Lesley Blanch's vella-length introduction to the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, the reigning courtesan of Regency London, was first published in 1955 in New York, where she was then living with her diplomat-velist husband, Romain Gary. The Wilder Shores of Love, for which Blanch is chiefly remembered, had been published to acclaim the previous year. Harriette Wilson lived among and was an integral part of a wealthy society where privilege, arrogance and leisure flourished. The greatest courtesan of her age, her patrons included many of the distinguished men of her day, from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Byron. Her weapons of allure were beauty, style and wit. She held court in a box at the opera and competed with her courtesan sisters for status and prestige. Harriette Wilson's life was deplorable - but how readable! Blanch exclaims. The motive for writing the Memoirs, published in 1825, was blackmail, or a desperate effort to live by my wits, as Wilson put it. She was in her thirties, her looks were fading away as were her admirers, and the annuity she had been promised by the Duke of Beaufort in exchange for leaving alone his heir, the Marquis of Worcester, had been cut off. Wilson offered to edit out of her Memoirs any lovers who paid 200 pounds, thereby holding the British aristocracy to ransom. Certain men who bought her silence were excluded, while others who paid highly were hugely flattered. Those who were brave eugh to stand up to her were ridiculed and shamed - most famously the Duke of Wellington: Publish and be damned! he cried. She did and she was. Regency England Undressed: Harriette Wilson, the Greatest Courtesan of her Age also offers intimately detailed portraits of eccentrics, individualists and the demi-monde. Blanch's Biographical Notes in the Appendix read like a raffish Who's Who of Regency England, and Europe too. She brings the distant past to life so it reads like a vel; precise in its curious detail and bold in its historical panache.
Lesley Blanch, (1904-2007), a Londoner by birth, spent the greater part of her life travelling about those remote areas her books record so vividly. She was an astute observer of places and people - their quirks, habits and passions. A distinguished writer, artist, drama critic and features editor of British Vogue during World War II, she influenced and inspired generations of writers, readers and critics. She as the author of twelve books, including: The Wilder Shores of Love, Journey into the Mind's Eye, The Sabres of Paradise, Pierre Loti and a novel dedicated to her friend Nancy Mitford, The Nine Tiger Man. Her posthumous memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life are published by Virago. www.lesleyblanch.com www.bookblast.com