Emma Hamilton The way from social obscurity to social stardom has traditionally been even narrower than the strait gate and narrow way to salvation. However, iconic looks, talent, intelligence, and a heaping helping of golden luck have been known to buy one’s way out and up.
Emma Hamilton was born in 1765, among the working poor. Ordinarily, the nearest such a girl would have come to the aristocracy would have been cleaning up after them. She was working as a servant in London at twelve; she moved on to a brothel, then an establishment known as the Temple of Health and Hymen. Her first protector was one Sir Harry Featherstonebaugh. Supposedly she helped entertain his companions by dancing naked on his table. She attracted the notice of the Hon. Charles Greville, nephew of Sir William Hamilton. Charmed, Greville commissioned George Romney to paint portraits of her and make the public aware of the iconic face. Romney became quite obsessed with her and produced numerous portraits that convey both the heat of his interest and his subject’s charisma. At nineteen she was also painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in a characteristic pose: a mischievous, meditative look over her shoulder, right hand delicately fingering her cheek.
Greville, though, decided to marry an heiress and passed Emma on to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples. She impressed Hamilton and others with her artistic creativity as well as her beauty. For their pleasure, she performed what she called “attitudes,” an entertainment that sounds somewhat like Isadora Duncan’s modern dance. From her portraits, Emma was very aware of how to use her physical appeal and had a dancer’s grace of posture; those performances must have been compelling. Though artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who later painted three portraits of Emma, was not impressed with her act, Goethe, like many others, was entranced: “The performance is like nothing you have ever seen before. With a few scarves and shawls she expressed a variety of wonderful transformations! One pose after another without a break!” An even more wonderful transformation was in the works: When Hamilton and the talented Emma married in 1791, she became Lady Hamilton.
She and Hamilton were hotly enthusiastic about England’s naval hero, Admiral Nelson—Horatio, Viscount Nelson, who had prevented Napoleon’s troops from invading Naples and then trounced the French at Aboukir in the Battle of the Nile. When Nelson arrived at Naples in 1797, he and Hamilton and Lady Hamilton became such good friends that they rented a villa to share. Between Nelson, who was a married man, and Emma, the friendship intensified. In the spring of 1800, she conceived Nelson’s child. Nelson’s humiliated wife demanded that he give up his paramour; he responded by leaving his spouse for good, paying her off with half of his considerable income. Though unable to marry, Nelson and Emma were fully committed to one another by this point. The lovers named their daughter Horatia so that no one would doubt her parentage and continued to live in Hamilton’s house and in delectable sin; the British public lapped up every detail of their scandalous liaison like cream.
Their happiness was interrupted by Nelson’s destiny. In September of 1803, England’s shaky truce with Napoleon’s France was broken, and Nelson was back at sea. He got to return to Emma in August 1805 for a brief vacation before he was called back to duty to win the Battle of Trafalgar, in which he was fatally wounded. He had done his best to assure Emma’s financial well-being in the event of his death, but the British government awarded the money to his family, and she lived in debt and misery until 1815. At fifty, she was dead. Her meteoric rise is not forgotten, though; Alexander Korda’s remarkable film That Hamilton Woman refreshed the legend in 1941. The iconic beauty of that decade, Vivien Leigh (already famous as Scarlett O’Hara) portrayed Emma. 2006 saw the publication of a well-researched, entertaining biography, England’s Mistress: the Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, by Kate Williams.