That Hamilton Woman

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  • This is a short biography of Emma Hamilton, successively blacksmith's daughter, teenage tart, stripper, actress, concubine and muse, Charles Greville's Eliza Doolittle after she had passed to him from Sir Harry Featherstonaugh of Uppark, and she then effectively sold by Greville to his antiquarian uncle Sir William Hamilton, our man in Naples. Emma was neither the first nor the last lady to rise in the world horizontally. In the antiquarian Hamilton's care at Naples this distinctly clever woman became fluent in French and Italian (while in English retaining her Merseyside accent), confidante of Marie Antoinette's sister the Queen of Naples, and a considerable diplomat. Enter from the sea Nelson. He besotted, the rest is a well-known history of martial triumph and marital disgrace, Hamilton
    complaisantly cuckolded and Lady Nelson deserted and abandoned.

    Andrew Roberts has contributed an introduction and the main work is led by a longish Prologue in which Gough tops and tails the previously unpublished script of a lecture on Emma by Arthur Marder given in 1966. There follows a biographical monograph set in context by a chapter on ladies influential to naval affairs, sometimes benignly, sometimes as in the case of Lady Beatty quite the reverse. Gough might like to know that admirals' wives in warships included in 1964 the lady of Sir Fitzroy Talbot for whose accommodation HMS London's chippies had to adapt the bunk in the Flag quarters.

    Emma's unedifying end, drunk, broke, fat and blowsy, her first daughter 'Little Emma' Hart and her later daughter Horatia Nelson's twin both long gone from her life, completes the story.

    Not the least valuable content of the book are the forty-one contemporary and other illustrations, nearly all in colour, most sourced from the National Maritime Museum's vast and usually unseen treasure house – this publication is timed to mark the special exhibition on Emma at the NMM. Several Romneys are included; Emma besides attracting his brush and those of Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Gavin Hamilton, Angelica Kaufmann and Vigée le Brun also drew the less flattering pens of Gilray, Rowlandson and Cruickshank.

    On p.79 Gough seems to conflate Lord Spencer, 1st Lord in 1800, with his successor of 1801 Lord St Vincent; this is confusing. In this short work much of the text is a commentary on material invisible to the reader and this has to be taken on trust.

    I was personally drawn to this story because Nelson's great nephew, Major General Horatio Nelson Davies' wife's brother was one of my great great grandfathers, and Charles Greville is my 5 greats uncle. I also have a modern (and I think fairly crude) mezzotint of Romney's depiction of Emma Hamilton at her spinning wheel. However I would also recommend this book – romance, adventure story, political history - to any general reader with an interest in Lord Nelson. Even with Southey and Oman and other biographies of him on my shelves already it is still a case of semper aliquod novi ex Nelson.

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  1. Polto
    Nice review @Seaweed ...I wonder if the book can live up to your standard?

    My other reason for commenting is that my family tree research has thrown up a link, albeit extremely tenuous to Nelson's first wife. Her cousin a certain Lieutenant (later Commander and harbourmaster of Ramsgate) Woolward married in 1811 Elizabeth Dewsnap - a sister of my 3 x great grandfather Lieutenant Dewsnap...

    We are almost brothers Seaweed...almost!