‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November.’ The Gunpowder Plot is still commemorated with firework parties every year. Effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned on bonfires all over the country (and also a few English enclaves overseas).
Soon after dawn on a January day in 1825, an excited crowd gathered outside the Royal Opera Arcade, waiting for the bookshop at No 24 to open. They stood ten deep on the pavement and were so unruly that there was almost a riot. The bookseller had to barricade his windows for his own protection.
The crowd were waiting for the first instalment of The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, written by herself. Harriette was a high-class tart who had slept with half of fashionable London in her prime. Now old and poor, she had written her memoirs to provide a nest egg for her declining years.
And what memoirs they were! ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven,’ ran the opening sentence. ‘Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble lord…’
Much worse followed. Lord Melbourne’s son abandoning her penniless. Lord Ponsonby forgetting to mention her to his wife. The Marquess of Worcester tearfully begging her to marry him, the Duke of Argyll putting on Harriette’s nightcap and pretending to be her chaperone when another Duke called unexpectedly. They had all made fools of themselves with Harriette.
The first instalment sold out at once and was reprinted at least 35 times before the end of the year. Later instalments sold out too, despite frantic attempts by the aristocracy to stop them. Harriette was the hit of the season in London. Everyone had heard of her. There were even jokes made about her in the House of Commons.
At the end of each instalment of her memoirs, Harriette published a list of ex-lovers who were to appear in the next issue. They were invited to pay her off if they wished, bribe her to keep their names out of it.
Quite a few did. One famous man, however, flatly refused to be blackmailed. Instead, he told Harriette to go to hell. ‘Publish and be damned,’ he said.
HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 50. Who was this aristocrat who told Harriette Wilson to ‘publish and be damned’?
‘Riveting’ – Daily Mail
‘Fascinating’ – The Times
‘Outstanding’ – Midwest Book Review
‘Utterly absorbing’ – Macleans