Sunday, February 03, 2008

Bad Girls Have Daughters, Too

I've just finished reading Too Great A Lady, Amanda Elyot's historical novel that details the life of Lady Emma Hamilton as if she's writing her own memoir a year before her death in 1815. I have mixed feelings about the book. It reads a bit like a Harlequin novel, with lots of busted corset stays and heaving desire, but by the end of the story, when Admiral Lord Nelson dies aboard the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, it had me blubbing like a schoolgirl.

I don't want to talk too much about English history's greatest love affair ever, because it's already been done to death by many writers, including me in this blog post. Though I have to admit, I'm so fascinated by Lady Hamilton, a classic bad girl, that the next book on my reading list is Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover, another novelization of Emma's life, which I'm sure will be a more literary affair than Elyot's book.

What interests me now is Lady Hamilton's daughter, Horatia Nelson, who never forgave her mother for being who she was.

Here's England's greatest love story ever told from the illegitimate daughter's point of view:

Horatia was born in January 1801 and lived until the age of almost five with her father, Horatio Nelson, the heroic and publicly adored commander of the Royal Navy who had won the Battle of the Nile. She was never told who her mother was, and after a time, Horatia actively sought not to learn who her mother was.

Those first few years were strange yet idyllic. Horatia and her father lived on his 110-acre country estate with a married couple, Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton, who was constantly throwing lavish parties. Mrs. Hamilton didn't sleep with her aged husband, but she did seem to spend an awful lot of time with Admiral Nelson, giving him baths and helping him dress because he had only the one arm after losing the other one in battle. When Sir William died in 1801, the widow Hamilton kept coming round to pay increasingly unseemly visits to the admiral.

Admiral Nelson died in 1805, and Horatia's life took a bad turn. The widow kept insisting that Horatio wanted her to be Horatia's sole guardian. Which meant that when Lady Hamilton went bankrupt , she dragged Horatia along with her when she got sent to debtors' prison. And once she got out of prison, she dragged Horatia off to France to escape her creditors, when all Horatia wanted to do was live with her aunt and cousins in the English countryside.

Lady Hamilton, with all her grand pretensions, spent money she didn't have for Horatia's studies in foreign languages, drama and the dance. The widow arranged for the girl's portrait to be painted as a joyful Bacchante, just as she had done when young.

Here's Horatia as a Bacchante:
And here's Lady Hamilton:

A Bacchante is a priestess or female votary of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine and of an orgiastic religion celebrating the power and fertility of nature. Horatia never wanted to be a Bacchante.

Worse, when drunk and dramatic as usual, Lady Hamilton would make dark and brooding statements to the effect that she was Horatia's only true mother, and that if Horatia wasn't careful she would fall into the same life of sin that Lady Hamilton had fallen into. It was a blessing, really, when the widow died of alcoholism-related liver disease in 1815, even though Horatia was only 14 at the time and had to look after the body all by herself in France until it could be buried.

When finally freed from Lady Hamilton's clutches, Horatia ran as fast as she could to the bosom of the Nelson family, who arranged for her marriage to the Reverend Philip Ward just after her 21st birthday in February 1822 at Burnham Westgate Church, near her father’s home village in north Norfolk. Horatia and the vicar had eight unquestionably legitimate children together and led an exceedingly private life.

Till she breathed her last breath in 1881 at the age of 80, Horatia Nelson denied that Lady Emma Hamilton could ever have been her mother.

I recently found a photograph of Horatia Nelson. It's not a very good image, but it does give a solid impression of her preferred look in adulthood. Clearly, dancing as a Bacchante was not Horatia's idea. It was the woman who wasn't her mother's.


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