❧ In 1825, London publisher John J. Stockdale issued the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson.
It was a sensation. Her story was how she worked her way as a courtesan from want to luxury. When her fortunes declined, she told all, naming Dukes, Earls, and other well-born with whom she had liaisons.
Stockdale published the Memoirs in parts. The back wrapper of some parts listed the names of aristocrats slated for coverage in the next. For £200 one could purchase removal of his name.
Stockdale claimed that, within a year, he had published more than 30 editions. Ink machined onto paper begat money.
He, however, was sued in court, more than once. His rivals ripped him off with pirate editions. Meanwhile, Harriette Wilson became rich and famous.
Readers were enthralled or incensed. Sir Walter Scott said “H.W. beats [the memoirs] of Con Philips and Anne Bellamy and all former demi-reps out and out.” “Push any man into the streets in his dressing gown and nightcap and he will be laughed at,” said the London Magazine (1825). The Duke of Wellington, who refused to pay, famously said “publish and be damned.”
Words describing Harriette seem today to be arcane and recherché : ci-devant, semptress, demi-mondaine, demi-rep (abbrev. for demy-reputation), hataera, cocotte, créature, dame de compagnie, femme entretenue, … the list goes on. It was a strain for others to express her liminal world.
Yet her narrative is direct and beguiling. She begins:
‘I will not say how, or why, at the age of fifteen, I became 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.”
In the end, though, we are left with many questions: Is her narrative credible? If it is not credible, then what is it? What prompted her to break the rules and openly name those who could be considered ‘the profligate of the aristocracy’? Is the book libelous?* Could it be protected by copyright?* (*These questions were subjects of court cases at the time.) Was it a promoter of vice? Could it be regarded as prophylactic against vice? Was it just plain blackmail? Or, as one critic has asked recently, can it be regarded as the end of the epistolary novel? These are only a sampling of queries.
During the spring of 2012, Princeton acquired a Harriette Wilson collection, which does answer some questions concretely and may provide answers for many others. It is a collection of virtually all the editions of her Memoirs published during her lifetime (she died in 1845). Among other questions, these will allow us to answer the question as to what authentic editions looked like and how piracies appeared physically. Added to these editions are translations as well as some wonderful popular broadside précises of her Memoirs, together with a number of contemporary illustrations both serious and in the classic British satiric tradition, some companion works (e.g. Confessions … Written … in Contradiction to the Fables of Harriette Wilson by Julia Johnstone, also a courtesan, part rival, and niece of Harriette), and, finally, editions of Harriette’s novels published after the Memoirs. The novels include London Tigers and Paris Lions. (1825), Clara Gazul, Or, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (1830), and Lies (1830) (only copy recorded; more later on that.)
The collection was put together by Stephen Weissman (Ximenes Rare Books, Kempsford, Gloucestershire). The books are rare in the market; it took him several decades to assemble the collection. A list of the holdings of the collection is available. The list includes Mr Weissman’s bibliographical descriptions of the various editions issued by Stockdale and his rivals, William Benbow, Edward Thomas, Thomas Douglas, Edward Duncombe, and others.
As of March 15, 2013, all books have been catalogued and are accessible via the main catalog. The prints are in the process of being catalogued.