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Washington Post Book World
Friday, November 10th, 2006
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England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton

by Kate Williams

Wicked: How a poor girl used her beauty to ascend Britain's social heights.

A review by Amanda Vaill

It's a story line too implausible for fiction: A beautiful girl, born in poverty and raised in squalor, parlays a job as a servant into that of an actress-model and professional escort; becomes the mistress of one wealthy aristocrat and the wife of another; turns into a media star whose picture is on every publication and in every house in the land; and carries on a wildly public adulterous love affair with the most famous man in the world.

Oh, and did we mention that along the way she becomes a key player in international diplomatic maneuverings, as well as a decorated humanitarian whose efforts save an entire population from starvation?

Amazingly, in an era that has made heroines (or at least supermarket idols) of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and Angelina Jolie, scarcely anyone has heard of the woman whose career prefigured theirs: Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador to Naples in the last years of the 18 century, muse of England's most celebrated artists and mistress of Adm. Horatio Nelson, hero of the Napoleonic Wars.

Kate Williams, a young English historian who has also appeared frequently on British television, is well-placed to correct this oversight, and in England's Mistress , her biography of the notorious Emma, she has created a readable and often surprising portrait of "Europe's biggest female celebrity" and the age that created her.

Born in a poor farming community in northern England in 1765, Amy Lyon was 12 when she followed her widowed mother into domestic service, first in the provinces and then in London. Temperamentally unsuited to both the drudgery and the danger of menial work -- Williams tells us that the most common cause of death for girls in 18th-century England was burns or scalds -- Amy was turned out on the streets from two such jobs by the time she was a teenager. After a stint as a prostitute -- the occupation of one in eight adult females in London in the late 18th century -- and an artist's model, she found steady employment as the star of a combination sex show and therapy center, James Graham's "Temple of Health," and then as one of the whores at Madam Kelly's exclusive Mayfair brothel, where her hiring was publicized in Town and Country Magazine. She was 14 years old.

From Madam Kelly's, Emma, as she was now known, passed into the exclusive protection of a dissolute young squire, who got her pregnant and tossed her out on the streets yet again, from whence she was rescued by one of the squire's friends, a fussy bachelor named Charles Greville. Packing her newborn daughter off to relatives in the north, Greville set himself up as Pygmalion to Emma's newly pious, submissive Galatea. Although he wished her to live a life of "prudence and plainness," Greville hoped to profit from her, too, arranging for her to sit for the fashionable painter George Romney in return for a share of the purchase price of every painting. The arrangement succeeded beyond Greville's wildest dreams: Soon many fashionable painters were clamoring to portray her, engravers were turning out thousands of prints of the images, and her face even found its way onto consumer goods such as cups and fans. Repelled by his mistress's transformation into a celebrity -- a transformation he had helped to accomplish -- Greville shipped her out of the country to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, England's ambassador to the court of Naples, a childless widower. But if he thought this would be the end of Emma, he was wrong. It was the beginning.

Hamilton, instead of treating his nephew's cast-off mistress as a piece of property, treasured her as if she were one of the Roman artifacts he collected. He gave her music and dancing lessons, lavish clothes and jewels -- and ultimately, and surprisingly, married her. Emma repaid him not only by becoming one of the most sought-after hostesses at the Neapolitan court but by embarking on a parallel diplomatic career. It was she who carried the doomed Marie Antoinette's last letter to her sister, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, and she who, by virtue of her friendship with the queen, cemented the alliance between Naples and England that brought the English admiral Horatio Nelson to the Mediterranean capital.

As portrayed by Williams, the meeting between "the ambassadress sex bomb and the virile captain" was as volcanic as the periodic eruptions of nearby Mt. Vesuvius. Their initial attraction, apparently evident to English gossip columnists, became infatuation upon Nelson's return to Naples after defeating the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. "To the delight of the watching audience," Williams reports, "[Emma] arrived on deck and flung herself against him, exclaiming in happiness and shedding sympathetic tears over his wounds" -- which included the loss of an arm and blindness in one eye. For his part, Nelson "describ[ed] his heart as fluttering with confusion."

Poor Sir William, doting upon his beautiful wife, pragmatically aware that his own security was dependent on Nelson's success and "simply too tired to protest against being cuckolded," complaisantly invited the admiral to live with him and Emma in a ménage à trois that was soon providing fodder for every scandal sheet in Europe. Neither he nor Nelson nor Emma seemed to care; when he was called home to England -- Emma having in the meantime earned the Cross of Malta for her efforts in sending supplies of food to the besieged inhabitants of that island -- their arrangement continued, only to be halted by Hamilton's death, from after-effects of dysentery contracted in Naples in 1803. "Unhappy day for the forlorn Emma," his widow wrote. She seems to have really loved him.

But she loved Nelson more, with a recklessness that doomed her. Intent on surrounding him with -- and perhaps vicariously sharing in -- the trappings of the hero she believed him to be, she spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on her personal wardrobe (gowns of faux naval regalia, "a la Nelson") and on furnishing his country estate of Merton, where she presided as hostess to politicians and nobles she thought might advance his career. She bore him a daughter, Horatia; she entertained and housed and lent money to his family. Inevitably, when Nelson was killed at sea in the Battle of Trafalgar, it all caught up with her. She was, metaphorically speaking, tossed out on the streets again -- liable for huge debts, left pensionless and unprotected.

This time she couldn't reinvent herself. Ill and penniless, she died on Jan. 15, 1815, in Calais, where, Becky Sharp-like, she had gone to flee her creditors.

In recounting Emma's dramatic life, Kate Williams has done a thorough job in researching and presenting her subject's historical context. She knows what servant girls ate and how they were treated, what political cross-currents swept across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, how London society behaved in the late 18th-century. And she has plumbed the documentary records that exist, from Emma's and Nelson's correspondence (Nelson, unfortunately, burnt most of her letters to him) to Emma's account books. In the absence of hard evidence, she sometimes strains for effects, writing that Emma "probably" did thus and so or "perhaps" said this or that; and in an effort to make Emma and her story relevant to modern tastes, she sometimes jarringly resorts to the language of today's tabloids ("sex bomb," "heartthrob" and so on). But England's Mistress divertingly and instructively illuminates a time and culture both far away and intriguingly like our own, and resurrects a woman whose mingled vulnerability and resilience -- to say nothing of her glamour -- still have the power to fascinate.

Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently, of Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, which will be published later this month.


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