Even-keeled life of the British naval hero, who was famous in his time for two things: victory at sea, and a long-running affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of a British diplomat.
It is for these accomplishments, writes maritime historian Knight, that Horatio (born Horace) Nelson is “one of the few historical figures about whom there have been several books in print at any time in the last 200 years.” So it is now, 200 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, with the recent publication of Roy Adkins’s Nelson’s Trafalgar (2005) and Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire (2005), among other books. Knight’s extensively documented life is the most complete of recent vintage, drawing on overlooked primary texts such as letters, logbooks and charts drawn by the great man himself. No hagiographer, Knight admits that Nelson’s fortunes were improved by the accident of being born into a family with ties to the highest reaches of government; one influential relative administered his lieutenant’s exam, for instance, and saw to it that Nelson received a good posting. Knight also points to contemporary criticisms of Nelson—he was, for instance, thought to be a hypochondriac and somewhat less than reliable—and demonstrates that Nelson knew how to play politics to advantage against his rivals. Yet Knight also gives readers reason to believe that Nelson deserves his 200 years of good press: he was a brilliant strategist and tactician, mastering such ploys as “confusing the enemy by his feint, isolating the van, and using his three-deckers to penetrate the French line,” and he was able to defeat the fleets of Spain, France and Denmark even while battling illness. Knight charts the evolution of Nelson’s character from ambitious youth to kindly if sometimes impetuous master mariner enshrined by the later Victorians for his skills and independent nature.
For the time being, the definitive life of Nelson, though certain not to be the last word.