Conyngham. Ponsonby succeeded as Baron on November 5, 1806, and, as related in the Memoirs, he met Harriette a few weeks before his father’s death.
The Memoirs were first published in 1825 by John Joseph Stockdale, who issued them in paper cover parts, and so great was the demand that a barrier had to be erected in Stockdale’s shop to regulate the crowd that came to buy. Thirty editions are said to have been sold in one year, and the work was also pirated by T. Douglas, E. Thomas, and others. The present edition is reprinted from the original paper cover parts.
The Duke of Wellington, the Marquis of Worcester, Lord Alvanley, “Poodle” Byng, Beau Brummell, “King” Allen, Lord Yarmouth (Thackeray’s Marquis of Steyne), and the third Duke of Leinster, were among the numerous men of rank and fashion who came to Harriette’s house, and what is really valuable in her book is the almost photographic fidelity with which she reproduces the conversations and traits of her visitors. She observed the men of her “salon” as only a clever woman can, and, because of this, the Memoirs are lifted from worthlessness and form a most interesting addition to the society chronicles of the time. Sir Walter Scott in his Journal, December 9, 1825, writes as follows about the Memoirs and Harriette:
“…there is some good retailing of conversations, in which the style of the speaker, so far as known to me, is exactly imitated…. Some one asked Lord A — y, himself very sorrily handled from time to time, if Harriette Wilson had been pretty correct on the whole. ‘Why, faith,’ he replied, ‘I believe so….’” “I think,” proceeds Sir Walter, “I once supped in her company more than twenty years since at Mat Lewis’s, where the company, as the Duke said to Lucio, chanced to be ‘fairer than honest.’ She was far from beautiful… but a smart saucy girl, with good eyes and dark hair, and the manners of a wild schoolboy.”
After 1825 very little is known of Harriette Wilson beyond the fact that she lived abroad and married a Colonel Rochfort, with whom she resided for a time at 111 Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, Paris.
I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven. Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, 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.
I resided on the Marine Parade at Brighton, and I remember that Lord Craven used to draw cocoa trees, and his fellows as he called them, on the best vellum paper for my amusement. “Here stood the enemy,” he would say, “and here, my love, are my fellows. There the cocoa trees, &c.” It was, in fact, a dead bore. All these cocoa trees and fellows, at past eleven o’clock at night, could have no peculiar interest for a child like myself, so lately in the habit of retiring early to rest. One night, I recollect, I fell asleep; and, as I often dream, I said yawning, and half awake, “O Lord! O Lord! Craven has got me into the West Indies again.” In short I soon found that I had made but a bad speculation, by going from my father to Lord Craven. I was even more afraid of the latter than I had been of the former. Not that there was any particular harm in the man beyond his cocoa trees; but we never suited nor understood each other.
I was not depraved enough to determine immediately on a new choice, and yet I often thought about it. How indeed could I do otherwise, when the Honourable Frederick Lamb was my constant visitor, and talked to me of nothing else? However, in justice to myself, I must declare that the idea of the possibility of deceiving Lord Craven while I was under his roof, never once entered into my head. Frederick was then very handsome, and certainly tried with all his soul and with all his strength, to convince me that constancy to Lord Craven was the greatest nonsense in the world. I firmly believe that Frederick Lamb sincerely loved me, and deeply regretted that he had no fortune to invite me to share with him.
Lord Melbourne, his father, was a good man. Not one of your stiff-laced, moralising fathers, who preach chastity and forbearance to their children. Quite the contrary, he congratulated his son on the lucky circumstance of his friend Craven having such a fine girl with him.
“No such thing,” answered Frederick Lamb, “I am unsuccessful there. Harriette will have nothing at all to do with me.”
“Nonsense!” rejoined Melbourne, in great surprise, “I never heard anything half so ridiculous in all my life. The girl must be mad! She looks mad. I thought so the other day, when I met her galloping about, with her feathers blowing, and her thick dark hair about her ears.
“I’ll speak to Harriette for you,” added his lordship, after a long pause, and then continued repeating to himself, in an undertone, “not have my son indeed! Six feet high! A fine, straight, handsome, noble young fellow! I wonder what she would have!”
In truth, I scarcely knew myself; but something I determined on: so miserably tired was I of Craven, and his cocoa trees, and his sailing-boats, and his ugly, cotton nightcap.
“Surely,” I would say, “all men do not wear those shocking nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed on the first night of their marriage!” I wonder, thought I, what sort of a nightcap the Prince of Wales wears? Then I went on to wonder whether the Prince of Wales would think me as beautiful as Frederick Lamb did? Next I reflected that Frederick Lamb was younger than the Prince; but then again, a Prince of Wales!
I was undecided: my heart began to soften. I thought of my dear mother and I wished I had never left her. It was too late, however, now. My father would not suffer me to return, and, as to passing my life, or any more of it, with Craven, cotton night-cap and all, it was death! He never once made me laugh, nor said anything to please me.
Thus musing, I listlessly turned over my writing book, half in the humour to address the Prince of Wales! A sheet of paper, covered with Lord Craven’s cocoa trees, decided me, and I wrote the following letter, which I addressed to the Prince.
“I am told that I am very beautiful, so perhaps you would like to see me; and I wish that, since so many are disposed to love me, one, for in the humility of my heart I should be quite satisfied with one, would be at the pains to make me love him. In the meantime, this is all very dull work, Sir, and worse even than being at home with my father: so, if you pity me, and believe you could make me in love with you, write to me, and direct to the post office here.”
By return of post, I received an answer nearly to this effect: I believe from Colonel Thomas.
“Miss Wilson’s letter has been received by the noble individual to whom it was addressed. If Miss Wilson will come to town, she may have an interview, by directing her letter as before.”
I answered this note directly, addressing my letter to the Prince of Wales.
“SIR, — To travel fifty-two miles this bad weather, merely to see a man, with only the given number of legs, arms, fingers, &c., would, you must admit, be madness in a girl like myself, surrounded by humble admirers who are ever ready to travel any distance for the honour of kissing the tip of her little finger; but, if you can prove to me that you are one bit better than any man who may be ready to attend my bidding, I’ll e’en start for London directly. So, if you can do anything better in the way of pleasing a lady than ordinary men, write directly: if not, adieu, Monsieur le Prince.”
It was necessary to put this letter into the post office myself, as Lord Craven’s black footman would have been somewhat surprised at its address. Crossing the Steyne I met Lord Melbourne, who joined me immediately.
“Where is Craven?” said his lordship, shaking hands with me.
“Attending to his military duties at Lewes, my lord.”
“And where’s my son Fred?” asked his lordship.
“I am not your son’s keeper, my lord,” said I.
“No! By the bye,” inquired his lordship, “how is this? I wanted to call upon you about it. I never heard of such a thing in the whole course of my life! What the devil can you possibly have to say against my son Fred?”
“Good heavens! my lord, you frighten me! I never recollect to have said a single word against your son, as long as I have lived. Why should I?”
“Why, indeed!” said Lord Melbourne. “And, since there is nothing to be said against him, what excuse can you make for using him so ill?”
“I don’t understand you one bit, my lord.” The very idea of a father put me in a tremble.
“Why,” said Lord Melbourne, “did you not turn the poor boy out of your house as soon as it was dark, although Craven was in town, and there was not the shadow of an excuse for such treatment?”
At this moment, and before I could recover from my surprise at the tenderness of some parents, Frederick Lamb, who was almost my shadow, joined us.
“Fred, my boy,” said Lord Melbourne, “I’ll leave you two together, and I fancy you’ll find Miss Wilson more reasonable.” He touched his hat to me, as he entered the little gate of the Pavilion, where we had remained stationary from the moment his lordship had accosted me.
Frederick Lamb laughed long, loud, and heartily, at his father’s interference. So did I, the moment he was safely out of sight, and then I told him of my answer to the Prince’s letter, at which he laughed still more. He was charmed with me, for refusing His Royal Highness.
“Not,” said Frederick, “that he is not as handsome and graceful a man as any in England; but I hate the weakness of a woman who knows not how to refuse a prince, merely because he is a prince.”
“It is something, too, to be of royal blood,” answered I frankly; “and something more to be accomplished: but this posting after a man! I wonder what he could mean by it!”
Frederick Lamb now began to plead his own cause.
“I must soon join my regiment in Yorkshire,” said he: he was, at that time aide-de-camp to General Mackenzie: “God knows when we may meet again! I am sure you will not long continue with Lord Craven. I foresee what will happen, and yet, when it does, I think I shall go mad!”
For my part I felt flattered and obliged by the affection Frederick Lamb evinced towards me; but I was still not in love with him.
At length, the time arrived when poor Frederick Lamb could delay his departure from Brighton no longer. On the eve of it he begged to be allowed to introduce his brother William to me.
“What for?” said I.
“That he may let me know how you behave,” answered Frederick Lamb.
“And if I fall in love with him?” I inquired.
“I am sure you won’t,” replied Fred. “Not because my brother William is not likeable; on the contrary, William is much handsomer than I am; but he will not love you as I have done and do still, and you are too good to forget me entirely.”
Our parting scene was rather tender. For the last ten days, Lord Craven being absent, we had scarcely been separated an hour during the whole day. I had begun to feel the force of habit, and Frederick Lamb really respected me, for the perseverance with which I had resisted his urgent wishes, when he would have had me deceive Lord Craven. He had ceased to torment me with such wild fits of passion as had at first frightened me, and by these means he had obtained much more of my confidence.
Two days after his departure for Hull, in Yorkshire, Lord Craven returned to Brighton, where he was immediately informed by some spiteful enemy of mine, that I had been during the whole of his absence openly intriguing with Frederick Lamb. In consequence of this information, one evening, when I expected his return, his servant brought me the following letter, dated Lewes:
“A friend of mine has informed me of what has been going on at Brighton. This information, added to what I have seen with my own eyes, of your intimacy with Frederick Lamb, obliges me to declare that we must separate. Let me add, Harriette, that you might have done anything with me, with only a little mere conduct. As it is, allow me to wish you happy, and further, pray inform me, if in any way, à la distance, I can promote your welfare.
This letter completed my dislike of Lord Craven. I answered it immediately, as follows: