Magazine article The Spectator

Educating Emma

Magazine article The Spectator

Educating Emma

Article excerpt

This has been a good week for Lord Nelson. Divers discovered the French fleet he wrecked during the Battle of the Nile. A female descendent of the admiral, Mrs Anna Tribe, and a male descendent of Napoleon embraced over the watery remains. Andre Deutsch is shortly publishing a book by Tom Pocock entitled Nelson's Women - as opposed to Nelson's Column, though isn't column a euphemism for something?

The aforementioned Anna Tribe is, of course, not descended from Nelson's marriage to Fanny, which was childless. Mrs Tribe's forebear was Nelson's mistress Lady Hamilton, nee Emma Hart. Presumably Mr Pocock's book features her life and oeuvre extensively.

Emma Hamilton is one of the most biographied mistresses of all time. Quite often, when a politician or a business magnifico is caught with a bit of totty, pundits start bemoaning the state of the modern courtesan. Where is her glamour, her wit, her espieglerie, her class, if you like? Why is she at best an underwear model and at worst a brainless lap-dancer?

Then we get a lot of guff about Lady Hamilton. She, after all, was the wife of Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, and an intimate of the Neapolitan Queen Maria Carolina. She spoke French and Italian and could draw. She sang opera and entertained friends with her celebrated classical poses - Diana surprised by Actaeon, Cassandra prophesying Troy's destruction, etc.

I used to subscribe to this school of thought. Oh, what a sad decline there has been in politicians - that is in their mistresses. Sarah Keays, Antonia de Sancha, Gaynor Regan; why did they lack the many-coloured allure of their phantasmal sisters? Why hadn't they done something more distinguished with their time than working as secretaries or dubious Bactresses?

But then a thought occurred to me. Most of these so-called classy women were actually pretty declassees. Emma Hamilton was a village girl who was picked up first by a local squire and then by an impoverished aristocrat, Charles Greville, who happened to be William Hamilton's nephew. Had she lived today she probably would have been a lap-dancer. Indeed, one might say she was the lap-dancer of her time. She stood naked on a pedestal in a very rum, downmarket joint called the Temple of Health, which was soon closed by the authorities. …

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