“The Fortunes of Harriette”
Angela’s account of the surprising career of Harriette Wilson
It is perhaps natural that much of our focus in the Angela Thirkell Society is upon our author’s fiction, in particular the Barsetshire novels. They provide us with such a spacious area in which to browse and take recreation in every sense of the word.
However, the range of AT’s gifts was much more varied even than this: we probably think immediately of Three Houses and Thirkell’s pride in having it published by OUP and kept in print for decades. But, in my view, equally important is The Fortunes of Harriette: the surprising career of Harriette Wilson, published in the US as Tribute for Harriette. This was a considerable work of scholarship – and well reviewed as such. The redoubtable critic James Laver, writing in The Observer (3 May 1936) commented:
‘Mrs. Thirkell has produced a most admirable book, combining the attractions of the social document and the detective story. It must take its place henceforward beside the ‘Memoirs’ themselves. Mrs. Thirkell has the perfect manner for the task she has set herself, never affected, never superior, never ponderous.’
Her approach was to draw on the courtesan’s own memoirs, a lively autobiography which appeared in 1825, twenty years before her death.
Harriette was a bewitching character, as attractive in her personality as in her appearance: indeed the actor Thomas Sheridan, father of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, suggested she should take up a stage career. The fourth of fifteen children, born in Mayfair in 1786 to the wife of the enterprising Swiss John Dubochet, she inherited a fair few of her father’s genes. To escape his father’s cruelty, Dubochet had run away from home at the age of 13 and hung around as secretary to an army colonel before fighting a duel, travelling in many countries, and inventing for himself the title of Captain.
Dubochet’s daughter, baptised Harriot at St George’s Hanover Square, was adventurous, fearless and obstinate. She put these characteristics to good use as a ‘demi-rep’ – a woman of doubtful reputation, who belongs to the demi-monde, a form of prostitution in which a wealthy lover, rather than a succession of brothel clients, supplies a livelihood. Harriette’s patrons included various noblemen, and many others visited her to participate in her salons.
Laver himself had edited Harriette’s memoirs and was thus well qualified to judge Thirkell’s ‘patient detective work and her brilliant reconstruction. She has discovered, in Harriette’s forgotten ‘Clara Gazul1‘, a convincing account of the lady’s childhood; she has searched contemporary newspapers, she has been through ratepayers’ lists, and it is entirely owing to her that we are afforded another glimpse of Harriette after she returned to England.’ This was from exile in France: the Duke of Beaufort’s family had refused to pay her the annuity Harriette demanded as a condition of abandoning the Duke’s son, the Marquess of Worcester, unless she met with this condition!
Laver is suitably appreciative of Harriette’s narrative skills: ‘If most of her characters seem to have walked straight out of Thackeray, her manner of making them talk foreshadows the method of Dickens.’ Even Sir Walter Scott had remarked on her talent as a writer. He also described her as ‘a smart, saucy girl, with good eyes and dark hair, and the manners of a wild schoolboy.’ Thirkell adds: ‘What Harriette Wilson would have made of Sir Walter Scott is a thing imagination boggles at.’ The headline of the review picks out the phrase about the book as ‘a brilliant reconstruction’ and Thirkell herself modestly said of her subject ‘the style is so dashing, the characterisation is so true, the conversations are so vividly reported, that re-telling gives but a poor idea of her brilliant, slipshod impertinence.’ At first sight it seems a pity that Thirkell did not take up Laver’s suggestion that she should next tackle a full-length biography of the publisher of the Memoirs, John Joseph Stockdale2, who was ‘a kind of Micawber, Chadband, Stiggins and Uriah Heap [sic] all rolled into one’ as Laver puts it. The comment could hardly be more appropriate (although he couldn’t know this), given AT’s fascination with Dickens! Thirkell is very rude about Stockdale, whose ‘fluency, with the tongue or the pen, can only be described as appalling . . . He combined the less agreeable characteristics of the demagogue and the tub-thumping dissenter, and was apt to break out into a high strain of religious and verbose fervour which sat very ill upon him.’
But of course a biographer does not necessarily have to choose a subject whom they admire. Just suppose, though, that our author had taken up the suggestion about Stockdale? The nightmare possibility occurred to me that a series of socio-political biographies from Thirkell’s pen might then have ensued which could well by now have sunk almost without trace and prevented her from fulfilling the role for which we now value her.
Angela acknowledged she had rich material in Harriette upon which to draw, which by implication shows how well she had selected her subject. A memoir which begins ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’ has instant appeal. And the Duke of Wellington’s famous retort ‘Publish and be damned’, at the threat of publication of the memoirs – though not actually uttered – is too good a story to fade away even after all these years.
The Duke of Argyle, Harriette’s protector at the time, was jealous of Wellington’s interest in her. Harriette’s descriptions of the Duke of Wellington were lukewarm, especially considering he was regarded by much of the population as the saviour of his nation. In my copy of the ‘Memoirs’3 there is the following exchange:
‘He bowed first, then said – “How do you do?” then thanked me for having given him permission to call on me; and then wanted to take hold of my hand.
“Really,” said I, withdrawing my hand, “for such a renowned hero you have very little to say for yourself.” . . .
“What, child! do you think that I have nothing better to do than to make speeches to please ladies?” said Wellington.
“Après avoir dépeuplé la terre, vous devez faire tout pour la repeupler,”4 I replied.
“You should see me where I shine,” Wellington observed, laughing.
“Where’s that, in God’s name?”
“In a field of battle,” answered the hero.
“Battez-vous, donc, et qu’un autre me fasse la cour!”5 said I.’
Thirkell rightly describes them as ‘an oddly-assorted pair’ who nevertheless struck up a friendship:
‘“I wonder,” said Wellington one morning, “I wonder you do not get married, Harriette.” (By the bye, ignorant people are always wondering.) . . .
“I was thinking of you last night after I got into bed,” resumed Wellington.
“How very polite to the Duchess,” I observed.’
This was a young woman who attacked life with vigour and just as importantly with humour. She herself says this: ‘I naturally seize upon the ludicrous points of any subject . . . ’tis my forte or calling.’
Going for a stage audition at Tom Sheridan’s suggestion, what should she choose but the role of Falstaff, ‘stuffing a pillow into a large waistcoat borrowed from a friendly coachman.’ And what a delight it must have been for Thirkell to be able to report the great Lord Melbourne, annoyed at Harriette’s refusing to have anything to do with his son Frederick, as saying, ‘The girl must be mad! . . . Not have my son, indeed! six feet high! a fine, straight, handsome, noble young fellow!’
Research for the book, as Laver indicates, involved many hours, indeed days and weeks, of reading, in the British Museum and in the London Library, for Thirkell. She also went to the trouble of reading the letters Harriette wrote to Lord Byron ‘in the possession of Sir John Murray, who has kindly allowed me to see them.’
One can imagine that however new this type of task was to her, she would have presented herself as a scholar with no qualms, not simply because of her father’s academic background. As Anne Hall points out, ‘Georgiana Burne-Jones became a published author with her impressive Memorials of her husband. With a childhood rich in art, narrative and comic theatre, it is not surprising that both Angela and Denis eventually became novelists.’6 Apart from the intellectual input, their upbringing gave them confidence.
How Angela must sometimes have longed to step aside from her chosen employment of producing ‘nice books’ which, although it brought reliable income, was regarded by her in the same way as Mrs Morland did hers. Extending her reading and her knowledge into other spheres and pursuing new ideas was precisely what she could not do once the novels that turned out to be the Barsetshire series were launched; yet all her non-fiction shows the range of which she was capable if given a free hand. Coronation Summer is an entertaining pastiche. The Grateful Sparrow, though somewhat bizarre by our standards, is at least ingenious and passed very adequately for a translation from the German. Three Houses as we know was a steady seller for OUP and must have been seen as a success within the family since it so irritated both Kipling and Denis Mackail, each jealous of Angela in their different ways.
Harriette’s ‘slipshod impertinence’ and her sheer fluency – the Memoirs contain something like a quarter of a million words – make a very interesting contrast with Thirkell’s meticulous reporting of this adventure story. As we know, Angela herself was a cheeky child and not without an impulsive streak as an adult, notably in her choice of husbands. She might even have envied Harriette her courage and skill in improvisation.
In 1936 Thirkell knew that writing would be her way of earning a living. We can only be glad that she didn’t find that rich protector she claimed she longed for, to divert her from her career.
Written by the Chairman of the Angela Thirkell Society, Hilary Temple, this article first appeared in the Society’s annual journal 2022, issue 42.
- Clara Gazul, or, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (3 volumes) 1830. Still available in print, ebook and online editions, surprisingly enough. See also Prosper Mérimée’s plays Théâtre de Clara Gazul, 1825, which he claimed were written by this fictional Spanish actress. Harriette does not refer to Mérimée’s work, nor he to hers.
- John Joseph Stockdale (d.1847) was the son of publisher John (d. 1814) whose shop in Piccadilly was something of a radical political centre and who was caricatured by Rowlandson as ‘The Bookselling Blacksmith.’ John Joseph’s list was less substantial than his father’s, but notorious for including On Diseases of the Generative System which was found to be enthusiastically read by prisoners in Newgate and was reported in Hansard as being indecent. Stockdale sued Parliament for defamation but eventually lost his case. He was unable to resist the temptation to blackmail the Duke of Wellington before publishing Harriette’s book.
- Selected and edited by Lesley Blanch for the Folio Society, 1964, reprinted 1979.
- ‘Having wiped so many off the face of the earth you ought to be making every effort to repopulate it.’
- ‘Fight, then, and let someone else win me over.’
- Anne Hall: Angela Thirkell: a writer’s life (2021) page 17.