Not so far from the Richlieu park, right into a side street – on the corner of Rue Jean de Verne and the Rue Francais, is a plaque commemorating the death place of Emma Hamilton in 1815. “That” Hamilton woman: she died on the same date, January 16th, that Susan Sontag was born – in 1933.
Sontag wrote The Volcano Lover in 1992, a novel about Emma, her husband Sir William Hamilton, and her lover, Horatio Nelson. It is set in Naples where Hamilton was the British Envoy, and where the three worked out a sometimes uneasy mÈnage against the backdrop of poverty and the constant threat of war. Her novel is exquisitely cool, appears to be about the aesthetics of collecting “things”, and an indifference to the real world that can come from being “abroad” – of being somewhere else, but at home in art – or war, or academia. When I had read The Volcano Lover, I felt I understood Susan Sontag a little better, but not her characters.
Hamilton was born Amy Lyon in Cheshire, the daughter of Henry Lyons, a blacksmith who died when she was two months old. She was brought up by her mother but by the early 1780s she was down in London. At seventeen Emma was already notorious, leaving the brothel in which she worked and taken as mistress to several upstanding men – one “patron” was a Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, with whom it is thought she had a daughter, Emma Carew. She also posed as the model of the “Goddess of Health” for a Scottish “Doctor” named James Graham.
But it was another, longer-term “patron”, the Honorable Charles Greville who helped in the process of mythologizing Emma. He introduced her to the portrait painter, George Romney. And later he sent her to overseas to Naples to be the mistress of his uncle, that Hamilton Man.
Emma married Hamilton, eventually, and in Naples created an art-form that she named: “Attitudes”. This involved movement, dance, a little acting and a lot less clothes. Europe approved. With the discrete aid of a few shawls she “became” various classical figures from Cleopatra, through Medea. Even Goethe liked it; she was the Kate Moss of her day: launching not just a fashion for draped Grecian dress, but also new kinds of dance.
Emma’s affair with Nelson has inspired many: there are lots of books, fiction and fact, and numerous films about their relationship. Sontag gets at the physical reality of their love well, I think, stripping it of much of the romance of, say, Vivien Leigh’s Emma in the war-time film, That Hamilton Woman. For though when Nelson returned to Naples he was a perhaps the most famous Englishman – after his decisive win at the Battle of the Nile – he was a broken man: had lost an arm and most of his teeth, and was afflicted by much ill-health. It’s said that Emma fainted when she saw him. Nevertheless attraction brought them together, and was perhaps approved of by Emma’s husband, who in what seems a typically English way, thought Nelson a marvellous felllow. I tried, this morning, to imagine a French Envoy having much the same feelings, but couldn’t quite. Perhaps because I’d been reading Jane Fonda on her one-time husband, the French film director, Roger Vadim.
The affair of Emma and Nelson led to a child, Horatia, born early in 1801 at Sir William’s rented home in Clarges Street, near Piccadilly. And within a few months the trio lived openly together at Merton Place on the outskirts of what is now Wimbledon. Such behaviour fascinated the British, and others too. Journalists door-stepped them, and tried to discover any information about the domestic set up. As a consequence, Emma became a kind of Martha Stewart, leading the fashion in clothes, dance, and even recipes. The Italian dessert, Zuppa Inglese, an English trifle with more booze, is claimed to date from Lady Hamilton’s time in Naples.
But sailors always return to the sea. With the death of her husband and pregnant with Nelson’s second child she found herself alone at Merton Place, spending much of the time on interior decoration awaiting her husband’s home-coming. The child died after a few weeks, and a grieving Emma went out gambling, spending lavishly on everything.
Journalists – especially social writers – then and now love the rags to riches to rags story best of all. Nelson died two years later, as we all probably know, and Emma, who’d already spent her husband’s pension, fell quickly into debt. And whilst Nelson had left clear instructions for the government to look after Emma and Horatia, they did not. She spent a year with Horatia in jail, for debt, and finally – with the threat of her love letters being published (I suppose the modern equivalent is those “at home” videos that get posted to the net), she fled here, to Calais. She drank too much in Calais, and died of liver failure in poverty soon after.
I try to imagine her escape from London, by boat, her feelings of betrayal. I feel also that sense of her being not of her times, that her sensibility would make for a very different kind of life today. Exiled perhaps in Los Angeles, or running a LifeStyle Business in Manhattan. Unhappy, maybe, but successful.
Emma Hamilton has huge symbolic value, I think. Though I do wonder if her behaviour would be any more approved today: Emma rose from the “comfort” of too many male patrons, and that is a career path of which many disapprove.
Churchill loved Nelson, and he loved the story. In the darkest hours of the Second World War in 1941 he enjoyed watching Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in “That Hamilton Woman,” with its implied comparison of Napoleon and Hitler: the Producer, Alexander Korda, was knighted in the year following its release.
Now I return to the plaque, paid for by two contemporary American philanthropists, Jean and Jay Kislak, whose foundation and collections are immense. I emailed them recently to ask why they had put up the memorial – in Calais.
Ms. Fromm replied for the Kislak Foundation:
Mrs. Jean Kislak is a great fan of Emma Hamilton, as a woman of power and influence in the 18th century. She has collected quite a number of artifacts, artwork and books which are associated with Emma Hamilton. In the early 90s she realized that little recognition remained to this remarkable woman in the city in which she spent her last years. Thus, she organized to erect a monument to her. The day the statue was unveiled was quite a festive day, supported by the elected officials of Calais.
Money well spent, I think.