Monday, December 27, 2010
What are you reading?
England's Mistress. The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, by Kate Williams. Set in a time when few women of any social standing had any power at all. One woman rose from grinding poverty to incredible wealth and fame, and became the mistress of Lord Nelson.
Born Amy Lyon in 1765, in Ness, a coal mining district about twelve miles from Liverpool. Life was grim, especially for girls. In fact, when food was short, the youngest girl in the family wasn't fed, as she was considered least important. As food was short most of the time, many didn't survive their childhood.
Most in her situation suffered severely from malnutrition. If they survived, were left with bone deformities, rotting teeth and other dreadful health problems. Amy was tall, strikingly beautiful with good teeth. She enjoyed robust health for most of her life.
At the age of twelve, as a domestic servant in London, her high spirits and cheekiness soon had her thrown out onto the street. Her only option from there was prostitution. Still in her early teens and beautiful, she rose in a few years to being one of London's highest paid courtisans.
Along the way she also worked for James Graham, entrepreneur, sex therapist, showman and London's most celebrated quack doctor, in his Temple of Health. Graham put on extravagant shows with fireworks, smoke, lush and exotic surroundings and scantily clad beautiful girls. He managed to fleece the fashionable wealthy of a lot of money. She learned many useful skills from this job.
From Madame Kelly's famous brothel, at the age of fifteen she was then taken as a mistress by the spoiled young squire, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. When she became pregnant he disowned her and she was taken in by the less glamorous Charles Grenville.
A mother at seventeen, she was never able to live with her daughter, Emma.
As an artists model, she soon became the darling of many painters, particularly George Romney. Her style was loose fitting, Grecan style dresses, flat comfortable shoes and her hair loosely tied. The tightly corsetted women of the time soon followed her lead, and she became a fashion icon.
When Grenville tired of her, he gave her as a gift to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton fell in love and eventually married her, despite protests from family and associates. Marrying outside his class put him at serious risk of losing his position and his inheritance.
They lived in Naples for many years, where Sir William was ambassador to the royal family. Here Emma first performed her dance 'the Attitudes'. She was a regular at the palace and a close friend of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples.
This worked well for a number of years until she met and fell in love with Lord Horatio Nelson. And thats where it starts to get interesting.
Reviews of this book range, and Kate Williams has been criticised widely for creating a soap opera, exaggerating and making a starlet out of her subject. Whether or not this is true, it is still a great read.
It is also an insight into what life was like in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, particularly for women. From the grinding poverty of the people, to the gluttinous wealth and extravagance of the aristocrats and royals.
-The social climbing and the fickleness of position, women born into wealth could loose everything if a male benefactor died, or she fell out of favour. The same was true of second sons etc. Securing a good marraige was about all you could do.
-The bizarre James Graham, I'm going to Google him.
-The politics of the time, no, better not start.
This book was written as a documentary. It was researched by such means as town records, newspapers and the many surviving letters that were written by and to her. Also the author seems to be a bit of an eighteenth century-phile. I enjoyed the journey of discovering all of this almost as much as the actual story.