Book review: Emma Hamilton Seduction and Celebrity

Former history teacher and one of the most learned people I know*, Alec Stephen finds this account of the ambitious and beguiling Emma Hamilton a fascinating and fun read.
*and I am not just saying that because he is my father-in-law
Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity by Quintin Colville with Kate Williams is the companion book to an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

It is claimed that the quintessential Edwardian, Mrs Patrick Campbell remarked 'It doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom so long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses'. This interesting and beautifully produced book for the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, tells the story of how those horses came to be frightened some 200 years ago, and what an improbable story it is.

Emma was born in 1765 and came to London with her mother at the age of 13 and made such a living as she could by domestic service and prostitution. It was a golden age for actresses - Mary Robinson, Mrs Siddons, Mrs Jordan and Mrs Armistead spring to mind. Although fascinated by the theatre, Emma was not herself an actress though it is cynically remarked that 'whoring and the theatre are easily elided'. At the same time, she was improving herself by singing and learning languages.  In 1780, Emma became notorious for posing as 'Hygieia the Rosy Goddess of Health' in the flimsiest drapery for the eccentric Doctor Graham who ran a medical establishment which featured, amongst other things, the 'Great Celestial Bed' - a contraption that was used as an aid to fertility.

She was also making progress as a mistress and in 1781 she became the mistress of Charles Greville, a younger son of the Earl of Warwick, who introduced her to the portrait painter, George Romney. Romney became obsessed by her and did many portraits and prints of her. Many of these are reproduced beautifully in the book.

By now, being famous, she would become the butt of Rowlandson and Gillray's jokes.

Greville decided to pass Emma on to his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the elderly British Envoy to Naples whom Greville hoped to oblige. But Emma went further than that and married Hamilton in 1791. She soon became a great friend of the Queen Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette and the wife of Ferdinand 1 of Naples.

Naples became entangled in the French revolutionary wars of 1793, and it was here that Nelson first met Emma and the two fell in love. Emma was an instrumental political agent during the turbulent war, helping the Neapolitan Royal family escape to safety in Sicily and donating grain to the starving population of Malta during the famine. Lord Nelson himself saw Emma as a hero, requesting her to be awarded the Maltese Cross for her efforts in helping the island, making her the first English woman to bear the proud achievement.

Strangely, Emma seems to have been the dominant person in the relationship. In 1800 she became pregnant with Nelson’s child and when Lord Minto’s wife met her in Vienna in 1800 she described Emma as an 'angel that led him about like a keeper with a bear'. On their return to England, public opinion was shocked when Nelson abandoned Fanny his childless wife of 13 years, and Nelson and Emma started spending their time together openly.

In 1805, Nelson was killed at his great victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. Shortly before the battle, he had written a codicil to his will, requesting that in the event of his death, Emma and his baby daughter should be looked after, but his wishes were not carried out. Not only was Emma denied admittance to Nelson’s state funeral for being a mistress, but while Nelson’s estranged wife received £200 a year, Emma received nothing.

The rest of the story is not a pretty one. Emma died in penury in Calais with gambling and drinking debts in 1815, while Nelson’s elder undeserving brother William was created Earl Nelson and Viscount Merton. Horatia, Nelson and Emma’s daughter lived a long and respectable life as a vicar's wife and the mother of nine children. A devotional book that Emma gave Horatia included the inscription 'a life well spent makes old age pleasant and honourable'. 

By the time of Emma’s death, the country was moving towards the Early Victorian eraEmma personified what the early Victorians with their emphasis on femininity most disliked. By the time preparations were being made for erecting Nelson’s monument in 1838 had been made, the horses' respectability and been well and truly 'frightened'.

Perhaps this goes to confirm Lord Macaulay’s adage 'we know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality'.

The book features superb illustrations, fast reading, and an excellent introduction to the life and loves of a singular woman. Quinton Colville’s introductory essay, “Re-imagining Emma Hamilton,” gives an excellent overview of the mythology and reality surrounding this woman. In addition, there are six full and informative articles exploring “Sexual Exploitation And The Lure Of London,”; Emma's role as Romney's muse; Emma Hamilton’s time in Naples;  fashionable women and theatre in Georgian London and Emma's sad last years.
A special treat at the end of this fascinating book is biographer Kate Williams’ take on “Emma Hamilton In Fiction And Film.” 


Alec Stephen

Find more National Maritime Museum catalogues here.


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