Emma Hamilton

Emma as the temptress Circe, by George Romney, 1782

This month marks the sad end of one the most famous love stories of the Regency era – that of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson.

Now, I find Emma fascinating for a number of reasons. She was a bright spark of a girl, born in poverty but soon able to use her good looks and vivacious personality to get ahead in life.

She was fortunate to find a kind man to marry her and a great man to love her. But she was unable to secure the affection of her children, and by the end of her life lost everything, perhaps because she never developed the strength of mind and character that's often needed to deal with life's vicissitudes. 

See what you think. Here are some biographical facts about Emma:

Emma Hamilton was born as Amy (some sources say Emily) Lyon to an illiterate blacksmith and his wife in a Cheshire country village in 1765. At some point early in her life, she changed her name to Emma. Her mother also changed her name from Mary Kidd to Mrs. Cadogan, and Mrs. Cadogan spent the rest of her life (she died on a January day in 1810) by Emma's side, apparently exerting a good influence that was sorely missed later.

Emma's beauty was abundantly apparent at an early age. With her lithe figure, masses of red-gold hair, and large blue-gray eyes, she became a magnet for artists wishing to capture her likeness, most notably the painter George Romney. Emma was Romney's muse, and he made about 30-50 portraits of her (some clothed, some nude) when she was a young girl. 

Emma was also famous for her “attitudes,” a performing art she helped popularize that combined modeling, acting, and dance. These “attitudes” were a popular parlor game, much like charades, at the end of the 18th century, with girls striking poses and their audience guessing who they were trying to be. Of Emma, it was said that with nothing but a shawl and a couple of scarves, she could convincingly portray any number of classical figures from Greek myths.

Here’s a serious portrait, made in 1790 by French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, of Emma posing as the Greek mythological figure Ariadne:

And here’s a caricature of Emma, drawn around the same time, by satirist Thomas Rowlandson:

Emma had natural talents in singing and dancing, and her beauty caught the attention of men who wished to do more than paint her. In her early teens, she worked for a time as a maid, and also as a model and dancer at Scottish doctor James Graham's "Temple of Health." But by the age of 15, she’d found a protector, Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh, who used her as a hostess to entertain his male friends who came to visit him, shoot pheasants and basically "party" like frat boys at his country estate, Uppark.

About this time 16-year-old Emma became pregnant, and a furious Sir Henry turned her out. There’s some dispute among her biographers whether Sir Henry was the father, or the father was one of his guests, the Hon. Charles Francis Greville, younger son of the Earl of Warwick. In any case, it was Greville that a frantic Emma appealed to for help and Greville who took her in, arranging support for her child. (One biographer claims that Greville would've been unlikely to do that if he didn’t believe himself to be the father, and I tend to agree.) 

Though the teenage Emma was allowed some contact with her daughter, the child was raised by another, and later in life, Emma refused to even acknowledge the girl as hers.  

It seems that the ebullient Emma believed herself madly in love with the much older and more serious Greville, and he took care of her for a time. But when he realized he needed to find a wealthy wife he handed Emma off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who was serving as a British ambassador to the Court of Naples.

Hamilton was in his 50s and a widower when he met Emma, who was half his age. At first, their relationship was platonic, but he gradually became enamored of the young woman and they began an affair. Hamilton sought and received special permission from King George III to marry his mistress. That permission was grudgingly granted, and they married when the diplomat was 60 and his young wife was only 26.

Sir William Hamilton in 1774

Despite the wedding, George III still disapproved of the new Lady Hamilton, and Emma was never received at Court back home in England. At that time, once a woman’s reputation was lost she never really recovered it, even with the mantle of respectability that matrimony might bestow.

In Naples, Emma did some amazing things. She became the friend and confidante of the Queen of Naples and Sicily, Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette. Emma bravely helped Maria Carolina and her children escape the French mob that threatened to overrun Naples while the French Revolution raged in France. Emma was also awarded the Cross of Malta medal for her work in getting supplies to that island while the French occupied it in 1798.

Nelson painted in 1798 

Though uneducated, Emma seems to have been remarkably intelligent, witty and resourceful, a friend to crowned heads and consort to famous men. And in the late 18th and early 19th century, few men were more famous than naval hero Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, who was also 1st Viscount Nelson. (Here's a post I wrote about this Regency superhero a while back.)

Nelson met Emma in Naples after his victory at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson needed a place to stay while his ships were being refitted and supplies obtained, I'm sure he also needed some rest and relaxation following the fight. Sir William graciously invited Nelson to stay with him and Emma.

It’s hard to picture the physical appeal Nelson must have had. By the time he met Emma, he’d lost an arm and most of his teeth in battle, along with the sight in one eye (from a spray of gravel). He had coughing spells and a head wound that left him with a scar and blinding headaches. 

He was also married, with a wife (Frances "Fanny" Nisbet) back in England. But Nelson was a national hero, and he must've had some personal magnetism to boot because Emma fell passionately in love with him. And he, for his part, was utterly captivated by her.

Emma wearing the Cross of Malta. It was Nelson's favorite
portrait of her, which he displayed in his cabin aboard ship.
Pastel by Johann Heinrich Schmidt, 1800

Their love affair blossomed in Naples, where Emma became the hero’s mistress. In 1800 Emma became pregnant with Nelson’s child, and gave birth to Horatia on January 29, 1801, at the Hamilton home in Piccadilly, London. Nelson was in Torbay preparing to sail into battle (for the Battle of Copenhagen) when he got the news of his daughter’s birth. He was overjoyed. 

Nelson and Emma were godparents at the child's baptism, and later they officially adopted the “orphan." When Nelson returned to Britain, he and Emma lived together with Sir William at Merton Place, the Hamilton home in Surrey, in a much-gossiped-about ménage a troisEmma became pregnant by Nelson again, but this child, another daughter, died soon after birth.

How much of the love affair between Nelson and his wife Hamilton knew about and tolerated is uncertain. During his life, he acted as though Lord Nelson was merely a good friend of the family, and never showed any animosity to him or treated him as a rival. 

Perhaps Hamilton's age and ill health had something to do with his attitude. He died, age 72, in April of 1803, leaving Emma free to remarry. But she couldn’t marry her lover unless Nelson could get a divorce from his wife. And that was something Fanny adamantly refused to do, even though Nelson never lived with her again after she demanded, back in 1800, that he choose between her and Emma.

His actual response to his wife's ultimatum, sent via letter, was: "I love you sincerely but I cannot forget my obligations to Lady Hamilton or speak of her otherwise than with affection and admiration." 

And that was the end of that marriage, except of course for the pension Fanny received along with other tributes as Nelson's wife after his death.

Emma and Nelson stayed together in England, maintaining separate residences for propriety’s sake following Sir William’s death until Nelson returned to sea once more in 1805 to fight his old foe Napoleon at Trafalgar.

That glorious victory also marked the end of Nelson, who died a hero, shot through his spine while standing on the quarterdeck of his ship, the HMS Victory, during the battle. As he lay dying below decks, among Nelson’s last words was a plea “to take care of poor Lady Hamilton,” a request that went unheeded. 

Not a rich man himself, Nelson had actually left instructions for the government to provide for Emma and Horatia, but that never happened. Instead, the grateful nation showered money and titles on Nelson's family, particularly his brother.

The Fall of Nelson, by Denis Dighton 1825
(Nelson's on the right, prone after being shot.) 

Meanwhile, Emma was denied permission to attend Nelson's grand state funeral.

Sir William had left Emma a modest pension, but she soon exhausted it through gambling and extravagant spending. She even lost Merton Place, because she couldn't afford to maintain it.

In the years following Nelson's death, she repeatedly asked the government for money but was ignored. She successfully petitioned others for financial relief but was never able to hold on to the small sums she sometimes received. 

While Nelson was alive, apparently neither she, Sir William nor Nelson saw anything wrong with their unconventional living arrangement. But the rest of England didn't agree and society judged her harshly for it when the men involved were gone. 

As she aged Emma's charms faded; she grew quite stout and began to drink heavily, to the detriment of her health. She went in and out of debtor’s prison, keeping her daughter Horatia beside her, in the vain hope that the child would give her some leverage with her creditors.

On a temporary reprieve from prison in April of 2014, Emma managed somehow to get passage across the Channel to Calais, with thirteen-year-old Horatia in tow. She eventually went from a hotel lodging to a squalid single room where Horatia had to tend to her bodily needs, nursing her mother and pawning their meager belongings for money to survive.

Emma finally died, of liver failure and in dire poverty, at age 49 in Calais on January 15, 1815.

There was no money for a funeral, no money to honor Emma's wish to be buried in England. It was thanks to the charity of an Irish officer on half-pay that she had any services at all.

But on the day Emma was laid to rest, the master and captain of every English ship in the port of Calais put on his best clothes and went into town to follow her coffin to her grave. They did it as a final act of loyalty to Nelson who had been so steadfast and sincere in his love for his mistress.

Emma at age 17, painted by George Romney in 1782 

Following Emma’s death, Horatia went back to England, traveling in disguise as a boy to escape Emma’s creditors. She was taken in by one of Nelson’s sisters, and eventually married a clergyman, Philip Ward.

Horatia got to enjoy the happy family life that eluded Emma; she bore Ward 10 children and lived to be eighty. However, although she was proud that Nelson was her father, she never publicly admitted that Emma was her mother. That could be because she never got over her miserable experiences in debtor's prison and later in Calais with Emma.

Horatia Ward, Nelson's daughter
(Lilystyle, (CC-B-SA-4.0)

The love affair between Emma and Nelson has inspired many books (fiction and nonfiction) and films over the years. One of the better-known films is the 1941 movie, That Hamilton Woman, starring real-life married lovers Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier as Emma and Nelson. The accuracy of the film is a bit suspect; I can't help but notice that the anachronistic hairstyle and clothing Leigh wears are reminiscent of her 1939 hit movie, Gone with the Wind. 

If you'd like to see Olivier and Leigh in action, here's the trailer:

So next week on yet another January day I'll be thinking of "poor Lady Hamilton," a woman who, like  Shakespeare's Othello said of himself, "loved not wisely but too well." 

Sources used for this post include:

Emma Hamilton, by Norah Lofts, published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. New York, 1978

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