Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Death of Lady Hamilton

She was the most beautiful woman of her day; knowing that her beauty was the best chance she had to achieve the life she wanted, she exploited it to its utmost. Whether her life was any better on this day in 1815, the day she died, than it was on the unknown day she was born is a matter for debate; she certainly did have an interesting life out of it, though...

PhotobucketBorn in obscurity (her birth date unrecorded, the year likely 1761) and raised in humble surroundings, she arrives in history a precocious 12 year-old - in the days when a 12 year-old was more like a 20 year-old of today - already aware of her objective and ambitious enough to achieve it.

Originally a maid, she quickly gravitated to London, where she worked in that line for several actresses, including Mary Robinson, the mistress of the Prince Regent. Since maiding was a thankless and low-paying job she was soon working in the vicinity of the Drury Lane Theatre as a prostitute (which paid better) and as an artist's model (which provided copious thanks from the artists, fame, and access to well-heeled admirers as well).

In the latter endeavour she was particularly favoured by the artists Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney; having posed for Romney hundreds of times - portraying nymphs, goddesses, and the like - it soon occurred to her to pose as a lady (or at least a Lady). To this end she set her sights on a preferably noble, eminently forgiving, suitably rich, potentially old husband to complete the picture. She thought she'd found one in Charles Francis Greville although, as the second son of the Earl of Warwick, he stood to inherit nothing; not only that, the toffee-nosed git refused to marry her, preferring instead the obscenely wealthy Henrietta Willoughby.

In due time Greville passed her to his wealthy uncle Sir William Hamilton, whereupon she was whisked away to Naples to live as the wife of the British envoy. His Lordship, in turn, was more than happy to share Her Ladyship with one of the greatest military heroes of that or any other time - Lord Horatio Nelson. Amazingly, despite the scandalous life she'd led to date, it was as Nelson's mistress that Lady Hamilton achieved her greatest notoriety.

They first met in 1793, although their affair did not begin until after September 1798 when, at a party the Hamiltons threw for him she fainted into his arms in admiration; when she gave birth to his daughter in January 1801 she called the baby Horatia, who was then swaddled in secrecy. Shortly thereafter Nelson bought Merton Place, outside of London, and set up housekeeping for himself, Emma, their daughter, and Emma's mother there. Sir William was even known to bunk up at Merton Place on occasion, which must have made for some cozy evenings around the fire.

In 1803, after the death of Emma's husband, she was refused his pension. Nelson's return to the sea came a short while later; without his presence, fewer and fewer visitors came to see her or the home she maintained as a shrine to him. After Nelson's death in October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar she was naturally denied his pension and the respect accorded his widow - she wasn't even invited to his funeral. The final decade of her life was spent in trying to maintain his home, which was a losing battle; bit by bit she sold off the property, and finally the house. By the time it was finally demolished in 1823 she'd already been dead for years.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, was notably portrayed by Vivien Leigh - herself one of the most beautiful women of her day - in the 1941 film That Hamilton Woman.
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Daniel said...

Very interesting, I didn't know any of that. I will, however, bring things down to my level and share a quote from Blackadder..

"I feel like Lord Nelson after he made the famous proclamation, 'Heaven knows Lady Hamilton is a virgin, poke my eye out and cut off my arm if I'm wrong'"

michael sean morris said...

I always laugh loudly at that joke in her honour; then again, nobody loves a mercenary slut more than me. Professional courtesy is the polite term, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I never knew that she was a prostitute around the Theatre Royal Drury Lane! Thanks for posting.