Sunday, March 14, 2010

Too Great A Lady The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton by Amanda Elyot

In the late 18th century, Emma Hamilton's face and figure made her famous. With her changeable eyes and abundant auburn hair flowing well past her hips, she was accounted one of the most beautiful women in the world...until she opened her mouth.
Amanda Elyot's novel gives the fair Emma a voice and, replete with dropped aitches (the letter H) and the rough English country accent, allows her to tell the story of her meteoric rise from nobody to a titular lady who could never quite shake off the trappings of her dissolute past and notoriety. Within ten years she rose from an illiterate, barefoot country girl selling coal out of her apron pockets at the roadside, to become variously a nursemaid, an orange-girl, an "ornamental beauty" in a fashionable brothel, one of the scantily clad beauties who graced Dr. Graham's famous Temple of Health, where men of means paid fifty pounds to spend a night in the quack's Celestial Bed where the "Goddess of Health" would cure their impotence, the mistress of a hedonistic nobleman who hosted cockfights in his drawing room, and the muse of the painter Romney, to become the wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to Naples, a connoisseur of fine art who accounted his wife the greatest and most beautiful of his many treasures.

Emma's life reads like a bawdy version of "My Fair Lady." But, unlike the fairytale of the cockney flower-girl who learns to walk and talk like a duchess, in Emma's case the transformation never fully takes; she constantly slips. The book is written in proper English except when dialogue is quoted, then Emma drops every "h" and never learns to properly pronounce her husband's given name, calling him "Willum" instead of "William." Though she works hard to better herself, taking lessons in French, Italian, music, and drawing, she never eradicates her rough accent. She is alternately refined and vulgar, but always fresh and candid, and by those who get to know the real big-hearted, kind, generous Emma she is both liked and loved. She even becomes the confidante of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, and sister of Marie Antoinette, and enjoys renown as one of the most popular hostesses; visitors to sunny Italy vie for invitations to see Emma perform her "Attitudes" in which, wearing a sheer white Grecian gown, she strikes poses depicting famous female figures from mythology.

But love is Emma's undoing. After many years of marital happiness, in which she proves that a fallen woman can rise again, redeem herself, and become a model of fidelity, Emma is gobsmacked when she falls "arse over tit" in love with Horatio Nelson, the celebrated naval hero and darling of the British public. Both Nelson and Emma are married to others, though Nelson's love for his wife, Fanny, is long dead and their union endures in name only, Sir William Hamilton is one of his best friends, but their passion is too strong to resist, even though they fight it, eventually they give in and surrender to the inevitable.

The hypocritical scandal ineradicably stains both their lives. The upper classes, the aristocracy, and the fashionable folk of the "Beau Monde" and "The Ton" freely indulge in a never-ending game of musical beds, mistresses and extramarital affairs are all socially acceptable and commonplace provided a modicum of discretion is employed, yet Emma and Nelson become a scandal. Polite society snubs Emma, and The Admiralty, Parliament, and King George III alternately punish the lovers in one way or another--when Sir William Hamilton is granted his pension, it is stipulated that the sum will not continue to be paid to his widow after his death as customary, and Nelson's dying wish to provide for Emma is pointedly ignored.

Emma is clearly persona non grata in England, and after the deaths of her husband and lover she falls back down into poverty and squalor. It is Emma's fate to outlive her famous beauty and to suffer the cruel disdain of her daughter, Horatia, Nelson's only child. Horatia has nothing but contempt for Emma and never acknowledges the woman she scornfully dismisses as "a fat and slovenly tippler" as her mother. Emma pens her memoirs from debtors' prison in an attempt to raise money to support herself and Horatia before finally dying of the effects of excessive drinking in 1815.

Amanda Elyot does a fine job of resuscitating Emma and breathing life back into one of the great love stories of history without over-romanticizing it or drowning it in sentimentality.

1 comment:

librarypat said...

What an interesting post. This is a story and person I've not heard of before. Her real life story certainly has all the makings of a good book. I'll have to check into it. That whole time period had so much going on.