Behind the dross

Emma Hamilton, painted by George Romney
There's a wonderful quote from G.A. Carter's article Fiction and ourselves in a 1950 edition of Library review :
"A certain Rural District Council has recently passed a resolution which included the following phrase:—“This Council views with alarm the increase in the cost of the County Library service . …” The Chairman of the Council, in proposing the resolution is reported as having said:—“I am not objecting to the library service itself, but to the terrific cost of running it. This item ought not to be increased any further. It is not right that ratepayers should be asked to pay for people to read Forever Amber and Our Dearest Emma. It would be all right if the service was all educational, but it is not”.

And that just about sums up Our dearest Emma. Lozania Prole's take on the life of Emma, Lady Hamilton is gloriously badly written. All heaving bosoms, cads and innocent village maidens demanding to be "unhanded". It's an absolute hoot.

Occasionally however there's just the glimmer of something rather more serious. For Emma Hamilton, best known as the long-term mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson, was undoubtedly quite a woman, who led one hell of a life. Born in rural obscurity, she came to London and ended up sleeping her way around the smart set. Incredibly beautiful, she became the mistress of Charles Greville to whom she appears to have been devoted. Deeply in debt Greville came to an arrangement with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, then Ambassador to the court of Naples, he in effect sold Emma to his uncle in return for the clearance of his debts.

Although never admitted to the English court, her insignificant background and louche lifestyle being too shocking for the court (the men who made her pregnant and dumped her, or sold her, were apparently perfectly acceptable to court circles), Emma was quite a hit in Naples. She sang, led a lavish lifestyle and entertained regally. She also became close friends with the Neapolitan queen, a sister to the recently beheaded Marie Antoinette. Then one day the English fleet arrived, and the rest is history...

Badly written as the novel was I had to admire Emma. She was a feisty woman, who did what she had to in order to survive. The snobbery that had kept her away from court circles continued to impact after Nelson's death, when Emma, partly admittedly due to her own lavish lifestyle, slid into penury. And ended up being buried in a pauper's grave in Northern France.

Our dearest Emma is a dreadful read, but even that cannot detract from the life of an amazing woman. I certainly want to read more, and more seriously, about Our dearest Emma.


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