In her day Emma Hamilton was one of the most recognisable faces in Europe. Though subsequent events have relegated her simply to the role of Nelson's mistress, our new exhibition seeks to explore their true relationship.
Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson met initially and briefly at Naples in 1793, but it was from 1798 that their paths were consistently intertwined, and from 1799 that their romantic relationship is understood to have begun. Both were married – she to Sir William Hamilton and he to Frances Nelson – and their adulterous and therefore scandalous liaison was viewed from the outset by many of Nelson’s acquaintances as hazardous to his status and career.
To be sure, extramarital affairs were commonplace among naval officers of the day. However, there was a world of difference between private indulgence and public knowledge. In the case of Emma, Nelson had visibly associated himself with a woman whose combination of high profile and humble origins had already long exposed her to scrutiny and critique. Furthermore, she entered his life at precisely the moment when Nelson’s spectacular victory at the Battle of the Nile guaranteed enormous public interest in his activities.
The sense, particularly evident among higher social echelons, that their relationship besmirched propriety left its mark on Emma. The worst damage, though, was mercifully posthumous. As Britain reached the high watermark of its imperial might in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, historians strove to uncover the sequence of steps that had led, apparently inexorably, to national greatness. Articulated most clearly by an American naval officer, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the keys to British exceptionalism were located in the concept of sea power, and in the pantheon of Royal Naval commanders who had wrested control of the seas from their adversaries. In this company no star shone more brightly than Nelson’s, whose triumphant demise at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 propelled him at the time to the stature of a national deity. As a result, for many Nelson came to epitomize a powerfully influential national myth.
The weight of retrospective expectation that then bore down on Nelson’s memory had immediate and later consequences for Emma’s reputation. In order to fit the template of Victorian exemplar, his character was refashioned to conceal or erase qualities – for example, emotional expressiveness and illicit passion – deemed inconsistent with this public-facing role. Whereas his late Georgian brother officers might have deplored his love affair as misguided and foolish, a century later it posed a direct threat to the ideal of heroic masculinity for which he was now the figurehead. Much was at stake, and this menace also became more relevant following the publication between 1892 and 1894 of Alfred Morrison’s collection of Nelson’s correspondence with Emma, which made the intimacy and sincerity of his attachment to her undeniable. The solution reached by many was to present Emma as a temptress, a sexual sorceress who lured the admiral from patriotic duty to private passion. She was, in effect, made the culpable party and her impoverished demise in Calais was frequently presented as the inevitable conclusion of a cautionary tale.
From today’s vantage point, we have far more freedom to evaluate Emma on her own terms, rather than as a hindrance to the mythology surrounding a supremely significant man. And, in truth, we do an injustice both to Emma and to Nelson by not acknowledging the sincerity of a relationship in which she celebrated his heroism and fired his ambition while he, in turn, admired her strength and achievements.
It is also, of course, a considerable historical irony that a woman with such a strong claim to so many different and complex identities is routinely associated with the simplistic and disempowering title of ‘mistress’. Emma was a model, a muse, a trailblazing artist, a popularizer of female fashions, a singer offered contracts by prestigious opera houses, and a politically active patriot. During her forty-nine years she lived a life of dazzling variety and real achievement. She had a major impact on European culture (from the pictorial to the performing arts); she rose to the pinnacle of Neapolitan society in peace and war; and she crashed through barriers of class, privilege and gender to claim a place in the public sphere.
The exhibition that opens at the National Maritime Museum on 3 November – entitled Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity – tells this remarkable story of a complex, talented and spectacular woman.