Category Archives: History

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

“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.

Vocabulary Lesson

So there I was in the basement, doing my annual “how many years am I going to keep this book if I’m not going to re-read it” cull, and I came upon a couple of Regencies I had liked enough to keep for an embarrassing number of decades, and decided to re-read them.  They are fun, fast reads, a little predictable (beyond the necessary predictability of a Happily Ever After) in that the author seems to like heroes of a certain age, highly placed in the peerage, and upstart young women of good family.  But fun, and decently researched as to place and clothing.  The dialogue is full of Heyer-isms, but having drunk deep at that well myself, I can’t complain.

However: in the first of the two I read, somewhere in the first third of the book, the hero casually drops the word “libido.” Using it in way that distinctly evoked psychology.  Which almost made me drop the book.  

Libido: Psychoanalysis (fr. Latin libido: desire, lust) Psychic drive or energy, particularly that associated with the sexual instinct.

That’s the OED, which gives the first English language use in 1909.  But clearly the word libido would have been known to a man who had studied Latin, which a well-educated peer of the realm in 1812 is likely to have done. The problem is with modern reader: I see libido and I think Freud, and it drops me out of the story.  And that’s a problem for the writer.

I swear that I have seen a usage of the word dude dating from 1829, although the OED places it in 1883, with New York City as its point of origin.  An novelist working in the 1890s could use it, but would it be wise?  I mean, really: the word conjures up surfers, board shorts, Keanu Reeves.  So not what I want to imagine when thinking of Diamond Jim Brady or Lilly Langtry.  So nix the period-correct but unfortunately-evocative dude.

The English language is one of my favorite playgrounds; like many of my colleagues, I find it easy to get lost in the OED for an hour or three, just discovering new words.  The right word can set the stage, establish mood, character, all that stuff.  The wrong word–even if historically correct–can blow your scene out of the water.  Again, per the OED, O.K. can earliest be cited in 1839 (as a shortening of all correct or orl korrect–oh, orthography, how I love you!).  Charlotte Brontë could conceivably have used it–it was American slang, so it’s not likely, but they are contemporaneous.  But throwing an Okay into Jane Eyre–let alone into your Tudor-era novel–doesn’t fly, not even if you rationalize it as “well, it’s what they would have said, and aye sounds too quaint.”  That’s a slippery slope: a friend swears that she read a novel set in medieval England where the heroine spoke of actualizing her personhood, but I’m hoping she made that up.

Vocabulary is hard for the historical writer–and not only because you want the mot juste.  I want to use the vocabulary that was current in the period. I want to not use vocabulary that wasn’t in use.  And I want to avoid using period-correct language that means something different now than it did then.  Like contact.  Or nice.

The OED has a columns-long citation for nice:

  • in 1290 nice meant foolish or senseless, but it also meant lascivious, wanton, bawdy.  A “nyce minstral” was not a pleasant, kind musician, he was a ribald one.
  • by the 1500s nice meant fastidious, dainty, scrupulous.  A “nice sense of dress” meant you were fussy about your appearance.
  • in the 1700s nice was beginning to mean agreeable or capable of causing pleasure or delight–we’re getting closer to the modern sense of the word, but still not there yet.
  • by 1830 nice is kind and considerate; if you do something in the nicest possible way, you’re being thoughtful, not picky.

Jane Austen noted, in Northanger Abbey, the shift in meaning of nice (with a little bit of a jab at her pedantic hero, Henry Tilney);

“But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

“The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word `nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.”

What it comes down to, I suppose, is: When writing historical fiction you must be nice in your choice of words.  (Take that as you will.)

History is an Unknown Country

Sake Dean Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon to George IV and William IV

History is made up of stories.  About people.  Often about people behaving miserably, or heroically, or foolishly; people thinking they were smarter than they were, people who wanted to be important, people who were unexpectedly kind or cruel.  The tricky thing about history is that it tends to belong to the people who wrote it, or to the people who got the best press or yelled the loudest or wrote the best version.

I once almost got into a fight with a Beefeater in the Tower of London when I dared suggest that Shakespeare might have been wrong about Richard III killing off his nephews.  Shakespeare’s version of the story has become enshrined as something “everybody knows.”  And “everybody knows” is almost always a problem if you want to get something right.

I was thinking about this because I’m reading Black London, a terrific and fascinating book by Gretchen Gerzina about the history of Africans in England.  Early in the book Gerzina tells of going into a bookstore looking for material about people of color in London.  The saleswoman told her, with a touch of asperity, that everyone knew that there were no blacks in England prior to the end of WW II.   Continue reading

The Sign and Statement of Loss

I have been, for one reason and another, thinking about mourning.  There have been several deaths in our circle this year, and after one of them my daughter chose to wear what I can only call “mourning” to school the next day: black shirt, skirt, stockings, and boots.  Which startled me–only because I don’t know that I’ve ever worn all-black after a death, not from lack of respect, but because I didn’t always have black to wear. When I see a funeral on a TV show, I wonder: do all these people have mourning wardrobes?  Even the little kids are often in little black suits or dresses (despite the advice of Emily Post, who says children of eight and under are never dressed in black).  All this made me wonder about mourning: the why, the what.

The why is both simple and complex: particularly if you are in the decedent’s family, mourning is meant to indicate loss.  Today, when many people wear all black as a fashion statement, that doesn’t work so well except at a funeral.  But you wear mourning, as much as anything else, as a useful social cue: it shows to the people around the mourner that jokes or thoughtless comments are not appropriate.  Mourning could also flag where the mourners were in the grieving process.  Which is where it started getting complex. Continue reading


I have just finished reading Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Sense and Sensibility (which is to say, the final shooting script–Thompson wrote dozens of versions of the screenplay before it was acquired and put into production) and her diary from the shoot*.  She is uniformly witty and down to earth (her comments about zits, hangovers, and feeling like a talentless hack are not only reassuring to the rest of the world–which is to say, to me–but are funny in their own right) and endlessly appreciative of her colleagues on camera and behind the scenes.  I wish I’d been a gofer on that film.

Reading the diary, in particular, reminded me of the extent to which the production of an historical film of good intent (meaning, one that wants to get it right) relies on experts: the horse wrangler who teaches Willoughby how to drive a curricle (the sportscar of its day); the costumers and designers; the dance teachers; and Jane Gibson, “movement duenna and expert on all manners historical,” who taught bearing and manners and the reverence.  By which I mean bowing and curtseying.

During my brief career studying ballet as a kid the first thing Miss Dear (honest to God, it was her name) taught us was the “reverence,” a deep bow which was to be given to her at the beginning and end of each class.  Her class of 7-year-olds mostly teetered and tried not to fall over.  Later, when I took some classes in historic dance, I learned several different reverences: it wasn’t until some time in the 17th century, I believe, that bowing and curtseying split off into sex-differentiated motions.  According to Wikipedia, that font of all wisdom, the curtsey is a gesture of respect from an inferior to a superior.  Hence all those bobbing Victorian maids in the movies (“yes, m’lady.”  **bob**).  Per Thompson:

“We learn the root and meaning of the bows and curtsies–or reverences, as Jane calls them.  As you enter a room you ‘cast a gladdened eye’ about you.  Beautiful phrase….

The bow is the gift of the head and heart.  The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering in status for a moment, followed by recovery.”

I had always understood the “lowering in status” part of the reverence, and that a superior may nod or bow less deeply to an inferior, either in dismissal or acknowledgment.  You would bow very deeply–abase yourself–to a King, less deeply to a baron, acknowledging their superior status.  My 21st century feminist self gets the status thing, even if she doesn’t believe in it, but was always troubled by the fact that a gentlewoman curtseyed to a gentleman (I believe in practice she was supposed to curtsey to him, then he would respond with a bow).  The idea of a recovery from that lowering of status pleases me.  “I submit to your authority,” the curtsey says.  Or maybe, “I acknowledge that society places a higher value on your gender than on my own.”  And then the recovery: “But I submit only so far.”  And then the bow, acknowledgement and “gift of the head and the heart”.

It’s easy for me to want to read a taking back of authority in the recovery from a curtsey: I love the past, but I am firmly a creature of now.  One of the great tasks of writing then is to remember that Sarah Tolerance has no Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan or Ms. Magazine in her background; that however independent she is, she’s still a woman of her time, and while she might not feel that the man she’s curtseying to is worthy of her respect, she would still go through the proper forms.  It’s her age, and not mine, that I am playing in.


*I once read excerpts of Thompson’s diary from the movie Junior, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which she mentions that he was still so muscle-bound that it was difficult for him to tie his own tie–the muscles literally got in the way.  I was then editing comics, and made sure to mention this to those artists who seemed to think that moving like a gymnast and being built like a fireplug were not incompatible…

Another Reason to Write

Research.  The best part of my writing day.

No, really.  I’m finishing Deborah Hayden’s Pox, a fascinating book on syphilis and its sufferers.  I’m a sucker for medical history and forensic medicine.  I discovered Berton Roueche’s Medical Detectives series when I was in junior high school (Eleven Blue Men, The Incurable Wound, The Man Who Grew Two Breasts); the stories in these books have a slightly dated quality since many of them were written in the 1950s.  They are basically public health puzzlers (a number of which have, in fact, been used as the germs for House episodes): eleven bums from NYC’s bowery turn up in ERs around the city, sky-blue and delirious; an HVAC installer comes down with anthrax; children in a rural school start coming down with an unidentified fever.  Part of what’s fascinating now is that–while these stories were cutting edge, or close to cutting edge when they came out, they’re almost quaint, technology-wise.  It’s useful to be reminded of how far medicine has come since 1950, and how many attitudes have changed.  It’s a particularly useful reminder for those of us who play with the past.

Another example: for Valentine’s day my husband gave me a book called The Sublime Engine, a history of the heart in medicine and as a metaphor. In the opening pages of the book there’s a passage describing early man realizing that there’s something living in his chest, something that responds to activity or emotion, something that is a part of him.  It’s the beginning of the long human fascination with the heart, and as a writer I read this passage with a kind of awe, because it’s just something I never thought of before.

I have an A-Z of Regency London (A-Zs, pronounced A-to-Zeds, are English maps and guidebooks) in which I can get absolutely lost, because the shape of the city has changed hugely in the last two hundred years.  I look up and the afternoon is gone while I was wandering in streets that don’t exist any more.  Research will do that to you.

But back to syphilis.  The Sleeping Partner (aka ST3) involves, in part, a military disaster with medical ramifications.  I got to do lots of research on that.  But at the same time I was keeping in mind the pox, which was a constant threat to women involved in prostitution (and women married to men who frequented prostitutes, and men who frequented women who frequented men who frequented prostitutes, and…). As I read Pox I begin to wonder how anyone remained uninfected. Given where Sarah Tolerance lives and who some of her friends and relations are, it is inevitable, perhaps, that syphilis will raise its figurative head.  They did have what we refer to these days as “protection” in the Regency–condoms were used for disease protection more than for contraception–but not everyone used them.  What did they use for contraception?  Oh, that’s another afternoon of research entirely, and I really do need to get some writing done or there won’t be an ST4…

Sometimes I have to make a rule: no research today. But one of the many reasons I love my job is that it lets me wander around picking up stray bits of knowledge, the way children pick up bits of string that might be useful later.  Somehow, they always are.

The Happily Ever After Dilemma

When I wrote up the FAQs, one of the questions suggested to me was: What is next for Miss Tolerance? As I head toward the finish of book three, I have very concrete answers, none of which I will give here, because, really, wouldn’t you rather read the book?  I’m hoping so, anyway.

But I’m also thinking about her future.  I have ideas for plots and twists in her unconventional life that could go on for some time.  But one question I get a lot is: is she going to settle down?  Will she be happy?  And on that question I haven’t an answer yet.  As I said in the FAQs,  I don’t think she’s going to have a conventional happy ending.  And that may disappoint some readers.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Continue reading