England's Mistress, by Kate Williams

From prostitute to national celebrity: how Emma Hamilton made good
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The Independent Culture

It is the thoroughness of the research and attention to detail that make Kate Williams' new biography of Emma Hamilton so interesting. The iconic Emma has been continuously reimagined since her lover Nelson's death, but Williams offers a new portrait. In dogged archival work, the author discovered letters by Hamilton unused by other biographers; she also got behind the heavily edited Victorian edition of Emma's known letters, returning to the originals to uncover the raciest excised bits.

There's also a section on the 19th-century view of Hamilton, including what might be allusions in Jane Austen's novels (Jane's brother Frank was one of Nelson's captains).

The book looks at Emma's childhood in the mining areas of the Wirral and Chester, and her adolescence as a servant in London. Vivid details of the daily lives of servants bring this least-known part of her story to life. After staying out all night at Bartholomew Fair, Emma was sacked and forced into the seedier side of London. Refreshingly, Williams avoids the usual prurient treatment of famous women with murky pasts, and plays down the importance of Emma's brief time as a prostitute. As an 18th-century woman from lower-class origins, Emma's body was her only asset. Through working at Madame Kelly's brothel, she gained access to aristocratic men. Yet it's a paradox that her most high-profile affair, with Nelson, seems to have been based on real love.

This is a sympathetic portrait: a contemporary take on Emma Hamilton as an ambitious, self-promoting, media-savvy celebrity, who came to life only with male attention and the public spotlight. Like many celebrities, she talks about herself in the third person: "Am I Emma Hamilton? It seems impossible", she wrote after marrying the scholar-diplomat Sir William Hamilton in 1791. Sharing some of Marilyn Monroe's characteristics, she was superficial, beautiful, attention-seeking, socially insecure and fascinating.

She also had an aptitude for the shape-shifting self-invention of Madonna, transforming herself from serving girl into glamorous, exotic dancer ("the Goddess of Health"), artists' muse, society hostess, and, finally, into the controversial mistress of England's hero, and mother of his child, Horatia. The great-great-great-granddaughter of Horatia found one of Emma's gowns in her dressing-up box. Likewise, we need to keep trying on Emma's story as a way of looking at her again, and seeing how she fits.