ENGLAND’S MISTRESS: THE INFAMOUS LIFE OF EMMA HAMILTON

July 31, 2020
Posted by: Bill Evershed

‘The Immortal Memory’ challenged!

I bought this book at the bookstall at Uppark, the National Trust stately home near Petersfield, which many NR members will know. And why? Because I’d heard many years ago that Lady Hamilton had danced there on the dining room table. Only half true. She had indeed danced at Uppark but not on the table and long before she became Lady Hamilton.

Emma’s life was a sinusoidal curve. Born into abject poverty in Cheshire and dying in abject poverty in Calais, some 50 years later. The spiralling downward curve is as sadly depressing as the upward curve is breathtakingly invigorating.  A lady of dynamic beauty and talent who fought her way upwards through society becoming, through discreet bordello activity, the mistress of Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh at Uppark, moving on to become the mistress of Charles Greville who then traded her on in the hope of a legacy from his uncle, Sir William Hamilton who was the British Ambassador to the Neapolitan Court.  An accomplished actress whose ‘attitudes’ portraying Greek goddesses made her famous throughout Europe. The first choice of George Romney, the renowned portrait painter, and of other painters and sculptors. Fashion icon. An accomplished singer; and linguist.  The darling of the Court of the Two Sicilies. And then the husband of Sir William.  Hounded by the Paparazzi. She had arrived amongst the aristocracy.

And then? Enter Nelson, still then a Captain. And here, for NR readers, the book probably becomes more interesting because we learn a good deal more about Nelson than is ever revealed at a Trafalgar Night Dinner. Certainly he was charismatic to his officers and to his men; but equally so to a number of ladies before, during and after his marriage. In short, he and Emma became totally obsessed with each other and remained so throughout their lives. Nelson’s duty to the Navy was often forsworn in Emma’s favour.  What price ‘Thank God, I have done my Duty’?  Despite Nelson’s pre-Trafalgar ‘bequest to the Nation’, society wanted Nelson: it suddenly didn’t want his mistress.

If you are browsing in a bookshop, the final two or three pages of this book provide a neat coda to the whole tragic tale. And by all means, as usual, the test for any book, open the paperback edition at page 59 which reveals the perfume of ‘The Temple of Health’ where Emma’s consummate beauty became first admired by the worshippers.

368 pages in rather small type but a fascinating and well–researched revelation of late 18th century life.  And a good read for the ‘Lock Down’!  ‘The Immortal Memory’ challenged.