Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.
England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton (original 2006; edition 2009)
by Kate Williams (Author)
England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams (2006)
No current Talk conversations about this book.
An informative but impersonal biography of Emma Hamilton, the famous courtesan who became Nelson's mistress. Compared to Flora Fraser's account, which I couldn't finish, Kate Williams writes clearly and fairly about Emma, but there is always more history than personality in such studies of famous (or infamous) names. Although I admire the level of research, and how the author 'translates' money and locations for modern readers, I think perhaps only a talented novelist could really bring Emma to life, and separate her from the history books and footnotes.
Emma, born Amy Lyon and raised in a northern mining community, created a life for herself that, as Kate Williams disclaims in the prologue, would be 'dismissed as improbable' in a work of fiction. Indeed, Emma's rise to fame - from scullery maid to artist's model to courtesan to England's mistress - is the hackneyed route of many a romance novel heroine, with seeming disregard for historical accuracy or propriety. Yet because of Emma's beauty, spirit and ingenuity, she really did overcome all obstacles of hardship and reputation to become a feted and beloved national heroine. Of course, she then lost everything and died in poverty abroad, like many a notorious eighteenth century celebrity, but for a time, Emma Hamilton was the height of fashion. And why? Because she was a true actress, who aimed to please and delighted in making a show of herself. Emma also knew how to attract, engage and flatter the male ego, and she moved from one aristocratic 'protector' to another, always looking for love. Her first lover gave her a daughter, the second established her as Romney's muse and gave her the name she was best known by, Emma Hart, the third she succeeded in marrying, and the final face in her rogue's gallery - Nelson - was the love of her life. Not a long list of conquests, and all but one loved her dearly and remained part of her life, but none of Emma's lovers guaranteed her financial security. As Kate Williams summarises: 'Despite all her charisma, intelligence and charm, Emma had to rely on what she could win from men - and when men would not give it her, she had nothing.' From the lively, creative, honest young courtesan, who wrote passionate if misspelled missives to her lovers and charmed royalty, nobility and the hearts of a nation, Emma Hamilton's descent into lonely poverty and neglect is at once heartbreaking and frustrating. Like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Emma lived beyond her means and ran up massive debts, but unlike Georgiana, there were no wealthy relatives to bail her out. When reading the final chapters, I wanted to shake Emma and shout, 'You have no money! Fire your maids and footmen, stop throwing parties, and face facts!'
The only real sense of Emma Hamilton I got from Kate Williams' biography is how hopeless and pitiful the woman was in later life. Her magnetic charm, international appeal, and even her all-consuming love for the one-eyed, one-armed, toothless Nelson, didn't really ring true. She was either a beautiful, outgoing, caring, industrious woman ahead of her time, with the strength and independence to make life work for her, or a shrewd actress who knew how to manipulate men by constantly reinventing and, yes, prostituting herself to make them happy. Perhaps a mixture of both.
One other minor quibble I have is with the cover to my edition - why, for a biography about one of the most painted women of her time, have Arrow Books chosen to use a stock photographic image of an Emma-esque model with dark hair and heaving bosom? The three colourful illustration inserts in the book are filled with stunning examples of portraits by Romney and Elizabeth Vigee le Brun, yet the publisher runs with a cheap, romance novel mock-up? Unforgiveable.
I knew little about Lady Emma Hamilton before reading this book, save that she was mistress to Horatio Nelson, the great naval commander. Kate Williams brings her to life as a strong-willed woman who faced poverty, shame, passion, loneliness, popularity, tragedy, and triumph with equally good-natured aplomb. The "it" girl of her day, Emma seemed an 18th century Angelina Jolie--a beautiful woman of principle (though not necessarily the same principles as the rest of society) who lived her life guided by passion and a need to be noticed. The compromises she had to make to succeed--or, at times, just to get by--are heartrending.
Williams depicts the society of Emma's day in minute but colorful detail. Who would have imagined that genteel ladies, swooning over Nelson's victories, would have bedecked themselves (and their houses) with anchors, military braid, Egyptian obelisks (atop headdresses), and fabric printed with his likeness?
Overall, a fascinating portrait of a fascinating woman and her society.
Easy to read biography of Emma Hamilton. A balanced portrait for the most part, showing Emma's ingenuity and resilience while recognising her self destructiveness and foolishness, especially with money.
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English (1)
Emma Hamilton was England's first superstar. She fought her way out of dire poverty to become a fashion icon, an Ambassador's wife, a confidante of both Queen Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples, and the mistress of Lord Nelson, England's greatest military hero. Drawing on hundreds of previously undiscovered letters, England's Mistress follows Emma's dramatic journey from the slums of Northern England to the Royal Court of Naples, and from the brothels of St. James's to the tragedy and glory of the Napoleonic wars. Muse and mother, wife and mistress, celebrity and villain, victim and survivor: Emma Hamilton was one of the most remarkable women in British history. Emma set out to make herself a star - and she succeeded beyond even her wildest dreams. By her early twenties, she was the most painted woman of her day. Her 'Attitudes', classical postures in diaphanous outfits, thrilled aristocrats and intellectuals while her innovations in fashion and dress changed the way women looked for ever. Shrewdly manipulating the media's fascination with her, Emma made herself into the most famous woman in England, desired by every man she met, adored by thousands, and, for a time, very rich. Yet, she was willing to throw it all away for the man she loved. Extensively researched but told with a novelist's flair, this is the story of one woman's fight to live on her own terms. England's Mistress captures the relentless drive, innovative style and burning passion of a true heroine.
No library descriptions found.
Amazon Kindle (0 editions)
Audible (0 editions)
CD Audiobook (0 editions)
Project Gutenberg (0 editions)
Google Books — Loading...
Melvil Decimal System (DDC)941.073092 — History and Geography Europe British Isles Historical periods of British Isles 1714-1837 Period of House of Hanover George III 1760-1820
Is this you?
Become a LibraryThing Author.
An edition of this book was published by Tantor Media.
Added to this, a number of generalisations make for uncomfortable reading. On Pg. 7, for example, we read:
"Nowadays, suicides peak in the months of May and early June, and it is unlikely the eighteenth century was different. . ."
and then, a bit later:
"At the time, eighty per cent of those accused of witchcraft were older women or widows."
A diagram, or even a family tree, would have helped with the sudden shift from Emma's parents to her grandparents in Chapter 2, and I am still not certain how to read the expression "only for him to pimp her out" in Chapter 20.
The author includes a good deal of domestic detail about 18th century life which is new - for example The Temple of Health, Hairdressing and the duties of a Courtesan - but overall the book is still hard going.
I was always glad when I could put it down and move onto something else. ( )