The Divine Lady

by E. Barrington. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc. 1924. 8vo. viii+417 pp. $2.50.
THE last few years have seen a marked increase in the popularity of historical and semihistorical romances. If this, as many think, can be ascribed to the influence of the films, it will cover a multitude of their sins. From a great ‘screen spectacle’ with an historical background to Sabatini’s tales is but a step; the taste which applauds one is bound to enjoy the other. From Sabatini to Buchan, Strachey, and Gamaliel Bradford is, perhaps, a wider gap, but we venture to think that it has already been bridged and that the general reader is already convinced that history contains fully as much romance as fiction.
It has been well said that ‘the eighteenth century was unkind to nature.’ This may help to explain the tragic and ever-appealing story of Emma Hamilton, perhaps the most perfect example of a child of nature that eighteenth-century England produced. Had she lived two centuries earlier, one is tempted to think that Fate would have used her differently; yet in no other age would her star have shone so brightly. The sordid elements in her history on the one hand and unreasoning worship on the other have obscured the true character of this remarkable woman until she has become almost as much of a problem as Lucrezia Borgia. To date her best biographies have been ‘ the lovely portraits Romney left of his Divine Lady’; in Mr. Barrington’s charming sketch we have an equally valuable supplement.
Mr. Barrington takes up her story after the most sordid part of her life was over, and he ends it with the death of Nelson when, with nothing more to live for, the worst side of her still uncivilized nature burst through the barriers which even the careful schooling of the polished Charles Greville could not make permanent. The delicacy and the sympathy with which the tale is told give it high place as a work of art not unworthy of its subject; psychologically and historically, it appears to be the best evaluation of Lady Hamilton which has thus far appeared. Some of her evil influences are, indeed, glossed over: for example, one finds no mention of the effect of her influence on poor restless, unstable Romney. It can hardly have been wholly beneficial, however much happiness it may have brought him or however much inspiration she may have supplied to his fitful if brilliant genius. In passing, it may be remarked that Romney, like Nelson, had a neglected and unhappy wife; but it may be too much to lay this at Emma’s crowded doorstep.
More serious, from the point of view of historical impartiality, is the minimizing of her connection with the ‘judicial murder’ of Admiral Caraccioli, which was then regarded — and has remained — a blot on the otherwise stainless official record of the ‘greatest sailor of all time.’ The Lady Emma’s feelings on the subject may be inferred from her remark to Lady Nelson when they met in London: ‘Indeed I am certain her ladyship must have rejoiced with the rest of us when she heard that such a traitor had met with his reward.’ How far she was responsible for this unfortunate affair is, of course, a disputed point, but since Nelson was completely under her influence and had already risked everything for her sake, it is hard to believe that, in ordering an execution so foreign to his conduct on other occasions, he was not carrying out her wishes.
By making Nelson and not Emma the central figure in the second half of the book, Mr. Barrington has sacrificed that biographical unity which the first half promised. But he has gained more than he has lost, for if the Divine Lady is to be appreciated at all it must be through the joy and inspiration she gave to Nelson. Greville and Hamilton and the others were, after all, only means to an end — a great end, as most of us think to-day. From the moment Nelson came into her life she ceased to exist save in him; this, if it were needed after her devotion to her mother, is proof of the essential depth of her character.
If the true mission of history be to re-create the past so that it may be understood, then Mr. Barrington has written history as well as an artistic romance. He knows his eighteenth century so well that he does not need consciously to paint in his background; we feel it in every line. And so successful is his idealization of Emma that, like him, we are inclined to admit that ‘without her inspiration, Trafalgar might not have been.’