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England's Mistress

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England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton. By Kate Williams. (Arrow: 2007. Pg. 528.) ISBN 0099451832.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 5, 2007

Emma Hamilton was a star long before the Cult of Celebrity was given birth by the modern media. Born in 1765 to an impoverished family, Emma began her ascent to stardom by becoming a domestic servant and then a street prostitute in London, before graduating at the age of 14 into the ranks of the girls who served at Madam Kelly's Mayfair brothel. Pregnant by the age of sixteen, Emma was rescued from this desolate life by Charles Greville, who transformed Emma from a comely country lass with high ambition, into a cultured, and beautiful lady of star quality. He then, marketed her beauty by selling her services as a model to such renowned painters as Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. Before long, she was sought after by artists of every ilk, and her face soon became wildly known throughout England.

Building upon the education she received from Greville, she went on to marry Greville's elderly uncle, Lord William Hamilton. Lord Hamilton finished polishing-off Emma's remaining rough edges and placed her upon a very public stage not only as Lady Hamilton, but also as the wife to the English ambassador at the Court of Naples. Building from this foundation, Emma went on to become one of the most famous women of her time, serving not only as a model, spy, ambassador's wife, society matron, but also as the very public mistress to England's national hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, with whom she had a child. In England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton Kate Williams paints a vivid portrait of Emma's life, and the period in which she lived. In the process, Williams, a respected historian who specializes in eighteenth century cultural history, separates out the fact from the fictions that have cloaked Emma's life for decades.

This book is both edifying and entertaining. It is fascinating to follow Emma's climb from the virtual gutter to the higher echelons of society and to witness how those around her related to her when she was in a position of power, and how their attitudes so easily changed when her prestige faltered.

From beginning to end, this is a mesmerizing story about a charming and intelligent woman whose story is so astounding that you could easily imagine that it was a work of fiction. From her humble beginnings, she rose to become a national celebrity in an age when one's notoriety could only be touted by word of mouth, by the pen, or by an artist's renderings. Using her intelligence, her beauty, and her sensuality, she ascended to dizzying heights. Her rise was spectacular, and her fall was precipitous. The moralist among us will delight in Emma's tragic end. At her height, she was the idol upon which the followers of the Cult of Celebrity fawned, but when she fell, she fell hard. She ended her life, in 1815, as she began it, impoverished and one step ahead of her creditors. While her life had a mythical quality about it, Emma Hamilton was a real woman, and in this fluid narrative, William's ably brings Emma's story to life, set against the sweeping panoply of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century history and culture.

Related Reviews:

The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England, By James Sharpe.
A case study of Anne Gunter claim of demonic possession and the resulting witch trials - including her own.

A Sentimental Murder. Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century, by John Brewer.
Separating fact from fantasy, Brewer examines a sensational love triangle that turned murderous, and how the event was recorded in the popular press.

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