This Wednesday, we welcome guest blogger Elizabeth K. Mahon, who writes the Scandalous Women blog, covering women of repute throughout the ages. In addition to that, Elizabeth is the past President of RWA-NYC, a former actress, the consummate New Yorker, and a woman who wears the most incredible shoes.
I’m thrilled and excited to be here at the Risky Regencies today. I write about Scandalous Women, and one of my favorites is Emma Hamilton and her love affair with Horatio Nelson. The film That Hamilton Woman, starring real life lovers Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh at the height of their beauty and fame, was my first introduction to their story (How crushed was I when I realized that the real Lord Nelson looked nothing like Olivier). Nelson and Emma’s rise to fame neatly coincided with the rise of the tabloid press in Britain. Their affair was not just the talk of Britain, but France and Italy as well. England’s Hero and England’s Mistress coming together seemed designed to sell newspapers and magazines. Not since Antony and Cleopatra had the world seen anything like it. Their romance was a publicist’s dream come true.
Maid, wardrobe mistress, celestial goddess, courtesan, artist’s model, fashion icon, and ambassadress, Emma Hamilton had lived more lives by the time she met Nelson than most women do in a lifetime. Born to a dirt poor family, she started life as plain Amy Lyon on April 26, 1765 in Ness, a small village twelve miles from Liverpool. By the time she was twelve, young Amy was on her way to London to find work as a maid.
By the age of seventeen, Emma had found her first protector–Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, a spoiled young squire. The relationship lasted until Emma found herself pregnant with his child whom she named Emma. Sir Harry refused to acknowledge the child as his, kicking Emma to the curb. But she had already met her next protector, Charles Greville. Now calling herself Emma Hart, she began to pose for the great artists of the day including George Romney and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Soon prints of her portraits were available everywhere, making her an 18th century sex symbol. Emma had the type of beauty that transcends time and fashion. Looking at her portraits, one sees a young woman who radiates on the surface an innocent sensuality but with a slightly knowing look in her eye. When Greville began to tire of her, he passed her on to his uncle Sir William Hamilton who had long been the ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples.
At first upset to learn that she was being treated like a hand-me down sweater, Emma soon realized the opportunity she had been given. Always anxious to please, she made herself indispensable to Sir William, fussing over him when he was sick, learning to speak French and Italian, and taking singing and dancing lessons. Entertaining English visitors and foreign guests with her ‘Attitudes,’ Emma soon found herself the toast of Naples. She became a confidante of the Queen, Maria Carolina, and cultivated the friendship of celebrities like the Duchess of Devonshire. After several years as his mistress, Sir William and Emma were secretly married, probably around 1791.
In late 1798 Emma and Nelson met again. They had met briefly in 1793 when he was plain Captain Nelson. Now he was the hero of the Battle of the Nile and Emma was determined that Nelson would fall in love with her. Not only would it be her crowning achievement but it would catapult her onto the world stage. Before he’d even arrived, she’d primed him by writing a passionate fan letter to him. ‘How shall I begin? It is impossible to write….I am delirious with joy and assure I have a fervour caused by agitation and pleasure.’ When he arrived at the docks to a hero’s welcome, Emma threw herself into his one arm, weeping. She flattered him; threw huge parties in his honor, and went out of her way to make friends with his step-son Josiah. Not exactly a dreamboat, Nelson was less than five foot six, scrawny, weather-beaten, with one good eye and arm. It was a dream come true that this beautiful woman found him exciting.
In Emma, it seemed he’d found his ideal woman. Like her, Nelson was a self-made man, ambitious, headstrong, longing for fame and riches. Born to a country rector, he joined the navy at the age of 12 as a midshipman. Married to a widow with a young son, the marriage floundered when it became apparent that there would be no children and that she wasn’t the great heiress he’d assumed she was. Before Emma and Nelson were lovers in truth, everyone was gossiping about the two. Nelson was so in love that he was soon neglecting his duties, reluctant to leave his mistress. Sir William turned a blind eye to the relationship between Nelson and his wife. He was fond of him, and was probably happy to have someone else entertain his energetic young wife. All of London was buzzing about the scandalous affair; caricatures soon appeared in the print shops depicting the relationship.
Emma determined to give Nelson the one thing that his wife couldn’t give him, a child, preferably a son. During her pregnancy, she started a fashion craze for what was essentially a maternity dress. In January 1801, she was granted her wish, when she gave birth to Nelson’s daughter whom she named Horatia. The idyll ended with Nelson’s death in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. Emma had already lost Sir William in 1803, but Nelson’s death sent her into despair.
She was also deeply in debt. Emma had always lived beyond her means, and now with limited funds from Sir William’s estate, she was hard pressed. Despite Nelson’s dying wish that the nation should take care of his mistress, no money was ever forthcoming. For the next several years Emma tried to keep up appearances, giving lavish parties for her friends. She was also supporting several of Nelson’s relatives as well as her own poor relations. Three years after his death, she owed thousands of pounds to a host of creditors. Soon she was forced to sell Merton, the home she had shared with Nelson and many other mementoes of their life together.
A wiser woman would have quickly tried to find another husband or at least a protector. But when one has been the beloved of one of the greatest heroes England had ever known, how could any mortal man compete? Emma finally fled to Calais in 1814 to escape her creditors. By now her health was ruined from too much rich wine and food, and she also might have caught a parasite. Racked with pain, and tended by her teenage daughter Horatia, Emma died on January 15, 1815. She is buried in Calais, far from her lover Nelson. Their daughter Horatia married a clergyman and had eight children. Although she was happy to claim Lord Nelson as her father, until her death, Horatia refused to believe that Emma was her mother.
Emma’s story continues to fascinate because it is a story about ambition and heartbreak, love and pain. She rose from the depths of poverty to the heights of fame and fortune, only to end up back where she started. Her childhood had left her ambitious, and hungry for the limelight, but it was a hunger that could never be appeased. Emma always wanted more. Like Icarus in the Greek myth, perhaps she flew too high.
Thanks, Elizabeth! Please visit Elizabeth’s blog Scandalous Women to read more about other fascinating ladies.
What’s your favorite historical true-life romances? What movie or book got you first intrigued about the period, like That Hamilton Woman did for Elizabeth?
Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Elizabeth.
For me, I first got interested in real-life historical romances when I read Katharine by Anya Seton. And re-read it, and re-read it, ad nauseum. I read her other books, too, but Katharine really imprinted on me.
Elizabeth, I read Beloved Emma by Flora Fraser, a very sympathetic account of Emma’s life. It struck me how much of an object she was, passed around like some pretty ornament to be admired and coveted, a sort of Marilyn Monroe figure. What a terrible blow it must have been to her to realize Charles Greville passed her on to his uncle. Your “hand me down sweater” analogy perfectly describes it!
Emma Hamilton has always been one of my favorite historical personages, from the time I fell in love with the Romney portrait of her (on the blog today) as “Nature” — hanging in NYC’s Frick Museum.
In fact I’m so passionate about Emma that I wrote a novel about her — historical fiction narrated from her perspective, titled TOO GREAT A LADY: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma Lady Hamilton (NAL Trade, 2007).
I agree, Diane; Flora Fraser’s bio of her is fabulous. Ms. Fraser and I appeared at the opening gala of an exhibit of Emma Hamiltoniana at the Univ. of PA Library in Philadelphia in November, 2007. It was amazing to speak with her and we signed each other’s books — a real treat!
Megan, I too read Katherine by Anya Seton in 6th grade, it’s still one of my favorite books, and lead to my love of all things Plantagenet.
Diane, I read Beloved Emma years ago, as well as Kate William’s recent book England’s Mistress. Emma was so eager to please and so afraid of being rejected that she went along with it. When she was with Sir Harry she learned to ride despite a fear of horses, because he despised people who were afraid. Even Nelson loved her at first because she was this beautiful sex object.
Actualy, Nelson first admired Emma — when they met in 1793, because she had the ear of the Queen of the Two Sicilies, Maria Carolina (who was really the de facto ruler of Naples) and England needed Naples’s help (in money and men) to thwart the French Navy in Toulon. Emma was able to go straight to the queen to ask for aid on Nelson’s behalf. So even though her husband, Sir William Hamilton, handled the matter through diplomatic channels, speaking with the Neapolitan PM, Sir John Acton, it was Emma’s ability to convince Maria Carolina to make the commitment to aid England, that enabled Nelson to get the help he needed ASAP. He was dazzled by that.
I have Beloved Emma, but haven’t read it; I did read the Unruly Queen by Fraser, that was a tremendous book. When my brain can settle down enough, I’ll pull out Beloved Emma and start that one.
Flora Fraser is a wonderful biographer. I’m about to start her biography of Pauline Borghese to review for Scandalous Women.
I agree Amanda, that Emma was more than just a pretty face, which That Hamilton Woman wonderfully illustrates. Vivien Leigh steals the movie right out from under Laurence Olivier’s heavily made up nose.
And Vivien Leigh looks as much like the real Emma as Olivier looked like the real Nelson … but she is indeed irresistible in that movie, which is such a wonderful love story, despite its scant historical relation to the real-life love story, which I still think is the greatest real-life love story in English history.
Vivien Leigh has a way of stealing movies right out from under her leading men, doesn’t she? I’ve always thought she mops the floor with Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
You are right about it being one of the greatest love stories, although I do have a fondness for Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
I love the fact that Churchill convinced Korda to make the movie as propaganda to help with the war effort ie Napoleon = Hitler. I read that the script wasn’t even finished when they started filming and Leigh and Olivier were given free reign with their characterizations. What’s funny is that the movie is more convincing as a love story than anything else. And don’t get me started on the costumes.
The closest “real life” aspect of the movie is the Emma/Nelson parallel to the Leigh/Olivier relationship, in that in each case, both lovers were already married to someone else, and ended up ditching their spouses to move in together (though in Emma’s case, Sir William lived with them as well, until his death in 1803).
I think Olivier and Leigh fell in love during the filming of “Fire Over England.” But I like to think that the tavern scene in “That Hamilton Woman” where Nelson and Emma’s love is finally proclaimed, is a bit of “sense memory,” even if British actors don’t employ American acting techniques.
It reminds me of the story of Vivien Leigh visiting him backstage after a production before they worked together in Fire Over England, when she kissed him on the shoulder.
Wonderfully informative blog. I have both books mentioned, but, alas, have had no time to read them (researching a different century at the moment!). However, you’ve aroused my curiosity. I also have several books on Nelson which will require attention for a future work. It will prove interesting to see how they blend.
Historians are people with prejudices so finding an objective recounting can be difficult.
Thanks for the additional info.
Thanks for the fascinating post, Elizabeth!
My first introduction to Emma Hamilton was in Jane Aiken Hodge’s 1976 novel SHADOW OF A LADY, though I read it so long ago that I don’t recall all that much!
But one nice thing is that any museum I go to always seems to have a picture of her somewhere… 🙂
Fabulous post Elizabeth! I just did some research on Lord Nelson for a book I’m working on, so I was doubly excited to read your post today!
I read a lot of history books when I was younger, but was never really captivated by any particular loves, if you could call it that, until I came across Henry VIII and the book, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII WITH NOTES BY HIS FOOL, WILL SOMERS, by Margaret George. From then on I was completely obsessed and I still am… I have more recently read Katharine by Anya Seyton, and I thoroughly enjoyed that one as well.
“… a fervour caused by agitation and pleasure.”
I LOVE it!
Great post, Elizabeth. Though her motives were far from “pure,” it sounds as though the jaded and ambitious Emma really did fall in love with Nelson after all.
And yes, Vivien Leigh was luminous. Even in STREET CAR and at middle age, she stole the screen.
Anya Seton’s KATHERINE remains one of my all-time favorites, too. I got to read it in high school English Lit class–how cool is that–and have read it several times since. Unlike some of the treasures on my keeper shelf, Seton’s stories stand the test of time.
I just saw on Publisher’s that there’s new bio of Katherine Swynford due out in less than a year. I think it make be fictionalized. Regardless, I plan to snap it up.
My favorite historical film based on real-life characters was actually Westward The Women, starring Robert Tayler and Denise Darcel, based on actual caravans of women who answered newspaper ads for wives on the western frontier. Ever after, I never met a romantic western I didn’t like!
This was a most glorious story of Emma and Horatio. Filled with wonderful detail (the fact about her portraits was very interesting!) and emotion. Thank you for inciting a curiosity to learn more about her and her times, Elizabeth!
My husband, an Englishman, is of course absorbed by the naval history of Lord Nelson (is, in fact building a model of his ship, the Challenger, which is currently upside down having its copper bottom attached), but I am more intrigued by Emma. Isn’t it odd that she is one of a type of fascinating women who flash through history like elusive comets?
Hope, there’s an Alison Weir book coming out here in the US on Katherine Swynford, but I think it’s a repackaging of the nonfiction bio that was released in the UK in 2007 with another title and different cover art. I read it for my research on ROYAL AFFAIRS. It’s titled “Katherine Swynford: the Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess” and was published by Jonathan Cape, London.
There were actually 2 bios of Swynford that were published in the UK during the past couple of years. There was one pubbed in 2006 by Jeanne Lucraft titled “Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress.” It was published by Sutton Publishing Ltd. Thrupp. Stroud. Gloucestershire, which I also read for ROYAL AFFAIRS.
The problem with bios of KS is that so little is known about Swynford personally, though much is known about the era and about John of Gaunt. So the books become more of a portrait of the era in which she is a featured character.
Welcome to RR, Elizabeth! I love reading your Scandalous Women blog, so was very excited to have an entry right here. 🙂
I have the Fraser Borghese bio on order right now, it looks fascinating, and I enjoyed both the Emma and Queen Caroline bios, too. There is just too much reading to do. 🙂
Hope, the Alison Weir book has a different title for the US market but it’s on the new biography table at B&N. I was so bummed that I didn’t get to hear her talk at the Smithsonian. She did an all day workshop on both Katherine Swynford and Elizabeth I. Katherine in the morning and Elizabeth in the afternoon. I still remember the cover of the Anya Seton Katherine that I had in 6th grade. She had long flowing red hair and a gorgeous dress on.
Hi Amanda (McCabe). Thanks for having me here at the Riskies. It’s been fun writing about Emma and Nelson. I can’t wait to tear into the Borghese biography. How cool to be part of a family of such cool biographers as the Fraser family.
Hope, how cool though to be able to have men falling in love with you constantly! Something that never happens in New York, although a young guy smiled at me from the window of Starbucks this afternoon.
Cara, I’ve never read much of Jane Aiken Hodge’s fiction but I have read her non-fiction book Passion and Principle, where she writes that Emma actually had twin daughters by Nelson and gave one up to a foundling home.
There’s nothing to back up that biographer’s claim of twin daughters. I read about 40 books to research TOO GREAT A LADY: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton, including all top bios of Emma and Nelson — and no one else credits it. BUT, Emma and Nelson did have a second daughter who was boarded out with the same woman who had Horatia for the first few years — and the baby died.
I only mentioned the twin daughters because of Jane Aiken Hodge. She doesn’t have any footnotes in her book so I have absolutely no idea which biography she could have gotten it from. She’s the only biographer that I’ve read that mentions it. I can’t imagine that Emma would have done such a thing given her love for Horatia and her daughter Emma Carew by Sir Harry.
You’re absolutely right; it would have broken her heart. It did break her heart not to ever admit she was their mother. She never told Emma Carew the truth either, though as an adult, Emma C. guessed it.
Amanda! I totally forgot that you wrote Too Great A Lady. I am going to put it on my TBR pile right now.
I am very anxious to read “your” Emma!
She is such a fascinating person.
Elizabeth, thank you for writing about Emma today!
Wonderfully written, Elizabeth! Fascinating. Thanks so much.
This was absolutely fascination, Elizabeth! I LOVE notorious women – the kind who do all of the things they aren’t supposed to and end up being adored by men who would never marry anyone like her.
Out of all the women who straddle the Georgian and Regency period, Emma is one of my favorites. She came from nothing, but she made something of her life. I find her story both inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.
The film That Hamilton Woman has a prologue and epilogue of Emma in prison in Calais that was added for the American audience (adulterers of course can’t be seen to prosper), and it’s just so sad. You just want to put your arms around her.
Sorry to chime in so late. Great blog, Elizabeth. I stumbled on That Hamilton Woman a few months ago and was mesmerized by the story, as well as, the actors.
Sorry to be late in chiming in, Elizabeth, but what a wonderful blog! Thanks for sharing all the fascinating details of their story.
I find Emma’s story fascinating too. Thanks for sharing your passion! I’ve yet to see any of the movies, though, that have been mentioned.
Thank goodness for Netflix/Blockbuster online, etc! I can see I have some fun ahead of me.
Unfortunately That Hamilton Woman is not available on DVD in this country, only VHS. I almost ordered it from Amazon.co.uk because I have a region free DVD player but a kind friend let me come over on Sunday and watch it again. If you want a different view of her, there was a miniseries called I Remember Nelson that was on Masterpiece Theater I think in the 80’s, and Glenda Jackson played her in a TV movie with Peter Finch.
Besides Amanda’s wonderful book, Susan Sontag wrote a book about Emma and Nelson called The Volcano Lover.
Thanks Andrea, I had a fun time writing about her.
I had to think about this a bit. I like history, but I’m not anything close to well versed on any one historical period.
However, one of my favorite historical romances–even if it’s much more recent–is that of Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Both of their works are very much a part of Mexico City’s consciousness, but it wasn’t until I saw the original production of Frida! (starring Ofelia Medina) that I realized just how complex a character she was.
Azteclady, I went to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit in San Fran last summer when I attended RWA. I find her fascinating as well. While I liked the movie Frida with Salma Hayek, seeing all her art made me even more curious about her. She’s on my list of women to write about, which is now getting longer buy the minute!
Emma has got to be one of my absolute favourites. I love it that she started from nothing and then reached such heights. She had the ability to persuade and convince even the Queen- and befriend the most popular and significant people of that time. She was a rarwe beauty too-even at the age of 12.
Thanks so much for this wonderful post Elizabeth (but then again, I’m so used to your terrific posts- and still can’t get enough!)
~~Making many notes here on the TBR pile! ELizabeth, this was a joy to read. Emma certainly was a favorite of Queen Maria Carolina and such a personality in her own right. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for Flora Fraser’s biography of her…I must get it now.
And…Alison Weir was in NY?? Oh, I wish I had known!
Hi Susan, unfortunately I haven’t seen Alison Weir in New York. She did a one day symposium down at the Smithsonian in DC which I so which I had been able to go to. The Flora Fraser biography is published by Vintage books in paperback, also the Kate Williams biography of Emma is the most recent of her published in 2006.
Thanks Ms. Lucy, the story of Emma is such an inspiration. When you think of what it must have been like to leave home at 12 to go to London, not knowing anyone really although she later met up with her mother, it boggles the mind when you think of 12 year olds today who have a hard time picking up their room.
I also think she was just one of those rare beauties that come around just so often in life.