A really interesting excerpt from Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture by Ghislaine McDayter, on the early 20th-century published collection of some of Byron’s fan letters (“To Lord Byron”: Feminine Profiles Based on Unpublished Letters, 1807-1824…which makes me sad because it seems to be the ONLY published collection of Byron’s fan letters and they’ve left out all the ones from men! Which are more relevant to my interests at this particular time even if there were probably less of them…):
“Henrietta writes to Byron asking for his ‘intellectual’ love, and the editors argue that such desires can only be disingenuous. They refer to a second letter as proof, this time from an older and more famous woman, Harriette Wilson: ‘Harriette Wilson even—the most notorious courtesan of the period—recently solicited [Byron’s] acquaintance, adding in a postscript to the effect that what she wanted was not love but an intellectual understanding!’ For these editors, the concept of a courtesan, let alone a starstruck virgin, being interested in a non-sexual relationship with Byron (and equally the concept that he could possibly be interested in such a thing) is dismissed as absurd. Yet, the women who write to Byron repeatedly make it clear that they are interested in some ‘other’ sort of relationship with him. Many speak of their fantasies of befriending his ex-lovers and his future wife, and if, as was sometimes the case, Byron did make a sexual advance on these women, he was often spurned. The “notorious” courtesan was particularly adept at putting Byron in his place, remarking curtly that although she had written in praise of Byron previously, she had merely ‘alluded to your understanding and common sense, not to your —— which I conceived to be entirely out of the question.'”
I haven’t read Harriette Wilson’s memoirs (yet) but she was obviously a snappy writer. Here’s what Sir Walter Scott had to say about her:
“She must have been assisted in the stile spelling and diction though the attempt at wit is poor—that at pathos is sickening. But there is some good retailing of conversations in which the stile of the speakers so far as known to me is exactly imitated.”
I love his assumption that since she’s a courtesan she must have had to be heavily edited! If the Byron letter is an example her “stile” and diction are excellent in their natural state.