Elitism

Linda Colley

  • The Volcano Lover: A Romance by Susan Sontag
    Cape, 419 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 224 02912 6

Why did Susan Sontag write this book? Essayist and cultural critic, interpreter of Aids, cancer, the cinema, Fascism and pornography, recipient of Jonathan Miller’s burdensome accolade ‘probably the most intelligent woman in America’, why should she want to attempt a historical novel? It’s been a success of course. There have been the entries into the bestseller lists, the interviews and profiles in the right magazines, the respectful and often rapturous reviews. Only the occasional still small voice has risked pointing out – what is almost certainly true – that the bulk of those who have purchased this book have wanted the latest high-cultural artefact for their glass-topped tables, not ideas or literature. It is easy to read. It is even entertaining. But why did she write it?

It concerns, apparently, one of the two best-known British ménages à trois of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the relationship between the Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton, the one-time prostitute who became his mistress and eventual second wife, Emma Lyon, and the naval hero and victim of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson. The other famous trio of this time, William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire, his wife Georgiana and Lady Elizabeth Foster, concealed their goings-on and their miscellaneous progeny in the grand seclusion of Chatsworth and Devonshire House. Less socially-exalted, the Hamiltons and Nelson were at once more notorious and far more vulnerable.

All three were outsiders of a kind. Hamilton was only the fourth son of a Scottish nobleman, and his posting at the Court of the repulsive King Ferdinand of Naples and his clever, fecund Queen, Maria Carolina, placed him very much in the outer circle of British diplomacy. Emma was a blacksmith’s daughter who never lost her Lancashire accent. She went to London, as so many did, and saved herself from the streets by intelligence, beauty, a capacity to attract successive wealthy protectors, and a willingness to discard her love-children, both an early mistake and – perhaps – one of a set of twins she had by Nelson. And the sailor-hero, what of him? Again, he was a marginal figure, the son of a minor Norfolk clergyman, with relations who were shopkeepers, as well as a few with noble blood and lofty positions in the state. All three had to work hard at inventing themselves anew when ambition and accident brought them to prominence; all three – as Sontag seldom fails to point out – were capable of vulgarity, all three were ardent collectors, of objects, people, victories, medals, praise, anything that might increase their value in the eyes of others.

Just what the business of collecting means is a subject that Sontag has discussed before, and her frequent discursions on it in this book are sharp and predictably intelligent. Sir William Hamilton, the Cavaliere as he is called here, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a bibliophile, a connoisseur of ruins, and a dealer in paintings and Greek vases (including the recently-mended Portland Vase). He was also volcano-mad, one version of the volcano lover of Sontag’s title. For him, she suggests, collecting art objects, like the bits and view of Vesuvius he risked his life for, were defences against official neglect, local squalor, the limits of his first wife, an ‘amiable, not-too-plain, harpsichord-playing heiress’, and his own essential emptiness of involvement: ‘The Cavaliere was not looking. He was looking away.’ Then, with bereavement, came his chance to emulate Pygmalion, and collect something new. His nephew, Charles Greville, handed over his luscious and unaware mistress, Emma, on the tacit agreement that Hamilton would not re-marry and cut him out of his will.

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