A pretty streetwalker from northern England becomes a painter’s model, high-class courtesan and then mistress to Lord Nelson himself in this businesslike portrait of Emma Hamilton.
British historian Williams begins her subject’s rags-to-riches story in squalid, coal-rich Ness, near Liverpool, where Emma, née Amy Lyon, was forced in her early teens to become a servant when her alcoholic and possibly tubercular father killed himself. When she moved to London, the city’s amusements proved more compelling than scrubbing floors; her employer cast her out in the street, but her good looks and determination secured her a job at Drury Lane as a wardrobe mistress, while she moonlighted as a model for artists George Romney and Joshua Reynolds. Top-drawer brothel work followed, then stag parties hosted by aristocrats like Sir Harry of Uppark, who got her pregnant and then passed her off to Charles Grenville of Paddington. She changed her name to Emma Hart and sent for her mother to keep house for her. Once Grenville grew tired of her, she was handed off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who lavished her with riches and actually married her, making her a lady and favorite of aristocrats eager to wear their fashions “à la Emma.” Nuts-and-bolts prose recounts Emma’s incredible rise without a lot of razzle-dazzle: Moving to Naples, she grew close to Queen Maria Carolina and met Lord Nelson on his way through the Mediterranean to resist Napoleon’s troops in 1798. Battered, with only one eye and one arm remaining after the Battle of the Nile, the married admiral soon fell for the charming hostess, who set about cuckolding her husband and bearing Lord Nelson a child, to the delight of the press. In her debut, Williams writes sternly of her often silly protagonist, but drops the occasional feminist justification, e.g., “Despite all her charisma, intelligence, and charm, Emma had no rights and had to rely on what she could win from men.”
No fascinating new dish here, but a meat-and-potatoes biography.