Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ladies Of The Demi Monde And Lady Emma Hamilton

Yesterday evening, just before I was about to go to bed, the film Vanity Fair came on, now I should have recorded it, for two reasons, although I have read a lot of English literature, Vanity Fair has escaped me and now Reese Witherspoon, lovely though she is, will be firmly imprinted in my mind as Becky Sharpe, I prefer to read a book first and let my imagination picture the character and then see the film.  The second reason I should have recorded the film, I was tired and really could have done with an early night, instead I watched the whole sumptuous film and tumbled into bed at around two in the morning.

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

I am fascinated by Ladies of the Demi Monde, to which Becky Sharpe clearly belonged, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a time when there was not a lot of equality for women especially members of the lower classes, so women who wanted to improve their social standing and do well in the world either had to marry well or become a member of the Demi Monde, beauty obviously helped but the most important requirements were intelligence, wit and guile.

One lady who did very well was Lady Emma Hamilton.  Born Amy Lyon, in 1761 in Ness, Cheshire, she was the daughter of a Blacksmith, he died when she was two and she was brought up by her Mother, with no formal education.  She later changed her name to Emma Hart, from the age of twelve she worked as a maid and eventually moved to London, with an interest in the theatre, she established herself as maid working for various actresses at the Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden.
Emma as Circe by George Romney, 1782

As this paid little, she found employment as a model and dancer for a quack doctor who specialised in fertility treatment.  At only fifteen years of age she was hired by Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh as an entertainer and hostess for a rather lengthy stag do, she is said to have entertained Sir Harry and his guests by dancing naked on the table, Sir Harry took Emma as his mistress, but often neglected her in favour of drinking and hunting with his friends, she formed a friendship with one of Sir Harry's guests, The Honourable Charles Francis Greville, about this time she conceived a child with Sir Harry.

Sir Harry was furious at the unwanted pregnancy and it is thought he installed her at one of his houses in London, Emma eventually gave up on Sir Harry and formed a romantic attachment to Greville, she probably believed that Greville would marry her but she became his mistress.  She had a little girl who was named Emma Carew, she was sent away to live with a foster family.

Greville kept Emma in a house on Edgware Road, he had fallen in love with her, he sent her to sit for a painting with his friend George Romney.  Romney formed a lifelong obsession with Emma and drew many sketches of her nude and clothed which he turned into paintings in her absence.

Emma, by George Romney

Through the popularity of Romney's work and particularly of his striking-looking young model, Emma became well known in society circles, under the name of "Emma Hart". She learned quickly and was elegant, witty and intelligent. And, as paintings of her attest, Emma was also extremely beautiful.

Emma by George Romney

In 1783, Greville needed to find a rich wife to replenish his finances (in the form of eighteen-year-old heiress Henrietta Middleton). Emma would be a problem, as he disliked being known as her lover (this having become apparent to all through her fame in Romney's artworks), and his prospective wife would not accept him as a suitor if he lived openly with Emma Hart.

To be rid of Emma, Greville persuaded his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples, to take her off his hands. Greville's marriage would be useful to Sir William, as it relieved him of having Greville as a poor relation. To promote his plan, Greville suggested to Sir William that Emma would make a very pleasing mistress, assuring him that, once married to Henrietta Middleton, he would come and fetch Emma back.

 Sir William Hamilton with his first wife

Emma's famous beauty was by then well-known to Sir William, so much so that he even agreed to pay the expenses for her journey to ensure her speedy arrival. He was interested in her, as a great collector of antiquities and beautiful objects, and that was how he first viewed Emma. He had long been a happily married man, now in his mid-fifties, and he liked female companionship very much. His home in Naples was well known all over the world for hospitality and refinement. He needed a hostess for his salon, and from what he knew about Emma, she would be the perfect choice.

 George Romney, Lady Hamilton

Greville did not inform Emma of his plan, instead suggesting the trip as a prolonged holiday in Naples while he (Greville) was away in Scotland on business. Emma was thus sent to Naples, supposedly for six to eight months, little realising that she was going as the mistress of her host. She became furious when she realized what Greville had planned for her. But in fact this was the best thing that ever happened to her.

As Sir William's mistress, Emma developed what she called her "Attitudes", using Romney's idea of combining classical poses with modern allure as the basis for her act. This eventual cross between postures, dance, and acting, was first revealed in Spring 1787 by Sir William to a large group of European guests at his home in Naples, who quickly took to this new form of entertainment - guessing the names of the classical characters and scenes which Emma portrayed.

Sir William was smitten with Emma and, to Greville's shock, married her on 6 September 1791 at Saint Mary-le-bone, Middlesex, England. This gave her the title Lady Hamilton. At the time of their marriage Saint Mary-le-bone Parish was one of the largest in England. It is interesting to note that despite all her name changes during her early life when she married she used her birth name of Amy Lyons.

George Romney, Lady Hamilton

Lady Hamilton became a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina, wife of Ferdinand I of Naples. As wife of the British Envoy, Emma welcomed Nelson in 1793, when he came to gather reinforcements against the French. She is described in 1797 in the diary of 18-year-old Elizabeth Wynne as “a charming woman, beautiful and exceedingly good humoured and amiable.”Nelson returned to Naples five years later, on 22 September 1798 (with his eighteen-year-old stepson, Josiah) a living legend, after his victory at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir. However, Nelson's adventures had prematurely aged him: he had lost an arm and most of his teeth, and was afflicted by coughing spells. Emma reportedly flung herself upon him in admiration, calling out, "Oh God, is it possible?", as she fainted against him. Nelson wrote effusively of Emma to his increasingly estranged wife, Lady Fanny Nelson. Emma and Sir William escorted Nelson to their home - the Palazzo Sessa.

Emma nursed Nelson under her husband's roof, and arranged a party with 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday. They soon fell in love and their affair seems to have been tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the elderly Sir William, who showed nothing but admiration and respect for Nelson, and vice-versa. Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson were by now the two single most famous Britons in the world. They were not only in love with each other, but admired each other to the point of adulation. They were, so to speak, also in love with both their own fame, and that of their lover.


 Emma had by then become not only a close personal friend of Queen Maria Carolina, but had developed into an important political influence. She advised the Queen on how to react to the threats from the French Revolution. Maria Carolina's sister Marie Antoinette had fallen a victim to the Revolution. In 1799 Naples was the scene of a strange revolution, led by members of the aristocracy. The people did not care for the revolution. French troops were welcomed and the Royal family fled to Sicily. From here Nelson tried to help the Royal family put down the revolutionaries. He had absolutely no support from the British government. He even executed one of the leaders of the revolution, the Admiral Caracciolo. Emma Hamilton tried to create a parallel between the revolution in Naples and the Irish uprising in 1798.

On Nelson's recall to Britain shortly afterwards, Nelson, Emma and William took the longest possible route back to Britain via Central Europe (hearing the Missa in Angustiis by Joseph Haydn that now bears Nelson's name in Vienna in 1800), and eventually arrived in Britain later in 1800 to a hero's welcome. The three then lived together openly, and the affair became public knowledge, which eventually induced the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea, if only to get him away from Emma.

Nelson perhaps had the idea that he could divorce his wife only after a decisive victory. Sir William also remained an obstacle. In fact the two lovers, who both loved and respected Hamilton, had to wait for his death to even contemplate marriage. Emma would not even consider the possibility of divorce. That would taint her for life, and, even worse, taint Nelson.

 Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as Nelson and Emma

Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia, on 31 January 1801 at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, 23 Piccadilly, London. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern day Wimbledon. There he lived openly with Emma, Sir William, and Emma's mother, in a ménage à trois that fascinated the public. The newspapers reported on their every move, looking to Emma to set fashions in dress, home decoration and even dinner party menus. But Emma's great days were over. She had become obese, and Nelson did not like the social life she craved. She had turned down the offer from the Royal Opera in Madrid to sing for money. Now she and Nelson tried to create a new, quieter life.

Sir William died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea soon after, leaving Emma pregnant with their second child (by Nelson). She was desperately lonely, preoccupied with attempting to turn Merton Place into the grand home Nelson desired, and frantic for his return. The child, a girl, died a few weeks after her birth in early 1804. Emma reportedly distracted herself by gambling, and spending lavishly. Now she was free to marry Nelson, if he could only obtain a divorce.

Lady Emma Hamilton

After Nelson's death in 1805, Emma quickly exhausted the small pension Sir William had left her and fell deeply into debt. Nelson had willed his estate to his brother; he gave Merton Place to Emma, but she depleted her finances by trying to keep it up as a monument to him. In spite of Nelson's status as a national hero, the instructions he left to the government to provide for Emma and Horatia were ignored. They showered honours on Nelson's brother instead.

Emma spent a year in a virtual debtor's prison, in the company of Horatia, before moving to France to try to escape her creditors. Turning to drink, she died in poverty of amoebic dysentery, an illness she probably picked up in her years living in Naples (Sir William Hamilton also suffered from this) in Calais, in January 1815.
Horatia subsequently married the Rev. Philip Ward and lived until 1881. She had ten children: Horatio Nelson (born 8 December 1822); Eleanor Phillipa (born April 1824); Marmaduke Philip Smyth (born 27 May 1825); John James Stephen (13 February 1827–1829); Nelson (born 8 May 1828); William George (born 8 April 1830); Edmund Nelson (1831); Horatia Nelson (born 24 November 1833), Philip (born May 1834) and Caroline (born January 1836).
Horatia never publicly recognized that she was indeed the daughter of Emma Hamilton.

I have just discovered there is a book about Lady Emma Hamilton, which is going on my wish list.

Another great book and a firm favourite of mine, about the Demi Monde is:  Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth century by Katie Hickman.

There is a very Hollywoody film, 'That Hamilton Woman', made in 1941, I think the time is ripe for a new film, I wonder who would play the lead roles?

Text source for Lady Emma Hamilton from Wikipedia.


  1. A fascinating history - I knew parts of it, but not all. Vanity Fair I read both before and after seeing the movie. I've tried to reread the classics as an adult, with some success. I haven't reread them all, but our perspective is much different than when we read them in high school.

  2. Thank you Dash for the petite histoire - really interesting. I didn't know half those things about Emma Hamilton and am really intrigued by the Demi Monde.

    I'm cross with myself for spotting that Vanity Fair was on last night. I love all those sort of films, I might have to find the dvd. I recently reread Jane Eyre and then watched the BBC film with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. I thought it was very good and followed the book well. think about who would play the leading roles in "That Hamilton Woman" (just love that title) sounds so 1940's)...will have to put my thinking cap on...

  3. Dash, now late for work after not being able to take my eyes off the computer screen...just had to finish reading your piece:) It was wonderful to have the Emma Hamilton story fleshed out so well. Most of us of course only scratch the surface in our knowledge of've provided several more really interesting layers. Thank you..only a little bit behind time, but must fly!!

  4. That was fascinating, thank you! Vanity Fair is one of my favourite books. I hope you get to read it too. Becky is such a gorgeous character and now I'm going to hunt out the book about Lady Emma Hamilton.

  5. i love watching and reading about this period in history.... especially the lives of the women. the lady hamilton certainly had an interesting life. she was a survivor.
    o and, your road trip thru the mountains looks amazing too btw.


  6. It is definitely time for a new movie! Love, war, sex, class struggles.. it has everything!
    Thanks for this Dash. I love Vanity Fair but had never heard of Lady Hamilton. I'm putting that book on my wish list too :-)

  7. How interesting! Thank you Dash for that fascinating story.

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  9. You wrote that so well, Dash and it was absolutely fascinating. So she had a weight problem too? I never knew that.

    I know exactly what you mean about seeing a realisation of a book you either love or have yet to read. Once you have an actor's image installed it is there for ever. I knew P&P very well before I ever saw CF as Darcy, but his is still the image I conjure up now when I re-read it.

    I loved this post - more please on other demi-mondes.

  10. Hi Dash
    Well you have certainly added some new items to my reading list.. I have seen the film Vanity Fair a few times.. visually it is absolutely stunning and I very much enjoyed that aspect of the film... the second time I watched it I found the story a little depressing... but... I guess it depends on one's mood during viewing... she was certainly someone who could pick herself up.. dust herself off and get on with it.... I love the paintings by George Romney... Is your profile pic one of his also?????

    Well I think I may have missed a post of yours.. I've not been blogging much this week... falling behind in the world of blogging.. Hope you continued your birthday celebrations all week xxx Julie

  11. Goethe about Hamilton and Emma:
    "Sir William Hamilton, who still resides here as ambassador from
    England, has at length, after his long love of art, and long
    study, discovered the most perfect of admirers of nature and
    art in a beautiftul young woman. She lives with him : an
    English woman of about twenty years old. She is very
    handsome, and of a beautiful figure.(..)
    He thinks he can discern in her a resemblance to all the most famous antiques, all the beautiful profiles on the Sicilian coins — aye, of the Apollo Belvedere itself."

  12. "The Chevalier Hamilton so long resident here as English Ambassador, so long too connoisseur and student of Art and Nature, has found their counterpart and acme with exquisite delight in a lovely girl, English, and some twenty years of age. She is exceedingly beautiful and finely built. She wears a Greek garb becoming her to perfection. She then merely loosens her locks takes a pair of shawls, and effects changes of postures, moods, gestures, mien, and appearance that make one really feel as if one were in some dream. Here is visible complete and bodied forth in movements of surprising variety, all that so many artists have sought in vain to fix and render. Successively standing, kneeling, seated, reclining, grave, sad, sportive, teasing, abandoned, penitent, alluring, threatening, agonised. One follows the other and grows out of it. She knows how to choose and shift the simple folds of her single kerchief for every expression, and to adjust it into a hundred kinds of headgear. Her elderly knight holds the torches for her performance, and is absorbed in his soul’s desire,,,"


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