One might say that the problem with Emma Hamilton is knowing quite how to take her. Near the end of her book, Flora Fraser quotes a startlingly vivid account of Emma’s behaviour just after receiving news of Nelson’s death: it was, an eye-witness concluded, ‘a very serio-comic performance’. Is Emma’s story a tragedy or a comedy? Certainly it begins according to the approved model of classical comedy: from early adversity, and in the face of immense difficulties, she moves triumphantly towards marriage, a title, and happiness. But the latter part of her life, played out partly on the world’s stage, reverses the pattern according to the tragic prescription: the ecstatic affair with Nelson is followed by a train of losses and misfortunes, and she ends wretchedly. Legend has cast her as a Great Lover or seductress-extraordinary (Alexander Korda’s 1941 film-biography, which Winston Churchill is reported to have seen over a hundred times, is titled, distressingly, That Hamilton Woman), but there are elements of low comedy in her story: she became stupendously fat even before she met Nelson, and her letters strongly recall Fanny Squeers. Role-playing was Emma’s modus vivendi, even her means of survival, and her histrionic talents were of no mean order. (She also had a fine singing voice, but played cards while Haydn was performing – which led one noble youth to describe her as ‘without exception the most coarse, ill-mannered, disagreeable woman I ever met with’.)
Emma conducted her life like a drama, or a work of fiction. Her early years are first shrouded in obscurity and then fitfully and unreliably illuminated by rumour and legend. The standard biographical method is to get the life-story under way rather slowly with a painstaking round-up of forebears and a leisurely evocation of home, family and childhood: but this cannot be done for Emma, and by the end of the third page of Ms Fraser’s narrative her heroine is already 12 years old. Even the place and date of her birth are uncertain; her father was perhaps a pit-worker, certainly illiterate, and died a few weeks after his daughter’s birth. The child began life as Emy Lyon; Emma, a more suitable name for a heroine, came much later.
After a childhood spent at her grandparents’ home at Hawarden in Wales, and a very exiguous education, she became an under-nursemaid in the home of a Hawarden surgeon, and then moved to London. Already there are echoes of fictional heroines (Richardson’s Pamela, Defoe’s Moll Flanders) in her story. Almost nothing is known for certain of her adventures in the period following her arrival in London. Perhaps she was on the staff of a high-class bawdy-house, Mrs Kelly’s. Perhaps she was on the streets. The Dictionary of National Biography refers warily to her employment as ‘the representative of the goddess of health in the more or less indecent exhibition of John Graham ... a quack-doctor’, but Ms Fraser dismisses this association with a Georgian peep-show on chronological grounds, and plausibly suggests that the legend was derived retrospectively from a Rowlandson cartoon that belongs to the years of her celebrity.
By the age of 16 Emy Lyon had become, with a touch of novelistic symbolism, Emily Hart. She was also pregnant, ‘thrown over by a rich lover’, and desperate until she found another protector. There is by now an odd ambiguity in Emma’s status: like Moll Flanders, she is available for sexual exploitation because that is the only way in which she can rise above the grinding poverty to which an accident of birth has condemned her: but she is also admired as a work of art, and is soon painted by Romney, Reynolds and others, for her stock-in-trade is her extraordinary beauty, a classical perfection of face and figure that is another kind of accident of birth. It is a pattern that recurs throughout her prime. To the connoisseurs and dilettanti of the day, Emma, with her matchless profile and flawless complexion, is a ‘subject’ of outstanding merit, and she must have been painted almost as often as Marilyn Monroe was photographed. Later Sir William Hamilton refers to ‘the prospect of possessing so delightfull an object under my roof’. Whether they treat her as a subject or an object, these amateurs of the arts agree in regarding her as a thing. Hamilton is of historical importance as a collector of Greek vases, and initially at least he seems to have hesitated over acquiring Emma as he might have hesitated over an antique that might prove an unwise investment. Hamilton, English minister in Naples and more than old enough to be her father, took Emma over, rather as one might store an unwanted piece of furniture for a relative, when his nephew, anxious to make a lucrative marriage, wished to be rid of her. The fact that Emma was passionately in love with the nephew was, of course, neither here nor there.
The trouble, though, is that we really have very little more than a generalised sense of Emma’s passion, or of any of her other feelings, and very little sense (which a biography should give us) of what it was like to be Emy Lyon, born into poverty and obscurity and metamorphosed into Emma Hart, metropolitan beauty. The fault is not altogether the biographer’s, for the materials are remarkably scanty: but the effect is that the narrative has to be padded out with material that distracts our attention from the central figure, and that the subordinate characters in the drama are often more substantial, and more fully rendered, both as historical persons and as individual personalities. ‘Judge of Emma’s feelings,’ Ms Fraser enjoins her readers at one point. Actually it’s extremely hard to do so.
That this should be the case is perhaps odd when we are treated so liberally to quotations from Emma’s letters. Social prejudice and literary convention conspire, however, to make it difficult, try as one may, to take seriously someone who writes like one of Dickens’s or Smollett’s grotesques. There is abundant evidence, too, that she spoke as she wrote: one aristocratic lady noted that Emma’s pronunciation was ‘very vulgar’; an earl more charitably referred to her accent as ‘Dorick’ or rustic; another observer detected the ‘Lancashire’ in her voice even during her great days in Italy. (Not much use, it seems, looking and behaving like Cleopatra if you sound like Gracie Fields.) Lady Holland recounted an anecdote of Emma ‘lying down in the pose of a water nymph, her head resting on a Greek vase. “Don’t be afeard Sir Willum; I’ll not break your joug,” said the nymph.’ The sounds that came out of the perfectly formed mouth must have been a surprise to many, and this is not the only respect in which the images – whether Romney’s portraits or Korda’s film, and now Nigel Foxell’s novel – tell less than the whole truth.
‘It is a bad job to come from the Nephew to the Uncle but one must make the best of it,’ wrote Sir William to a friend. Emma too found it a bad job: to make matters worse, she was tricked into believing that the separation was temporary. But she learned to love her elderly gallant in time, and to take her place in Neapolitan society. To her former lover she wrote: ‘I walk in the Villa Reale every night, I have generally two princes, two or 3 nobles, the English minister & the King, with a crowd beyond us.’ But Naples had its drawbacks, and she added endearingly: ‘But Greville, flees, & lice their is millions.’ She learned Italian, and with her fine voice and her dramatic abilities – her tableaux or ‘classical attitudes’, in which she impersonated mythological characters as if she were a figure on a vase or a frieze, became celebrated – she was soon a star of Neapolitan high society, a woman ‘out of the common line’ (the phrase is Sir William’s). She attracted gossip as well as fleas: there was, for instance, talk of a lesbian friendship with the Queen of Naples.
Soon after her marriage, very curiously, she began to put on weight: a point on which the more romantic retellings of her story (and that means nearly all of them) are silent, and one that again introduces an unexpected note of farce. Ms Fraser does not speculate on the reasons for Emma’s rapid assumption of whale-like proportions. Did sudden respectability have an effect on her glands? Or did she simply stop dieting and start stuffing? Sir William told a visitor that he married Emma because ‘she only of the sex exhibited the beautiful lines he found on his Etruscan vases’ (the collector’s passion again); but the lines began to bulge and expand, it seems, before his very eyes. ‘Her person is nothing short of monstrous for its enormity, and is growing every day,’ remarked another visitor. A Swedish diplomat pronounced her, in undiplomatic language, ‘the fattest woman I’ve ever laid eyes on’; another epithet was ‘colossal’; and Lady Elgin delivered the unladylike verdict that ‘She is indeed a Whapper!’ An advantage of what more tactful commentators called her embonpoint was that Emma was able successfully to conceal the pregnancies for which Nelson was later responsible.
As Great Lovers, Emma and Nelson make an unlikely pair that seem to need Hogarth or Rowlandson to do them justice: for he was diminutive and cadaverous, looked older than his age, was blind in one eye, saw badly with the other, had lost his upper teeth, and had his right arm reduced to a stump. Yet their adulterous passion was, in a sense, heroic, not least in the rhetoric it generated. Emma was ‘delerious with joy’ when she heard the news of his victory on the Nile, and fainted in his arms when she saw him. Nelson for his part was infatuated, and as Ms Fraser tells us, with a faintly disconcerting shift of register in mid-sentence, their ‘passionate friendship ... ripened into intimacy – they had sex on a regular basis,’ the Nelson touch abandoned in favour of the Nelson grope.
The parabola of Emma’s fortunes, however, brings her back – not quite to where she started, but to penury and loss of dignity. Her later years are almost as obscure as her early ones, and we have only occasional glimpses of the middle-aged Emma in England; Samuel Rogers spotted her in 1812 singing Moore’s Irish Melodies in the company of the Prince Regent on what was obviously one of her better days. After the deaths, in fairly quick succession, of Nelson, her husband and her mother, she is beset by financial anxieties; in spite of wearisome years of petitioning, the ungrateful country to which Nelson has left her as a ‘legacy’ (once again treating her as a piece of portable property) never grants her a pension; and in 1813 she is arrested for debt and her household goods are sold up. After her confinement within the ‘rules’ of the King’s Bench Prison, she flees to France with less than fifty pounds in her pocket. The rest of the story is of poverty, drink, and death at 50, in the year of Waterloo. Two weeks later Napoleon escapes from Elba: history is still being made, but long before she died Emma belonged to a finished chapter. The Times reported her death in a single sentence, and Horatia, the surviving child she had borne Nelson, refused to regard her as her mother.
Flora Fraser belongs to the non-committal school of biographers who believe in letting the facts speak for themselves. Perhaps this is a cause for gratitude, since her rare excursions into commentary are usually banal: she is apt to tell us that faint heart never won fair lady, or that the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley. The trouble is that when the facts bearing directly on the central subject are so sparse, the heroine remains a rather shadowy and ambiguous figure: a woman whose motivations are still obscure, whose inner life is hard to imagine, and whom it is impossible to know whether to admire or dislike. Was Emma a pathetic victim or a heartless schemer, a victim of the system or a lion-hearted (Lyon-Harted) adventuress? ‘What had happened?’ asks the narrator in Vanity Fair of Becky Sharp’s conduct (and Emma has more than a little in common with Becky). Ms Fraser’s account is a full one and contains much of interest, but it leaves us still wondering. The slabs of historical exposition, descriptions of the Neapolitan court, and so forth blur the impression still further; and a shorter book might have given a stronger, more compelling picture of one whose story has the fascination that belongs to the kind of life (Mozart’s or Byron’s, say) that is capable of being readily transformed into myth.
The novelist enjoys a freedom, or licence, denied to the responsible biographer, though some biographers pursue the sport of fiction without a licence. To take an obvious instance, he doesn’t have to follow his subject’s fortunes to the bitter or serene end: not that biographers, strictly speaking, have to either, but in practice most hunt their quarry as far as the deathbed, the cemetery and the will. Nigel Foxell has chosen to deal mainly with Emma’s life from the time Greville hands her over to his uncle to the time she falls for Nelson after the Battle of the Nile. In a few places the novelist and the biographer converge: Mr Foxell tells us, for instance, that Emma fainted into Nelson’s arms, and that for Sir William she constituted a ‘new acquisition’, a ‘piece of modern art’. But more often he takes liberties with his heroine, sending her up Vesuvius with Sir William when the volcano is obligingly on the point of eruption; endorsing the Temple of Health canard with which Ms Fraser will have no truck; giving several of Emma’s (fictional) letters but standardising her orthography. And much, it goes without saying, remains unsaid, for the novelist is under no contractual obligation to provide comprehensive coverage. Emma’s expanding waistline is nowhere referred to.
‘Dramatise, dramatise!’ implored Henry James; but in dramatising the novelist, while appearing to withdraw into the wings, cannot share the biographer’s aspirations to impartiality but must commit himself to a particular view of a character. Emma’s passionate temper, for instance, is more in evidence in the novel. What the biography and the novel have in common is that in both Emma herself tends to recede, like the memory of someone we knew a very long time ago, behind the solider figures of her lovers. Whapper she may have been, but it is evidently difficult, perhaps impossible, to render her without a certain insubstantiality. ‘She is all Nature, and yet all Art,’ said Sir Gilbert Elliot, who judged Emma ‘the most extraordinary compound’. To recreate a paradox without creating an impression of mere inconsistency and implausibility is taxing work for biographer and novelist alike.