Sunday, August 21, 2011

Emma Lyon, Lady Hamilton

By Harry Thurston Peck.

In October of last year, in every quarter of the British Empire, there was celebrated with intense enthusiasm the hundredth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, the great sea-fight in which the naval power of France was crushed by the genius of Lord Nelson. The event naturally called forth new additions to the already enormous mass of Nelson literature; and, as was only natural, many reminiscences were evoked of the woman with whose name one part of the English admiral's life is inseparably associated. Yet even now there exists no fair and trustworthy study of her who was a gentler Cleopatra to a greater Antony. It is ninety years since Lady Hamilton died in an obscure lodging in the French town of Calais; and yet those who narrate her strange career seem fully as much swayed by prejudice or by admiration as were the men and women of her own generation.

This is, perhaps, a tribute to the subtle power of her personality; but it is un­fortunate for such as wish to know the truth about her. Lady Hamilton was neither saint nor siren. She was first and last and all the time a woman, and one may hope that before long her story may be fully written with a due regard for the historic facts, and yet with that sym­pathetic insight which so unusual a char­acter demands.

From whatever point of view one re­gards this fascinating woman, there is much to interest and attract. When we remember the strange vicissitudes of her career, the inspiration which she lent to some of the most distinguished artists of her time, and, finally, her relations with the greatest naval captain of all the cen­turies, it is not surprising that Emma Hamilton should have been the subject, not merely of memoirs and lightly writ­ten pages of malicious gossip, but of bulky volumes compiled as the result of serious research. From Allison and Southey down to Jeaffreson and Captain Mahan, someone has always been indus­triously piecing out the evidence. The testimony thus collected will in the end, no doubt, be analyzed with sufficient care to give the world a faithful likeness.


Amy Lyon was the name by which the future Lady Hamilton was christened at Great Neston, in Cheshire, soon after her birth in 1763. Her father and mother were mere peasants, living in a rude cabin; yet the girl was taught to read and write - no usual accomplishment among her class in the days of George III. When only fourteen, she became a nurse-maid at Hawarden, the Welsh village which Gladstone afterwards made famous by his long residence there. At sixteen she appears in London, first as a waiting-maid and then as an assistant in a shop.

There is some obscurity concerning the details of this period, and what is known makes one the more inclined to hurry over it. London was still the London which Hogarth so brutally depicted - a cruel stepmother to those unfortunates whose sex combined with poverty to make the gift of beauty a dangerous possession. And Emma Lyon, as she now began to call herself, was already singularly beautiful, with that fresh loveliness which one finds so often in country-bred English girls. She was not yet even in her first maturity, but it is recorded that as she hurried through the streets upon some errand, beg­gars would bless her for her pretty face, and that she attracted the attention of many a critical eye amid the crowds of London. Her youth, her inexperience, and her unusual comeliness brought her speedily to harm. An officer in the navy, who at her entreaty had used his influence to release a friend of hers from the press­gang, was the cause of her downfall. She is next heard of as living under the protection of a dissolute baronet, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who for a while made much of her, and gave her the first glimpse that she had of the gay world, and of men who had at least the external graces of their class. But this connec­tion was presently broken off; and then the girl, still in her teens, fell under an influence that was to save her from going down to the gloomy depths whither so many of her kind descend.

Among the friends of her late protec­tor was a gentleman of old family, the bearer of a distinguished name. This was Mr. Charles Greville, a relative of the Earl of Warwick. She had met him among the other visitors at Sir Harry's London house, and he had always treated her with a grave respect and high-bred courtesy that made a deep impression upon the ignorant young girl, who had never before received the deference given to a lady. It was natural that now in her extremity her thoughts should turn to him as to one who might befriend her. Fetherstonhaugh had left her without a shilling. She was ill, in debt, and quite alone. No resource seemed left to her except a life of open shame, and from this. she shrank with all the horror that can be felt by one whose mind is still essentially untainted. And so she wrote to Mr. Greville - an incoherent, ill - spelled letter that is most pathetic in its anguish.

I have never heard from Sir H, What shall I do? Good God, what shall I do? I have wrote 7 letters and no answer, I have not a farthing to bless myself with, and I think my friends looks cooly on me, For God's sake, write the minute you get this, and only tell me what I am to do. I am almost mad. 0, for God's sake, tell me what is to become of me.

Mr. Greville answered her with kind­ness, and discharged her debts. Soon after, she made her home with him in the unfashionable neighborhood of Padding­ ton Green. Greville, a man of very moderate means, was of an entirely dif­ferent type from the baronet who had de­serted her. Reserved and dignified in manner, his chief devotion was given to art. He loved all beautiful objects. Among his friends were the most distin­guished artists of the day. Art, in fact, inspired him with the truest passion that he ever felt. His love for Emma Lyon was based wholly upon his admiration for her beauty. He cared for her precisely as he cared for an exquisite painting or a cunningly wrought statue, and he cared for her in no other fashion. Yet nothing could have been kinder than his treat­ment of her, and it was to him that she owed her transformation from an igno­rant country girl into an accomplished woman. He employed teachers for her who instructed her in music and the lan­guages. Greville himself corrected her faults of taste, and set her an example of good breeding; and at last he was proud to have his friends admire her as the most beautiful object in his collection.


It was he who introduced her to the celebrated painter, George Romney, to whom she often sat as a model, and who, being at the zenith of his fame, now made her also famous. At least twenty-four paintings of her are ascribed to Romney, among the best known being those that depict her as "The Spinster,"  "Emma," "The Sensitive Plant," and "A Bacchante." The last is perhaps the most famous of all the works which she in­spired, though she was painted also by Sir Joshua Reynolds and other masters.

The scandalous gossip of the time pointed to the "Bacchante" as evidence that Emma Lyon had posed for Romney in the nude; and it was said that he was also her lover. Both of these assertions are quite untrue. To the eye of the critic it is evident that the "Bacchante's" face alone is that of Emma Lyon, while there is abundant testimony that Romney's friendship for her was based entirely upon respect, and upon a genuine liking for her good heart and natural vivacity.

The girl was now at the full develop­ment of her unusual beauty. She was tall, slight, and extremely graceful in her movements, with a face which reflected the myriad emotions of an impressionable temperament. Her hair was of a dark chestnut hue, and very long and thick. Her hands were exquisite and one con­noisseur - Gavin Hamilton - used to speak of her "beautiful and uncommon mouth "as her supreme attraction. Her peasant origin betrayed itself only in her feet, which one of the ladies who. disliked her afterwards described as "hideous." But with this exception, she possessed no physical defect; and half London raved about her loveliness, which was height­ened by the radiant and spontaneous gayety of her manner. She was a delight­ful companion - frank, animated, and full of a splendid vitality. A talent far mimicry enabled her to amuse her friends, wham she also delighted by her skill in music. She had a voice of remarkable range and sweetness, and it had been thoroughly trained by the masters wham Greville provided for her. This was probably the happiest period of her life, and it was the period when she felt the full power and beauty of a great and un­selfish love.

For, though Charles Greville gave her mare of his admiration than of a deeper sentiment, she on her side loved him with a whole souled and passionate de­votion. Greville's comparative poverty, his forced economies, and his need of her care lest he should became embarrassed in his finances, gave her what is the mast pleasurable of all emotions to a truly womanly woman, in the knowledge that one upon whom she was dependent was on his side dependent upon her - that she was necessary to him. It appealed to the maternal instinct, to that fondness for mothering the object of her love which is so dear to every woman. Greville was her beau ideal of a gentleman and yet she was no mere toy of his. She felt that she was making him a true return for all that he had done far her.

These years of happiness, however, were soon to find an end. It was fated that this daughter of Cheshire peasants should enter upon a widely different ca­reer - one that should find her the asso­ciate of kings and statesmen and nobles; but its brilliancy was to be only a sorry compensation for the contentment of the past.

Charles Greville's uncle was Sir Will­iam Hamilton, British ambassador at the court of King Ferdinand of Naples. Sir William, now in his fifty-fifth year, had lived a life of pleasure, combining with it the practise of diplomacy and the diver­sion of an archeologist. Visiting his nephew during a short stay in London, he was attracted by the beauty and charm of Emma Lyon, His astute nephew noted this with internal satisfaction. Greville was Hamilton's heir, provided Sir Will­iam did not marry. It was greatly to his material interest that his uncle should form a connection outside the pale of matrimony, which would prevent a mar­riage, and thus allow the Welsh estates of the elder man to descend to Greville. With calculating coolness, therefore, he threw Emma in the ambassador's way, and at last arranged, without her knowl­edge, that she should be handed over to Sir William to become his mistress.


Greville seems to have regarded this transaction much as he would have viewed the transfer to his uncle of a piece of bric-a-brac from his artistic collection. The difficulty in the way of it was the girl herself, who loved Greville devotedly, and who would never willingly have consented to so cold blooded a disposal of her person. Greville told her, therefore, that she was to 'visit the Continent,' so that she might acquire a full command of French and Italian, and also see mare of the great world. In London her past was so well known as to bar her from other than Bohemian society. In many ways she had been made to feel the pres­sure of social ostracism. Therefore, not unwillingly, she accompanied Sir Will­iam Hamilton to Naples, with no sus­picion of the plot of which she was to be the victim.

At the Neapolitan court she was re­ceived with every mark of favor. The lax morality of the Italians asked no questions. She was the protege of the British ambassador - the representative of a country which was soon to fight the battles of the monarchies of Europe against revolutionary France. The Queen of Naples, Marie Caroline, daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and sister of Marie Antoinette of France, was a bril­liant woman of great ability. Her hand was felt in all the intrigues of continental Europe, and she was the real ruler of Naples, completely dominating her feeble consort, Ferdinand.

Emma Lyon at once became a conspic­uous figure in this splendid Italian court. Her beauty, her vivacity, and her sup­posed influence with the British ambassa­dor, won for her a place of honor. She was feted and toasted, and admitted to a peculiar intimacy with the queen and with the royal counselors. Meantime, Sir William lavished money upon her, gave her horses and carriages, a retinue of servants, and a bewildering assortment of what the poor girl still described in rustic speech as "gownds."

All this while, scarcely a word from Greville reached her. Amid all the splen­dor of her surroundings, and all the dis­tractions of this brilliant life, her heart still turned to him as the one thing in the world for which she cared most. Again and again she wrote him letters, to which no answer came. For a time she was put off with the story that he was soon to visit Naples; but at last she was informed that she must not expect to see him anymore, and the plot was made quite plain to her. The letter that she then wrote him is one of the most piteous and touching appeals that epistolary lit­erature can show:

I am now only writing, to beg of you for God's sake, to send me one letter, if it is only a farewell. Sure I have deserved this, for the sake of the love you once had for me. I have not used you ill in anyone thing. I have been from you going on six months, and you have wrote only one letter to me, instead of which I have sent fourteen to you. So pray, let me beg of you only one line from your dear, dear hand. You don't know how thankful I shall be for it. For if you knew the misery I feel, oh! your heart would not be entirely shut up against me; for I love you with the truest affection. Don't let anybody set you against me. Some of your friends have long wisht me ill. But you never will meet with anybody that has a truer affection for you than I have. I find life is unsupportable without you. Oh, my heart is entirely broke. Then for God's sake, do write me some comfort. I don't know what to do. I am poor, helpless, and forlorn. I have lived with you 5 years and you have sent me to a strange place, and no prospect but thinking you was coming to me. Instead of which I was told I was to live, you know how, with Sir William. No, I respect him; but no, never shall he perh­aps live with me for a little while like you, and send me to England. Then what am I to do? What is to become of me? I tell you, give me one guinea a week for every­thing, and live with me and I will be con­tent.

To this letter Greville replied in a note which told her the plain truth, and which has been properly described as "at the same time cruel and kind, sympathetic and insulting, gentle and barbarous." Over it Emma burst into a tempest of emotion, weeping and sobbing, and torn with wrath, yet all the while kissing the page because Charles Greville's hand had touched it.

From that moment, the whole nature of the woman was irrevocably changed. The great love of her life had been wrecked; and thenceforth, though she seemed to have recovered from the blow, her soul was tainted. She might love again, but never with the sincere and unselfish loyalty that she gave to Greville, and that he had trampled on. With a certain hardness which recognized the in­evitable, she accepted the position which Sir William had proposed to her, yet she so completely won his admiration that not long after he took her to London with him and married her in the presence of a fashionable company. Queen Char­lotte, the dowdy but estimable wife of George III, refused to receive her; but on returning to the Continent she. was the guest of Marie Antoinette, and became in Naples Queen Caroline's especial favorite. Externally her life was now a brilliant one. Her husband was devoted to her. She was known all over Europe. Pres­ently, something occurred to render her more famous still.


In 1793, Captain Horatio Nelson, in command of the frigate Agamemnon, touched at Naples, and there for the first time met Lady Hamilton. Nelson was then a man of thirty-five, and had hitherto won no distinction, having been living for several years ashore, on half pay. His new command was given him on the out­break of the war between France and England. To most people, and especially to women, he was unprepossessing and unattractive. Short and slight and awk­ward in his bearing, his lank, tow-colored hair was combed down over his ears, fram­ing a thin hatchet face which supported the visage of a sharp and somewhat self opinionated mechanic. His bearing was rustic in its uncouthness. He had no fund of small talk, and in company he maintained what seemed to be a sulky silence broken only by brusk sentences which he jerked out in response to questions. In character he was essentially a puritan, recalling in his sternness and austerity one of Cromwell's Ironsides. It was only when he was upon his quarter-deck that the high spirit and hidden passion of the man leaped forth.

His first meeting with Lady Hamilton was uneventful, and he sailed away from Naples to take part in several years of very active service in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. When he returned to the Italian port, he had become a hero in the eyes of all loyal Britons. He had lost an eye in Corsica and an arm at Tene­riffe, but his brilliant work in the sea ­fight off Cape St. Vincent had won him knighthood and the rank of a rear ­admiral. Later, he had signally defeated the French fleet at Aboukir and gained a peerage.

The court at Naples was a scene of in­cessant intrigue between French and Eng­lish interests. Lady Hamilton used all her influence with the queen on behalf of her native country, not merely because she was the wife of the British ambassa­dor, but because her enthusiastic nature made her an ardent patriot. She had per­suaded Queen Caroline to permit the British fleet under Nelson to take in sup­plies and to be repaired at Syracuse, con­trary to the strict laws of neutrality; and Nelson always said that without this aid he could not have won the battle of the Nile. When he returned to Naples, there­fore, it was with an intense feeling of gratitude to the woman who was, as he thought, the instrument of his success.

She, on her side, was dazzled by his renown. Feeling only a conventional re­spect for her husband, her emotions sought an outlet in her admiration for Nelson. He was one of the men who do not take the initiative in making love, and Lady Hamilton spared him the neces­sity. In the presence of a great company, she received him with extraordinary dem­onstrations, throwing her arms about his neck and kissing him; and from that time she attached herself to him so closely as to win his heart, until at last his puritan­ism gave way and he became her lover. He believed her to be the noblest of women. She knew that he was one of the most remarkable of men; but her love for him seems to have been in the last analysis a gratification of her vanity. In fact, her selfishness nearly led to the disgrace of Nelson, who loitered about in Naples, neglecting his duties, and on one occa­sion even disobeying the positive orders of the British Admiralty.

This period of Lady Hamilton's career is too well known to require repetition. She and Nelson were inseparable, and afterwards she accompanied him to Lon­don. The death of her husband, who never would believe any evil of her, left her free with a comfortable fortune; but Nelson's death at Trafalgar, in 1805, put an end to the brilliancy of her life. Moral deterioration had long ago set in. She lived henceforth extravagantly and feverishly, plunging into debt and dissipation, and reverting little by little to the type of her peasant ancestry. Eating enormously and drinking to excess, her beauty gradually faded away. She became grossly stout. Her face, which Romney had rejoiced to paint, grew coarse and fretful in its expression. Her friends gradually fell away from her. She was imprisoned for debt, and finally was forced to leave England altogether and retire to lodgings in Calais, where she found solace in the memory of her past, and in the huge meals of turkey, bacon, fish, and other food, of which even in her latest letters she wrote with the intense enjoyment of a glutton.

She died in Calais at the age of fifty-­one, a physical and moral wreck, this woman whom Lord St. Vincent had called "the patroness of the British navy," and who in Nelson's will was commended to the generosity of the British nation be­cause of the great services which he, at least, believed that she had rendered.

Originally published in Munsey's Magazine. March 1906.

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