EMMA, Lady Hamilton, the ‘Divine Lady’ of Romney; Horatio, Lord Nelson, perhaps the greatest naval officer the world has ever known; Lady Nelson, the gray shadow that so pathetically hovered in the background of this strangely colorful tragedy; and Sir William Hamilton, soldier, diplomat, scientist, and collector of art and antiquities — was ever there such a quadrangle in which love, romance, and tragedy played their part?
Of Emma Hamilton much has been written; and portraits by Romney, Gainsborough, Lawrence, and other masters of their time have immortalized her glorious beauty. In the crypt beneath the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral lies all that is mortal of Nelson, but his memory is imperishable so long as England endures or history serves mankind. There are a few gracious tributes to Lady Nelson, for her pitiful nonentity has inspired sympathy. But too little has been written of that fourth actor in this turbulent drama, the husband of Emma, the friend of Nelson — Sir William Hamilton.
I should like to imagine the meeting of Emma and Sir William, as it well may have occurred in the little house of the Honorable Charles Greville, in Edgware Row, Paddington. Emma was nineteen, but in those few years had been crowded a lifetime of misery and bitter experience. Betrayed and a mother, the girl with her fatherless child had sought out Greville, a young man, well-bred but impecunious, goodlooking but. inwardly as cold as the legal profession which he followed. In the unhappy girl he had found, not only a conscientious housekeeper and an adoring and grateful mistress, but a brain so alert and receptive that he had discovered a keen delight in its cultivation and in inculcating on her the accomplishments and refinements which were inherent in himself.
It was spring, and sunshine filtered through the green of trees, down through the small-paned windows of the little drawing-room. Beyond the windows could be seen patches of clear blue sky above Paddington Green and the columned cupola of the church; for Edgware Row, now clouded with the smoke of London and echoing to the rumble of buses, was in 1784 beyond the town, a pleasant place of green and sky. Above the mantel hung a Venus by Correggio, and between the windows was a cabinet containing a collection of shells, crystals, and minerals, for Greville, like his distinguished uncle, Sir William, was in his small way a patron of art and science.
The Right Honorable Sir William Hamilton, K. C. B., English ambassador at Naples, had but recently returned from Italy. He was fifty-two years old, with a fine lean face and the lithe body of a horseman; a youngishlooking gentleman with the charm of a man of letters and the ease and grace of a courtier. Two years before, he had come to London to bury the first Lady Hamilton. They had been married for twenty-five years. It had been a relatively happy marriage, for Lady Hamilton, a woman of devout religious faith, idolized her husband. Yet there seems to have been little of the finer fervor on his side, if we may take an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Greville: —
‘You have been acquainted with beauty enough to know that that alone cannot afford lasting happiness. A disagreeable rich devil, the devil himself could not have tempted me to marry, but I have really found a lasting comfort in having married (something against my inclination) a virtuous, good-tempered woman, with a little independent fortune, to which we could fly should all other dependencies fail, and live decently without being obliged to anyone.’
It is interesting to consider this philosophy in the light of what was to come. There were no children.
Doubtless before this morning Greville had explained to his uncle his predicament. He was not tired of Emma, but the expense, little as it was, of the establishment had become burdensome, and particularly it was time that he should marry. He had in mind the second daughter of a lord, with twenty thousand pounds. But Emma stood in the path of his ambition. And furthermore, if his childless, widowed uncle should remarry, Greville, his heir, would suffer the inevitable consequences. The solution seemed obvious.
She ran into the room and stopped abruptly as her wide gray eyes caught sight of the tall, distinguished man who stood there. She wore a white dress with a wide blue sash, and the hat of yellow straw was tied beneath her chin with a blue ribbon. Her forehead was broad and low, her mouth ‘beautiful and uncommon’; her hair, which when unbound fell to her heels, was a warm auburn. A locket of it lies on the table beside me as I write, and the glint still lingers in its soft fineness. On the folded paper that encloses it is written ‘To my dear, dear Sir William.’ The date is two years later than the day on which they met. She was then twenty-one. Almost a hundred and fifty years ago. So they met, and it was not long before the elderly ambassador succumbed to her girlish charms. Trusting, and strangely innocent for one who had already felt the sharp edge of life, she fell a ready victim to Greviile’s plans. Never again would she see the little house where she had felt peace and security. The Italian visit became a reality.
She loved Greville. Never in her life save once was she unfaithful in her loves. And when the trap was sprung and she found herself in Naples, a ‘guest’ in the house of Sir William, and realized that Greville would not return for her, although he had promised, her love for him turned for a time almost to hatred, and instinctively she began to appreciate the considerate gentleness of the man who had tricked her but now befriended her.
In Naples the ambassador of England lived royally; the young captain of infantry had prospered with the passing years. In addition to the small fortune he had inherited from his wife, he had received other bequests of considerable proportions. He was now a gentleman of fortune, and he dispensed it with lavish hand. Living for years in the glittering diplomatic circles of his age, he had become interested in a wide variety of subjects. His ready ear was trained in musical appreciation. He was a capital shot and an excellent horseman. In art and archæology he was an authority, and his collections of paintings and Etruscan vases were widely known. Moreover, he had written and published volumes that may be seen to-day, on early Italian pottery and on his investigations of volcanoes. Since he combined these many pursuits with a natural inclination to gallantry and an immediate popularity among all who met him, it is small wonder that there is little mention of his diplomatic achievements until Emma inspired him to effort. Nor is it surprising that the girl of twenty-two, with no inherent inhibitions, should surrender to her cavalier.
For three years Emma lived under the roof of Sir William in a relationship that only those more liberal times and particularly the loose morality of the Neapolitan court would tolerate. In 1791, Emma and Sir William Hamilton were married. She was twenty-eight; he was sixty-one. As her rich and passionate nature had made possible an adoring fidelity to Greville, so now she gave a more mature but equally loyal devotion to her husband. To Sir William the end of a long and picturesque career was at hand; life itself was nearing the end. But in the companionship of a young and beautiful woman he thrust back the years and lived a young husband to his wife.
Often, I imagine, he planned for that final chapter so near at hand. A time would come when, freed from the duties of diplomatic life, he would retire to live within his ample means in some quiet place in the English countryside; to fish, to dream, to see a few friends, and to sun himself in the warm presence of his youthful wife. Kindly, trusting, and sentimental, such must have been the thoughts that sometimes came to him as he rode beside his friend, the King of Naples, or watched his wife in the graceful performance of her celebrated ‘attitudes.’ Perhaps her letters when he was hunting with the King at Persano assured him of her unwavering loyalty. Her hand is now more experienced with the pen; it is a good hand; and the large sheets of crisp blue paper are filled with the wellspaced lines. ‘ I am sorry you had bad sport,’ she writes, ‘and I shall be most happy to see you at home, to warm you with my kisses, and comfort you with my smiles and good humor, and oblige you by my attentions, which will be the constant pleasure of, my dear Sir William, your affectionate Emma.’
Then came Nelson. A first meeting some years before had been brief and apparently left little impression. To Emma her husband wrote: ‘The Captain I am about to introduce you to is a little man and far from handsome, but he will live to be a great man.’ Now from his victory over Bonaparte’s fleet at the Nile he returned to Naples. He was a hero, the savior of Naples, and he was weak and wounded. In a lengthy four-page letter Sir William sent his congratulations. ‘You may well conceive, My dear Sir,’ he wrote in part, ‘how happy Emma and I are in the reflection that it is you, Nelson, our bosom friend, that has done such wondrous good in having humbled these proud robbers and vain boasters.’ Nelson was weak with wounds and fever. In the house of Sir William he found adulation and the tender ministering hands of a lovely woman. Admiral Horatio Nelson was thirty-nine, Emma was thirty-five, and Sir William had passed sixty-eight.
To the old Englishman the hero of the Nile appeared no less glorious than to the impressionable Emma. Not only had his destruction of the French fleet given temporary security to Naples, but it had added to England’s long list of victories over her eternal enemy, France, another of the greatest magnitude. Gladly Sir William opened his house to England’s hero. Brief was the visit, but in those few tense days two relationships began to take definite direction: between Emma and Horatio Nelson was begun that more than friendship which was to endure until Trafalgar, and between Sir William Hamilton and Nelson was now firmly established that friendship which, on Sir William’s side at least, remained loyal and unwavering to the moment of his death.
On Sir William’s Order of the Bath are the words Tria juncta in uno, and as one inseparable the three seemed destined from now on to appear. On the flight of the Neapolitan King and Queen to Palermo it was Nelson’s ship that transported the Hamiltons. How much his infatuation influenced the hero of the Nile to focus his activities on the affairs of Naples will never be known. At least there has never been question of the sincerity of his action. At Palermo, Nelson and the Hamiltons shared a house together, and Nelson paid his full part of the expenses. To the aging diplomat I believe there had come as yet no suspicion of the ripening interest between these two people whom he held most dear. Bred in a school, in which he himself had been an apt pupil, where suspicion was ever more reasonable than confidence, he seems to have been blind to what passed on before his eyes. With each day his regard for Nelson deepened, nor was there any lessening of his open devotion to his wife.
The Neapolitan drama ended with Sir William’s recall to London, and together the Hamiltons and Nelson made a triumphal progress through Europe to England. In England the ovation was tremendous, and from Yarmouth to London it was a triumphal progress. On a Sunday morning the three entered London. In the carriage were Nelson, Emma, and the aging lord. Emotionally aroused by the reception to the country’s hero, from which his young wife caught reflected lustre, the old man basked in their effulgence. What if there were ill-mannered rumors? Let his very presence and his open affection for Nelson confound them. And if there might be some truth in this hint of scandal? Perhaps; but he was old — an old and tired man who would be at peace with the world. Emma and Nelson were young. With the weighed evaluation of the diplomat he dismissed the thought and closed his weary eyes.
At Nero’s hotel met Nelson and his wife. Rumor had doubtless reached her of the young and beautiful wife of Lord Hamilton and her Nelson fervor. Stories were revived of Emma’s earlier life. The prim, dutiful, unemotional, and uninspiring woman looked through cold eyes. She did not close them to what she saw. There were a few meetings; brief notes followed. Then all between man and wife was over. She did not surrender to her victorious rival; with the dignity of her birth and breeding she withdrew from a situation become intolerable.
That London refused to accept Emma seems to have been less disconcerting to Lord Hamilton than to Nelson. To the older man the peace of the country beckoned. But for a while yet the three tarried in London, and there in the Hamilton-Nelson house at 23 Piccadilly, while Nelson was again at sea, was born to Lady Hamilton a daughter, Horatia. Closed, indeed, and now consciously, must have been the eyes of the old man, although Emma played her part boldly and well. More and more strongly the country with its fields and streams called to him; there he might find the peace that he desired. Were he to open those closed eyes he would find himself alone; better to act the shield to his wife’s virtue and the honor of his friend. At sea Nelson received the news of his parenthood with joy.
‘Out of your house I have no home,’ wrote Nelson to Emma. Now a new and glorious victory, the battle of Copenhagen, was emblazoned on his shield. He returned to provide a home for the Hamiltons. At Merton Emma had found the haven of her husband’s desire and a home that would be Nelson’s own. The expenses were jointly shared by Nelson and Hamilton. On the week’s statement which is before me such items as these occur, under the dates October 4 to 11, 1802: —
|Mr. Haines, poulterer||£7||9s.||6d.|
|Mrs. Perry, pastry cook||£17||10s.||9d.|
|Mr. Greenfield, butcher at Merton||£8||12s.||10d.|
|Mr. Footlit, for malt, hops, etc.||£18||15s.|
|Mr. Stone, brandy merchant||£13||1s.|
The total for these and other items for the week’s expenses is £111 13s. 4d.
Perhaps there was not the rustic simplicity that Hamilton craved. Before Nelson returned, and while Emma was still preparing the house, Hamilton wrote to him: ‘I know her merit, have a great opinion of the head and heart God Almighty has been pleased to give her, but a seaman alone could have given a fine woman full power to choose and fit up a residence for him without seeing it himself.’ There is kindly intimation here of extravagance soon to follow; but more striking is the candor of the simple words. The eyes were closed, but not the lips.
Only a few months of life remained. ‘I am arrived at the age,’ wrote Hamilton, ‘when some repose is really necessary, and I promised myself a quiet home, and although I was sensible, and I said so when I married, that I should be superannuated when my wife would be in her full beauty and vigor of youth; that time is arrived; and we must make the best of it for the comfort of both parties.’ And to her he writes: ‘I know and admire your talents and many excellent qualities, but I am not blind to your defects, and confess having many myself; therefore, let us bear and forbear, for God’s sake.’
Here in pleasant Merton, with its trees, a brook, the shade of arbors, and a spacious house, the failing man should have found the peace he sought at how great a price. His wife’s expenditures brought forth no criticism; it was her restless energy that now fatigued him. They had gone to the seashore in the heat of summer, and, wearied by the crowds, he had pleaded with her to return to the solitude of Merton. On a bit of paper in her great scrawling characters she wrote: —
‘As I see it is a pain to you to remain here, let me beg of you to fix your time for going. Weather I dye in Piccadilly or any other spot in England ’t is the same to me but I remember the time when you wished for tranquillity but now all visiting and bustle is your liking. However, I will do what you please, being ever your affectionate and obedient E. H.’
On the back of the page, in his now fluttering hand, he answered: —
’I neither love bustle nor great company, but I like some employment and diversion. I have but a very short time to live and every moment is precious to me. I am in no hurry and am exceedingly glad to give every satisfaction to our best friend, our Dear Lord Nelson. The question then is what we can best do that all may be perfectly satisfied. Sea bathing is useful to your health; I see it is and wish you to continue it a little longer, but I must confess that I regret whilst the season is favourable that I cannot enjoy my favourite amusement of quiet fishing. I care not a pin for the great world and am attached to no one as much as to you. W. H.’
And with a woman’s final word she came back at him again: ‘I go when you tell me the coach is ready.’ And he replied: ‘This is not a fair answer to a fair confession of mine.’
For a year he enjoyed the rural peace; but his strength was fast failing him. Blind apparently in word and deed to his wife’s deceptions, he preserved to the end his loyalty to his friend. From a letter of Lord Nelson, written on April 6, 1808, I quote: ‘Our dear Sir William died at 10 minutes past Ten this morning in Lady Hamilton’s and my arms without a sigh or struggle. . . . ’ And in her hand may be read: ‘April 6. Unhappy day for the forlorn Emma. Ten minutes past ten dear blessed Sir William left me.’
Sir William was buried by the side of his first wife, and, until the day of Trafalgar, Nelson and Lady Hamilton lived on at Merton. Then on that memorable morning died Nelson; and Emma and the little Horatia were alone in a world that turned a shoulder coldly and looked away. A few tragic years of debt and poverty, and then the end in a lonely garret in Calais, France. Only the pathetic child to survive this mad wreck of human destinies.