“Publish and be damned!” — Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
Everyone recognizes the line. Not everyone recognizes why Wellington said it, or to whom. It was a response to a letter Wellington received from Harriette Wilson, arguably the premier courtesan of her day. Unlike, say, Emma Hamilton, who you might call a serial courtesan, Harriette Wilson was the real deal; even when she was a man’s mistress that didn’t keep her from taking other clients. She was one of those women who, despite a lack of conventional beauty, had so much charm, sex appeal, and chutzpah that mere looks didn’t much matter.
There are two versions of the “publish and be damned” story. In one, Wilson was writing her memoirs, Wellington got word of the fact that he featured in them and tried to find a way to stop her publishing. When he found out he couldn’t, Wellington petulantly uttered the famed phrase. In the other version, Wilson, retired from prostitution and deeply in debt, wrote her memoirs specifically so that she could extort money from former lovers, and Wellington, refusing to pay, told her to go to Hell. The first version redounds somewhat to Wilson’s credit; the second version to Wellington’s.
Wilson was one of fifteen children of a Swiss watchmaker; she was fifteen when she became the mistress of William, Lord Craven. Later lovers (aside from Wellington) included the Prince of Wales and any number of peers and wealthy men. She lived well, and was passing famous, but most of the men she got involved with renegged on promises of financial support. Once the bloom was off the romance the men didn’t stay long–in fact, several of Harriette’s lovers transferred their interest to the three of her sisters who also became courtesans. There was not much loyalty to the courtesan one slept with, so why would the courtesans feel loyalty to their clients?
Harriette retired when she was in her mid-30s–like football, prostitution is a game for younger people. Like most of her peers she did not manage her money particularly well, and within a few years found herself in need of cash. “Having no other power or public voice, the betrayed woman reaches for her pen,” Wilson wrote in her memoirs. Once the memoirs were done, she reached for her pen again and wrote letters to virtually every man she named, offering to redact his name for the low bargain price of £200. Famously, Wellington refused to pay up, so the memoirs included this damning tidbit:
“My own Wellington, who has sighed over me by the hour, talked of my wonderful beauty, ran after me . . . only for a single smile from his beautiful Harriette. Did he not kneel? And was I not the object of his first, his most ardent wishes, on his arrival from Spain? Only it was such a pity that Argyle got to my house first. . . .my tender swain Wellington stood in the gutter at two in the morning, pouring forth his amorous wishes in the pouring rain, in strains replete with heartrending grief.”
Was the Hero of Waterloo humiliated? Wilson certainly exacted her revenge. Enough other, um, former clients paid her so that her immediate money problems were solved, but her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale, went to prison for extortion.
Wilson is an interesting character: an autodidact, a fashionista, a woman with the same sort of fame that a pop star or Real Housewife has now–shortlived but potent. If there was someone she hadn’t slept with but thought could be useful to her, she would write one of her famous “letters of invitation.” But she was so well known and so sought after that there were not too many men worth sleeping with left to invite.
After the Memoirs were published, Wilson turned to writing poetry and novels. The fact that we don’t number her among the minor female novelists of the 19th century suggests that she was not particularly good with either. Her greatest gift seems to have been her charisma, the charm that made her briefly a superstar.