Reviewed by: Happy Jack
“Behind every great man is a woman”, goes the old saying and, according to the Nelson mythology, that woman was Emma Hamilton. Behind her, Fanny (Frances), his wife of almost two decades, gets little credit. Seen by some as less than her husband’s intellectual equal, and lacking Lady Hamilton’s desire for fame, or her infamy, she remains an obscure figure – according to 19th century historians, the scorned shrew of wife who had failed to recognise her husband’s glory or accept his all too human shortcomings.
Nelson remains a towering figure in British and world history – the leader who challenged and defeated Napoleon’s forces on land and sea; the admiral who crushed his ambitions in Egypt, the “Immortal Memory” toasted by two centuries of Royal Navy officers; a man for whose death his sailors wept. Yet, despite his many successes, helped by his undoubted courage and a dose of good luck, Nelson was often reckless, antagonistic to colleagues, and sometimes lacking in good judgment. His many victories helped ensure the global hegemony of the Royal Navy, which led to the Pax Britannica, a century of peace in Europe. Ruthless in battle; Nelson could also be ruthless to friends and family, as seen in his treatment of Fanny, and of his stepson, Josiah Nisbet, who served alongside him for five years and who had saved his life at Santa Cruz.
Despite her historically low profile, Fanny Nelson was a power behind the scenes. On her own for much of the marriage whilst Nelson was at sea, she nevertheless managed his business affairs, working quietly and tirelessly on his behalf with her friends and family in royal and political circles to advance his interests. Her friendships with powerful families and with the King helped smooth Nelson’s path and advance his career, despite his remarkable ability to make powerful enemies. She did not deserve Nelson’s coldness and contempt towards her; she does not deserve history’s (or his story’s) neglect of her story. In a time of MeToo, this novel helps set the story aright.
First-time author Oliver Greeves is a descendant of Fanny and the great-great-grandson of Josiah Nisbet; he unsurprisingly and unashamedly takes Fanny’s side yet remains sympathetic to Nelson’s humanity and brilliance. This is a lightly fictionalised account of Nelson, of Fanny, and of Josiah, and of the cast of notable and minor historic figures that surrounded them. The battles rate brief accounts, but this is not, primarily a novel of war – rather, it is a compelling account of people and relationships, of individuals whose names we may know, but whose lives have, until now, been largely two-dimensional. Greeves brings them brilliantly to life. I particularly enjoyed his description of Nisbet.
When I read Tom Pocock’s masterful 1988 biography account of Nelson, I was a young officer still smarting from my the “flimsy” [confidential report] given to me by my last captain, a tall, glamorous, and brilliant – yet vain and flawed – war hero who went on to high rank. His report had damned my own and other’s perceptions of my own ability and steered me towards an alternative career. I wondered then what had happened to Josiah, a man of considerable loyalty and ability, but whose own career also foundered whilst he was still young on the rocks of another, brilliant but flawed and vindictive, war hero. Josiah rated little more than a few lines then; but in this new book, he and his mother Fanny come alive, as real people, but not without their own flaws, either.
Do not be put off by the title; ‘Nelson’s Folly’. Nelson was brilliant, and cruel, and could be foolish too; he was a flawed genius, not a saint. History is written by, and of, the victors, but the victims and those behind the scenes deserve a voice too, and Oliver Greeves here gives them one. Strongly recommended. Even for Nelson fans.