Clara Gazul, or honi soit qui mal y pense … In three Volumes.

London: Printed for and published by the Author … to be had by all Booksellers. 1830.

3 vols, 12mo in 4s., pp. [4], civ, 196; [4], 313, [1]; [4], 282; with a half-title in each volume; a few spots and stains but a very good copy in early blue calf and marbled boards by James Bennet of Cockermouth, with his ticket in each volume, spine gilt, maroon and brown morocco labels; ownership signatures to half-titles of Major Humphrey Senhouse of the Fitz, Cockermouth, a friend of Robert Southey.


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First edition, privately printed and very scarce, of this picaresque novel by the infamous London courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786-1845), with a long autobiographical preface, and an address ‘To the Public’ about her notorious Memoirs. It also features, in volume III, a witty self-portrait as ‘Harriette Memoirs’. It was duly condemned by the London Literary Gazette as ‘contemptible’ and containing ‘much that is objectionable and offensive to good taste’.

Born Harriette Dubouchet in Shepheard Market, Mayfair, one of fifteen children of a Swiss émigré, Harriette was just the most famous of four daughters in the family to become courtesans. Known as Harriette Wilson or ‘Mrs Q’ she succeeded her sister Amy as the mistress of Lord Craven at the age of 15 and went on have relationships with the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Argyle, Lord Ponsonby, Henry Brougham, and others.

Having been denied an income by former lovers, Wilson sought revenge in 1825 with the threatened publication of her Memoirs. ‘She let it be known that an immediate payment of £200 would grant immunity from appearing in the volume, which payment was apparently forthcoming from a number of quarters, although it reputedly drew from Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, his oft-quoted riposte, “publish and be damned” (Longford, Years of the Sword, 166). The book duly appeared in 1825 in four volumes as Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Written by Herself, published by John Joseph Stockdale, John Murray having declined the work. The book ran to thirty editions in the first year; on its first appearance, demand was so great that a barrier had to be erected in front of Stockdale’s premises’. She and Stockdale apparently made £10,000 from the book, but ‘she continued to attempt to blackmail her former clients by threatening further publications down to 1830, causing consternation at court and in high society’ (Oxford DNB).

The celebrated first line of the Memoirs had declared coyly, ‘I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’. In the long ‘Introduction’ to Clara Gazul, Wilson went back to provide that ‘how and why’. There is a brief biography of her father, who supposedly killed a love-rival in a duel in Holland, and spent time in America as private secretary to General Burgoyne, before coming to England. But he was a stern parent, and at the age of five Harriette was beaten with the birch ‘till my body was disfigured from head to foot’. Her sisters were only interested in talking about their conquests, but ‘I could not enter into their feelings, or desire to be followed and made love to in the streets’. After a period in a convent in Rouen, she returned to England as a music mistress in a boarding school near Bayswater, then a governess in Newcastle, but ill health brought her back to London, where her father refused to support her. ‘I loved no one amongst those who sought to seduce me, but the Cravens were our near neighbours, and old acquaintances, and they were gentlemen …’.

In her ‘Note to the Public’ Wilson then explains that much ‘extraneous matter’ was introduced ‘under the head of my Memoirs, which never belonged to them, and for which I have been reproached; many expressions were put into my mouth, which never issued from my pen’. It is presumably for this reason that Clara Gazul was self-published – Wilson’s address at Trevor Square in Knightsbridge is given in the imprint, which presumably served as another sort of self-promotion. ‘The M. S. of the remaining unpurchased and consequently unpublished parts, about half a dozen in number’ are in her possession ‘and without intention, at present, on my part, of being given to the public’.

The preliminary matter concludes with a Preface explaining that many incidents in Clara Gazul are founded on facts – the character of Fanchette, for example, was her waiting-woman in Paris; ‘Anglo Neapolitans may perhaps recognise’ the Contessa Diablo; and the English characters ‘are sketched from nature’ and will ‘resemble those of many persons in high life’. ‘Clara Gazul, which draws on Harriette’s skills of caricature, is a roman à clef of sorts, where the Duke of Inverary stands in for Argyll, Canwin for Canning, Birch for Brougham … Harriette’s representations are fond and tame; there seems to have been no extortion involved and besides, on this occasion she wanted to be taken seriously as a writer’ (Francis Wilson, The Courtesan’s Revenge, 2003). The tales on the continent focus on intrigues and adulteries (Clara herself narrowly escapes being prostituted by her mother at fourteen), robberies and murder, with a fair share of gothic moments. One of Clara’s suitors, Eugenio, who turns out to be a natural son of Napoleon, spends time in London, and it is here that the eight-page sketch of ‘Harriette Memoirs’ appears: expecting a very Cleopatra, he ‘was greatly disappointed’, and although she has ‘a fine bosom’ and looks ‘very well by candle-light’, ‘there was a want of grace and ease in all that nervous flurry’; she has however gained in character what she has lost in beauty.

Clara Gazul was Harriette Wilson’s only substantial work of fiction. She also published a short epistolary romance, with illustrations – Paris Lions and London Tigers (1825), and the first volume of a second novel, Lies, also appeared in 1830 (never completed, and excessively rare – one copy survives, now at Princeton). She corresponded with Byron, who declined a meeting but gave her money, and flirted by letter with Bulwer Lytton; but after the present brief move into the literary world, she was reduced to acting the bawd.

Garside et al. online supplement 1830: 108.

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