9. Harriette Wilson (February 22, 1786-March 10, 1845)
Harriette Wilson became one of the 19th centuries England’s most famous courtesans. She was one of fifteen children and one of four sisters who pursued careers as concubines. After her older sister Amy introduced her to the lifestyle, Harriette became the mistress of Lord William Craven, a young aristocrat who served in the British army. She moved to London high society, becoming the mistress of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Lord Canning, and George IV. She made sure that her former lovers were a checklist of powerful men she could use in the future.
Instead of relying on them, Harriette blackmailed them. When she needed money, she wrote her memoirs detailed every sordid detail of her life, including the names of all of her former lovers and details of her interactions with them. To have their names removed from her memoirs, which she intended to publish, her former lovers had to pay up.
Her threats had the exact reaction that she was hoping for. The 1st Duke of Wellington infamously replied, “publish and be damned” when informed of her intentions. George IV got very nervous and would “do anything to suppress what Harriette had to reveal of [his mistress] Lady Conyngham” so that she wouldn’t find out. Harriette’s memoirs also reveal that Frederick Lamb, 3rd Viscount Melbourne assaulted her because she refuses him, a scandalous issue in Georgian England. Her scheme worked: many of her former lovers were willing to pay to keep what happened between them a secret.
Harriette claimed that she needed the money and that her former lovers had promised to provide for her later in life, but they never followed through. Her threats to publish her memoirs bring to light the failings of men who promised to care for their mistresses and never did. While Harriette Wilson may have used sex as a weapon in her relationships with very powerful men, her pen was just as effective.