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A discursive, expansive account from birth to death of""That Hamilton Woman,"" a personage of some notoriety in history and film. Fraser's approach here is old-fashioned. Although she has a good grip on the bibliography, the results presented are often tired clichÉs, not even slightly reworked from the formulas a reader can find in Harlequin romances: ""Sir William and Emma were living in a dream. . .Emma's Italian had improved by leaps and bounds."" There are, of course, some lively details which explain why this particular woman should interest British readers. There is, for example, the moment when the one-eyed Lord Nelson requests an eye shade from Lady Emma: ""Will you, my dear friend, make me one or two?"" The monocular Nelson was being thrify as usual. Still, such anecdotes are fairly well-known, and hardly need the excuse of a large new biography of Emma to bring them to light once again. Fraser herself seems troubled by the question of why the world needs another book about Emma: ""Why should she so fascinate is difficult to answer."" In fact, this should have been her primary task as biographer, to answer this very question, but most readers will leave this volume with little answer at all. Fraser has a greal deal of difficulty immersing herself in the time, and even in the thoughts of her subject. She decides arbitrarily that Emma would not have ""found Goethe attractive,"" judging from a portrait of the poet with ""broad brow and ox-like neck."" Yet Emma was not put off by Nelson's missing eye; surely she deserves more credit that being called a slave to superficial appearances. Fraser, the daughter of Lady Antonia Fraser, and granddaughter of Elizabeth Longford, proves anew that literary genius is not hereditary.

Pub Date: April 10th, 1987
Publisher: Knopf