Before Paris and Lindsay, there was Emma
Whenever my fellow library workers have asked in the past week what I've been reading, I often get blank looks when I reply I've been reading a biography of Emma Hamilton. Yet, if one could imagine the popular tabloids of today being published two centuries ago, Hamilton would be as ubiqitous in pop culture as Britany Spears and Paris Hilton are today. Virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, Hamilton's remains notorious in Great Britain, mostly for her blatent pursuit, while married, of British naval hero Admiral Nelson. In fact she is still such a well-known figure in Britain that she pops up in strange places (fans of Jasper Fforde's series might recall her brief fling with Hamlet in the Thursday Next novel Something Rotten).
Kate Williams' biography, England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, presents a sympathetic portrait of Hamilton. Playing up her influence on culture and politics as much as her romantic adventures, Williams skillfully captures Hamilton's rise from coal mining Lancashire to her arrival in London, her job as a maidservant and her eventual climb to the highest levels of the aristocracy. But it is in the lively portrait of late 18th and early 19th century English society that Williams succeeds at best. Her depiction of the London Hamilton navigated is filled with quack doctors plying their trade, artists searching for the next great face to present to patrons, and actresses and prostitutes dreaming of riches and a better life.
Hamilton was able to achieve her dream of wealth (or at least the illusion of riches) but never security. There's a sense of the inevitable with her story, but in Williams's telling it's the story of a life lived in full.