Harriette Wilson ~ Bad Girl of the Regency Era, by Susan Karsten

This is the way of the adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’ (Proverbs 30:20)

If you’ve done any amount of  Regency fiction reading, you’ll have run across references to Harriette Wilson, demi-monde extraordinaire.  From all accounts, a hardened prostitute, she climbed to fame and notoriety during the Regency.  Her memoirs, though chronicling a disreputable life, are considered to be a serious historical document.

Later in life, while writing her memoirs, she expressed no regrets for her ill-spent life. She frankly admitted to being a blackmailer of her former paramours. Her attempt to extort from the Duke of Wellington stands as one of her failures. He famously responded, “Publish and be damned.”

Duke of Wellington

Regency euphemisms for the word prostitute include: the fashionable impure, lightskirt, barque of frailty, lady-bird, of the muslin company, or Cyprian.  They took on specific colorful nicknames such as The Venus Mendicant, The Mocking Bird, The White Doe, or Brazen Bellona.  Harriette Wilson’s nicknames included Queen of Tarts, Harry, or The Little Fellow.

She is said to have been hard as nails, more matey than romantic, frank and familiar.  Not staggeringly beautiful, but with an alluring figure, fine coloring, and abundant vitality.  She took up with a succession of noble lords and was established in a series of elegant apartments at their expense.

We know that this kind of life leads to destruction and is not to be admired in any way. What is interesting is that out of all the regency courtesans that must have existed, only Harriette Wilson is remembered and mentioned.  Do you think her continued notoriety is attributable to her having written a book?

Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death. (Proverbs 7:27)

gates of Hell

 

Disastrous Actor or Brilliant Satirist?

We shall never know whether or not a man name Robert Coates, come to known as Robert Romeo Coates, thought himself a brilliant actor, or if the farcical manner in which he played roles like Romeo were done as parody. What we do know is that he walked out on stage in a flowing cloak and tight pantaloons in blue and red, his garments sprinkled with diamonds, and proceeded to butcher the role of this tragic Shakespearean hero. His garments were so tight he moved stiffly.

“We are not disposed to be severe on Mr. Coates performance,” reports Kirby’s  Wonderful Magazine in 1815, “which afforded singular amusement; but it is necessary, in order to give a just idea of it, to say, that for some time it was not so much below mediocrity, that it appeared likely to pass off in that flat routine which is neither forcible enough to affect the feeling in the pathetic, nor absurd enough to amuse by provoking risible faculties. At length a sudden start, or rather frisk and jump, in one of the love speeches, called forth so universal a burst, and from that moment the laugh was not discontinued, nor the audience composed for one instant to seriousness, for the remainder of the night; and whether Romeo addressed Juliet; or Juliet pronounced the praise of Romeo, laughter convulsed the house, and made it sometimes impossible for the love-sick maid herself (though represented in a very superior manner by a young lady of the name of Watson) to forbear from a smile and a titter, where a sob and a tear would be appropriate, if the tragedy had not been so superlatively commedyized, or rather farcified by her lover.”

Mr. Coates was not a professional. He only took to the stage for charitable events; however, every time he did, the houses were packed with audiences who ended up laughing themselves sick. After a while, actresses refused to play opposite Mr. Coates and theater managers refused to let him take to the stage, even with the bribes he was known to offer them.

You see, gentle reader, Mr. Coates was a wealthy man. The only survivor of a wealthy West Indian planter, he moved to Bath, where he had caused to be built, a curricle. “It was literally covered with brass cocks; the saddle of the horses (weighing fourteen pounds) as well as the buttons and buckles of the harness, and every ornament that could be turned into a cock, wore the resemblance of that biped; even the buttons on his servants coats were stamped with a cock; …”

Is it any wonder that boys crowing “Cock-a-doodle-doo” often followed him through the streets?

Mr. Coates was not all amateur actor, over-dressed dandy and flamboyant whipster. He also held strong principles on matters such as gambling. He didn’t do it. The idea he would do so offended him, as he claimed he had enough (money) and intended to spend it himself.

He did spend it, building a new curricle of whimsical design after the first was wrecked somehow. Eventually, he fell into financial difficulties and retired from his outrageous lifestyle for a while. In this time, he married a well-bred young lady, got financially on his feet again, and lived a quiet, respectable life until he died in a street accident in the 1840s.

Of all the colorful characters the Regency produced, Robert Romeo Coates is one of the most colorful of them all—quite literally. Probably to the relief of Mr. Shakespeare, no one has ever performed the role of tragic Romeo quite like Mr. Coates, nor have audiences laughed until they cried during this tragedy, instead of simply crying.