Consider the young lady of the night leaning against a lamppost in London’s Soho district in 1778. The girl, Amy Lyon, had somehow managed to survive all odds to reach the age of 13. Her father, a blacksmith, died when she was less than two months old; after her mother fled to London, Amy was brought up by her grandmother, and her diet consisted of bread, potatoes, and lard, and she was happy to get that. She worked from the time she was old enough to carry a bucket. At age 12, she escaped to the big city. There she toiled for room and meagre board, primarily as a nursemaid, at one house after another, before hitting the street.
Consider Emma Hamilton at age 26, wife of the Queen’s envoy to the Court of Naples, the most beautiful and most famous Englishwoman of her time, an accomplished dancer, singer, spy, fashion plate, and mistress to Lord Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero.
Consider that these are the same woman.
Amy wasn’t on the street for long before she was enlisted into high-class brothels. Painters of the day toured such establishments looking for models. Sir Joshua Reynolds took one look at the 14-year-old and offered her work. Now calling herself Emily, she was Reynolds’s model for Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus.
Still only 14, Emily was hired by the eccentric James Graham, owner of the notorious Temple of Health, where she danced provocatively while he gave lectures on sex and electricity. She graduated to work the main room, wherein reposed Graham’s Celestial Bed, advertised as promising potency, ecstasy, and healthy babies. It was a large contraption with mirrors on the underside of the canopy, covered in purple satin sheets and elevated by crystal pillars in a room with crystal chandeliers and fake stained-glass windows. While couples were aspiring to ecstasy, Emily danced privately for them, wearing practically nothing.
She was soon the star of the joint, acquiring the title Goddess of Health, and by the time she was recruited by Madam Kelly to work in her exclusive bordello, she was well established as a legend of the demimonde, her recruitment being noted in Town and Country Magazine.
Madam Kelly’s girls might be rented for extended periods of time, and thus Emily became the temporary property of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, known around high-class brothels as Sir Harry Flagellum. He originally took Emily as a summer hire but kept her for a year, until she became pregnant and he threw her out into the street. She was taken in by one of his acquaintances, Sir Charles Greville, but the baby, little Emma, was immediately sent away to live with her great-grandmother. Greville got the idea that he could earn good commissions by hiring Emily out to painters. She would pose for artists the rest of her life. Art historians claim that no other British woman in history has been painted as often.
Greville kept Emily cooped up in a house on the edge of town, where she was, soon enough, bored. Tired of her complaining, Greville sent her off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, envoy to Naples and a cultured, 55-year-old collector of antiquities. Emily was expected to charm him, and the grateful Sir William would be disposed to leave his estate to Greville. The woman the magazines called “the prettiest woman in London” arrived in Naples the day of her 21st birthday. Sir William arranged for her to have music and language lessons. Artists begged to paint her and people lined up outside Sir William’s villa for a look at her. She was soon Sir William’s mistress.
He had noticed her posing before mirrors and Emily explained that she was “assuming attitudes”, often scenes from classical mythology. The envoy began to feature her as an after-dinner act at the villa, singing and doing her “Attitudes” performance, which was actually a variation of her brothel posing of former days. Upon seeing her, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most famous writer of his day, remarked, “The spectator can hardly believe his eyes.” He later featured her in his novel Elective Affinities, as did Madame de Staël in Corinne ou l’Italie.
Now calling herself Emma, she was married to Sir William Hamilton in a secret ceremony in England. On their honeymoon tour, she became friends with Marie Antoinette (sister of Queen Maria Carolina of the Kingdom of Naples). In January 1793, King Louis XVI was executed, and in February, France declared war on England and the Dutch Republic. Back in Naples, Sir William learned that French troops were headed his way, and a messenger from the Royal Navy was bringing news and a request for troops to engage the French at Toulon. The messenger was Captain Horatio Nelson, who took one look at Emma, and that, as they say, was all she wrote.
Back in England, Nelson’s wife, Fanny, fretted because he was to meet the woman the newspapers said “no man can resist.” Theirs was a childless, miserable marriage, but the daring captain didn’t have time to surrender to Emma’s charms. It was she who interceded with the King and Queen to get Nelson his men and supplies. Emma was soon working for the British government, passing along information about the royal court, travellers, and spies.
Again, a year later, it was Emma who arranged for Nelson’s ships to be supplied so that he could go on to the Battle of the Nile and the victory that made him the greatest hero in English history. By the time he returned to Naples, Nelson had lost an arm and the sight in one of his eyes. He collapsed in Emma’s arms as he disembarked from his ship, both of them hopelessly in love. A resigned Sir William offered the hero a place in his household. The three of them would live together, except when Nelson was at sea, until the end of Sir William’s life.
It is difficult to realize these days how famous and respected Nelson was. His image was everywhere; people dressed à la Nelson and decorated their homes in the same fashion. But in civilian garb, Nelson could walk down the street unnoticed because he didn’t look the part. He was no more than five-foot-six, and he was not handsome. In uniform, and with Emma, they stopped traffic, but after the initial shock of recognizing the hero, people switched their attention to Lady Hamilton. She looked like the “Goddess of the World,” according to one Italian diplomat. “It is like seeing Cleopatra in the flesh.”
Nelson, with Emma and Sir William aboard, put down a rebellion that saved the King and Queen of Naples from being overthrown, and Emma on her own initiative sent funds to Malta to rescue the country from being overrun by rebels. She became the first Englishwoman to receive the Maltese Cross (awarded to her by Emperor Paul I of Russia).
The three proceeded on a triumphant tour of Europe. They arrived in England in November 1800, where Emma, seven months pregnant with Nelson’s child, met his wife. A deluded and desperate Fanny demanded Nelson choose between her and Emma. He never saw his wife again.
On January 29, 1801, while Nelson was on duty, Emma gave birth to a daughter she named Horatia. He stole time to write dozens of letters that display his thorough sexual obsession with the former courtesan.
After a dubious victory at the Battle of Copenhagen and service off the south coast of England, Nelson was able to return to Emma, and a house she and Sir William had purchased at Merton Place. Sir William died on April 6, 1803, in Emma’s arms while Nelson held his hand.
Whatever Emma was left by Sir William went to creditors. In early 1804, while Nelson was away, she gave birth to another daughter, who lived only six weeks. Nelson returned after two years and was home only a month before leaving. He was killed off the coast of Spain in what came to be known as the Battle of Trafalgar.
Nelson’s death provided the British government with the opportunity to treat Emma poorly, as if to erase the memory of her, a lower-class whore who had used her wiles to penetrate the highest echelons of English society and snare its greatest man. They even banned her from her lover’s funeral.
And the government didn’t provide her with any support, although Nelson had pleaded them to in his will. She was plagued by the hero’s grasping relatives; his old shipmates tried to bribe her; men appeared from out of nowhere claiming they had “known” her back when she was Amy Lyon; creditors besieged her.
So harassed was Emma that she voluntarily presented herself at the King’s Bench debtors’ prison. In order to spare themselves being locked into cells, people with the means could take accommodation within the eight-square-kilometre area around the prison, known as the Rules. Within two months, friends had paid enough of her debt that she was allowed to leave, but she was soon publicly arrested (for another unpaid debt of £400) and sent back. Meanwhile, the love letters Nelson had written her—which had been stolen—were published. It was her reputation that suffered, not his, as if she was evil incarnate for inflaming the passions of the unwitting hero.
Two of Emma’s friends, Joshua Smith, leader of Southwark Borough Council, and James Perry, editor of the Morning Chronicle, were able to sell enough of her possessions to pay her bail. She hid out for a week with her daughter before taking a private boat to Calais in France.
She arrived with £50 to her name, and her situation grew worse by the day. Emma died in Calais at age 50 of an abscessed liver.
The English continued to be titillated by her over the years as they simultaneously denigrated her.
In 1941, her memory was subjected to the humiliation of being portrayed as a ditzy airhead by a juiceless Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman. The movie begins with Emma as an old hag stealing a bottle of booze in Calais and telling her story to another inmate in jail. It ends when the tale is told.
Image ©Tate, London 2012.