Intrigue, glamorous parties, gambling, exotic countries, class-smashing, national heroes, adultery and royalty. Just another average Emma.
In England, biographies and autobiographies sell like hotcakes. Maybe it’s an insatiable curiosity, a written version of net curtain twitching, or just an extension of the glossy mags that everyone reads, but every celeb (a- to z-list) has one out detailing all the sordid details that they want to dish on their bandmates and ex-husbands. Well, Kerry Katona step aside with your rather sad life, and enter an astonishing figure – Emma, Lady Hamilton.
Born in a coal-mining village in 1765 to very average parents, after a spell as a domestic worker near home, Emma (originally named Amy Lyons) undertakes the rough journey to London to find fame & fortune. After a few service jobs (one notably in Drury Lane) Emma subsequently works as a model, dancer, working girl, hostess and entertainer before falling pregnant to Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh. Going to his friend as a mistress, Emma is tamed and domesticated, begins to find notoriety posing for the painter George Romney then sent to Naples where she eventually marries Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples.
In Naples, Emma becomes close personal friends with Maria Carolina, the Napoleon Queen and meets the British naval hero, Horatio Nelson whom she falls in love with. Emma Hamilton and Nelson were by now the two most famous Britons in the world, which ultimately leads to Emma’s downfall. She meets Marie Antoinette, organises the Napolitan court to move out of danger, is bestowed her own title, moves back to England, bears Nelson two children (only one survives sadly) and rings up huge debts.
A few years after Nelson dies at the Battle of Trafalgar, Emma dies in France, penniless and almost alone.
I’ve gone a bit nuts, and ended up reading two biographies about her (I’ve had a lot of train and car journey time on my hands lately) and how the two books differ are really interesting. Beloved Emma, by Flora Fraser
is more straight talking, factual and informative. England’s Mistress, by Kate Williams
is written in more of an easy to read romance novel style, and the author takes a few more liberties with situations that aren’t able to be fully evidenced. Both are fascinating and insightful (though I will admit that I put aside the former initially for the latter.)
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