November 2006

Kate Williams


Emma Hamilton: The Most Glamorous Woman in the World and the Voyeuristic Life of a Biographer

Recently, I fell I into conversation with the friend of a groom at a wedding. When he asked what I did, I told him I was an author. He looked skyward. “Ah yes,” he said. “An author. Well we all have a book in us, don’t we?” I had to tell him that the book was not in me any more -- but in lorries on the way to bookstores.

Over the past five years, I’ve been on a journey. Thanks to an unexpected discovery, a goldmine-find in London’s British Library, my life was transformed. I moved from humble graduate student, plugging away in my student room and trying to eke out my $150-a week grant, to a bona fide author, courted by publishers, my book auctioned in the US and the UK. All because of Emma Hamilton, the first media superstar of the eighteenth-century world.

I was a graduate student at Oxford when I stumbled across a letter by Emma. It was a Tuesday in the summer of 2001 and I was working in the British Library. I had been on hunting for letters by women to flesh out my PhD on seduction in the eighteenth century. I was particularly interested in finding letters by women who had been seduced. But after weeks of reading dreary, decorous letters by Georgian women, I was ready to give up. Did they never feel strong emotion about anything? Then, I came across a letter by Emma. The discovery, quite literally, transformed my life.

Her voice leapt out at me. I could not believe what I was reading. Emma was begging Admiral Horatio Nelson to come to Naples to protect her and the country from Napoleon’s forces. She made it obvious she would fling herself at him, blatantly offering him sexual passion.

Compelled by the naked honesty of her voice and struck by her ambition to grab the admiral, I called up more letters. As I began to visit more archives in the US and the UK, I found caches of unpublished letters. The manuscripts I found showed that Emma was not, as history has represented her, a lucky girl who somehow found reached the top of society. She was intelligent, ambitious and obsessed with fame.

I realised that scholarship on Emma had been dependent on a collection of letters edited in 1893-4 by Alfred Morrison. To please his Victorian audience, he cut and bowdlerised the letters, removing the racy sentiments and Emma’s confession of ambition. And ambition was Emma’s watchword. She was driven by a desire to be famous.

Born in 1765 into a poor mining family in a ramshackle village in the North, Emma was destined for an early death, a career as nothing more than a beggar or prostitute. At twelve, determined on more, she fled to London. There, fired as a servant and rejected as an actress, she became a streetwalker, aged only fourteen. But she soon escaped to star as a Goddess at London’s most ridiculous, glittering sex show, the Temple of Health, off the Adelphi on the Strand. From there, she was snapped up to dance at one of London’s best brothels and by sixteen she was permanent mistress to a young aristocrat, Charles Greville. He set her modelling for painters such as George Romney and she became London’s favourite muse. When he sold her to his widowed uncle, Sir William Hamilton, Ambassador to Naples, she was one of London’s most famous women.

When I read Emma’s letters, I was struck by the modernity of her voice. Like today’s glamour girls, Emma wanted fame for its own sake.

I called up biographies of Emma. But none of them showed the ambitious, fame-hungry, intelligent woman I’d read. As I read more letters, a book started to form in my mind.

I sat on my idea for Emma throughout the autumn, convinced that I would never be allowed to write a biography -- I was too young, not sufficiently upper-class or well-connected. Just before Christmas 2001, I finally plucked up the courage to e-mail an agent who represented a friend of a friend. To my shock, he replied almost immediately. If I wrote a proposal, he said, he’d sell it for me.

By the following May, I had read hundreds of letters, tens of books on Nelson, Emma, the eighteenth century, and their circle and finally completed a 30,000-word proposal. I sent off the proposal, expecting to hear nothing for weeks.

But, a few days later, my agent called -- publishers were flooding him with interest. I put on my one smart outfit and caught the bus from Oxford to London. Suddenly, I was no longer a humble graduate student. Famous publishers in glamorous offices invited me in for macaroons and asked about my work on Emma and my life.

The last time I’d entered Random House, I’d been a work experience student earning £2.50 a day, sharing an old flat with four Australian van drivers. Now I went into a room full of people eager to hear about Emma.

By the Thursday of that intense week, Random House had won the auction. A few weeks later, I travelled to Naples. I was wandering around Pompeii, camera and notebook in hand, when my agent called. My book had been sold at auction to Random House in New York.

From being an aspiring author, desperately wondering what "real authors" talked about, tongue-tied when I ever met one, I was one for certain. I was thrilled and stunned, too shocked to tell my friends. When I returned to Oxford, I sat in my student room, surprised that it looked exactly as I had left it when my life had changed so much.

Over the following years, I visited dozens of archives in the UK, the US and Europe, read thousands of books, and talked to collectors and enthusiasts. I used a spreadsheet to work out what Emma was doing every day of her life. I wrote and rewrote chapters. I did fun things too -- I gave lectures at beautiful stately homes, had radio interviews and planned and presented TV programmes.

I lived the strange, voyeuristic life of a biographer. I spent weeks reading their old, secret letters, letters that their closest friends would never have read; I read letters by their so-called friends that they would never have known to exist. I was obsessively infatuated with every aspect of their life; I was plunged into frustration when there was something I could not find out.

As I worked on Emma, I saw our passion for celebrity increase. Now, we love women who are willing to be photographed in revealing dresses, appear at premieres and expose their vulnerabilities -- whether it is their weight, their appearance, their children or their failing relationships. Emma, like Madonna, was so addicted to the limelight that she reinvented herself continually, always ahead of style. Like modern day glamour girls, she came alive in the spotlight and died a little away from the glare of fame.

Emma was a self-publiciser par excellence, the first, unashamed exploiter of her face and body. When she was Sir William’s wife in Naples, she threw herself at Nelson, determined to be famous. She came back to England in 1800, pregnant with his child, Horatia, and flourished in the media glare. Emma turned her home with Nelson into a temple to her celebrity, just as Paris Hilton might style her LA mansion. The crockery, wallpaper, curtains, even the doorknobs bore pictures of Nelson and Emma and giant "Ns." The nation snapped up fans, watches, mugs, and jewellery featuring her. Women across the country dressed like her, copied her hairstyle and imitated her crazy interior décor. Directing her own fame without assistants or managers, she was the eighteenth-century queen of spin.

Marie Antoinette of France, George Prince of Wales of England and the Neapolitan Royal Family all became close friends. But, unable to keep up with their showy spending, she fell into terrible debt.

When Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, he left her very little money. Unlike Jackie Kennedy, she turned down marriage offers from rich men. Within nine years of Nelson’s death, she was in debtors’ prison, owing the equivalent of seven million pounds. In late 1814, Emma fled her creditors to Calais, with her daughter, then thirteen. She died a few months later, just short of fifty. Her tale was one of rags to riches and then right back to rags again.

When I sent the completed manuscript to my editors, I felt a little as if I was losing an old friend. I knew that I would never change as much again as my life had from finding that letter in 2001. I had grown up with Emma. But I was also exhilarated. I had seen Emma through her birth, her life and her death, her incredible rags to riches story. And it was now time to return to the archives and begin on the research for the second book.

-- England’s Mistress: the Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton is published by Ballantine on 24 October.

This is an abridged version of an article that will be appearing in the January issue of UK's Mslexia.