A lively but incomplete biography of Admiral Nelson that keeps most strategy below decks and instead concentrates on one of the more celebrated adulteries in history. In doing so, the prolific Hibbert (Cavaliers and Roundheads, 1993, etc.) taps a vein of popular curiosity about Nelson, but deals with that part of Nelson's character that is least interesting. For the truth is that Nelson, aside from his profession, was not a very interesting man. Having left school at 12 to become a midshipman in the Navy, he was vain, sanctimonious about his dedication to duty, hypochondriacal, and often querulous about the inadequacy of the rewards that he received. To the dismay of his admirers who thought her a poseur, he was unable to see through Emma Hamilton, the mistress and then wife of Sir William Hamilton, the minister in Naples, who had taken her over from his nephew and in turn, knowingly or otherwise, shared her with Nelson. This mÇnage Ö trois scandalized Europe and leaves historians, including Hibbert, uncertain as to whether Sir William was aware that his wife had given birth to Nelson's child and whether he truly believed his oft-asserted statement of the purity of their relationship. What is really interesting about Nelson, and what historians, including Hibbert, find difficult to communicate, is the fascination that he roused in his peers: ``I don't know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more,'' wrote the very unimpressionable Duke of Wellington after an interview in which he had initially seen Nelson at his vainglorious worst. Hibbert gives us insight into the human touch that made Nelson beloved by his men but little on the strategic grasp that associated him with the four most devastating defeats suffered by the French Navy and its allies in the Napoleonic Wars. It is almost impossible for Hibbert to write a dull sentence- -King Ferdinand of Naples, he writes, was ``a fundamentally idle man much given to fornication''—and he gives a fine sense of Nelson the man. To understand what made Nelson different from his contemporaries, one will have to read elsewhere.
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