Monday, November 21, 2011

Emma, Lady Hamilton!

Our book today is Emma, Lady Hamilton, a big fat 1905 volume by steadfast biographer Walter Sichel, who spends an eager amount of time at the outset of the book carefully detailing for his readers just why they should opt for his book on Lady Hamilton as opposed to any of the others. He stresses both the new content (letter caches, mainly) of his book and also his vigorous new interpretations of old content, all with a sharp commercial eye toward making his product stand out.

It seems an odd anxiety, from the viewpoint of 2011. Amy Lyon, who changed her name to Emma Hart and then became Lady Emma when she married the elderly and ultimately mysterious Sir William Hamilton, became famous all over the Western world not only as a sexual provocateur (her hair and clothing styles were lamentably imitated by beefy matrons from Venice to Vladivostok) but as the open mistress of England's famous naval hero Horatio Nelson. Despite the fact that Nelson was short, pock-marked, balding, dumpy, one-armed, rheumatoid, and gap-toothed, an entire long generation of Victorian young men desperately wanted to be like him - most especially in two respects: they wanted to be the victor at the Battle of the Nile, and they wanted the love of Emma Hamilton. Even in 1905, therefore, her name could still sell books and generate cutthroat competition between rival biographers.

Mainly this was because Emma Hamilton represents the beau ideal of the mistress. She was vivacious but not annoying, smart but not educated, a good enough singer and dancer but not so good that the singing and dancing commanded attention on their own, and she was beautiful: long eye-lashes, a gorgeous smooth voice, and breasts out to here. And added to this was one extra, crucial point: her husband didn't mind. A floundering little pansy like Nelson would have been reduced to a puddle of tears if Sir William had called him out to meet with pistols at dawn - but instead, Sir William admired him. It's the ultimate guilt-free fantasy.

Sichel realizes all this and goes at it with a true professional's gusto. This requires the production of vast job-lots of what is referred to, in technical literary terms, as drivel:
It has been well said that apologies only try to excuse what they fail to explain, and any apology for the bond which ever afterwards united them would be idle. Yet a few reflections should be borne nervously in mind. The firm tie that bound them, they themselves felt eternally binding; no passing whim had fastened it, nor any madness of a moment. They had plighted a real troth which neither of them ever either broke or repented. Both found and lost themselves in each other. Their love was no sacrifice to lower instincts; it was a true link of hearts.

Luckily for his readers, Sichel is every bit as energetic a guide even when he's not talking about body parts linking up, as when he sets the scene in 1798:
Nelson was in chase of Buonaparte's fleet.

Napoleon's Egyptian expedition was, perhaps, the greatest wonder in a course rife with them. He was not yet thirty; he had been victorious by land, and had dictated terms at the gates of Vienna. In Italy, like Tarquin, he had knocked off the tallest heads first. Debt and jealousy hampered him at home. It was the gambler's first throw, that rarest audacity. For years his far-sightedness had fastened on the Mediterranean; and now that Spain was friends with France, he divined the moment for crushing Britain. But even then his schemes were far vaster than his contemporaries could comprehend. His plan was to obtain Eastern Empire, to reduce Syria, and, after recasting sheikhdoms in the dominion of the Phraraohs, possibly after subduing India, to dash back and conquer England.

Biographies of Lady Hamilton (who fell quickly into squalor and desperation after Nelson died his famous hero's death) aren't nearly so numerous as they were in Walter Sichel's day, and they're necessarily a bit more strained than any note he ever struck. Professional historians of our self-righteous modern era find it worrying to celebrate a woman whose main claim to fame was her sexual pliability - it lets the side down. Feminists can't claim Emma because she slept her way to fame and fortune and lost both when she lost her lovers, but neither can they excoriate her, because we have enough of her letters to know she was a genuinely kind-hearted little ignoramus. Once the last generation to hero-worship Lord Nelson finally died off, the kind of popular interest that could animate a long, baroque work like Emma, Lady Hamilton died off as well.

But if you should feel a bit of that interest, this is the book to satisfy it. If a biographer is going to spend 500 pages writing about another man's mistress, the least he can do is embarrass himself for our amusement.

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