Norman Page

  • Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton by Flora Fraser
    Weidenfeld, 410 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 297 78895 7
  • Loving Emma by Nigel Foxell
    Harvester, 201 pp, £8.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 7108 1056 3

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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