The Nelson Touch

HORATIO NELSON by Tom Pocock. Alfred A. Knopf, $22.95.
IN ITS FIRST HUNDRED pages or so, Horatio Nelson demands a powerful interest in its subject. This biography moves along like a stately British man-of-war of the late eighteenth century: it sails right by us, making no effort to tell us why we ought to be interested in the admiral. And Nelson becomes engaging as a subject—we begin to sense him as an individual—only in the last third or so of his life, when he begins to be famous.
Nelson’s fame, which dates from the early part of the Romantic era (he died in 1805, at forty-seven), is based on the defeats he dealt to the French fleet. In a few major battles, fought over a period of years, he wiped out the very real possibility of Napoleon’s invading England. And Nelson fought at sea in the same way, novel at the time, that Napoleon fought on land: he made rapid, incautious moves that caught the enemy off guard. Nelson was incautious in his private life, too. In his mid-thirties, married yet childless, he took up with Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of William Hamilton, a British diplomat. Living and traveling together in the Mediterranean and England, Nelson, Emma, and Sir William appeared by turns courageous, wicked, and a joke. Their union provided a field day for the British press.
Pocock admires Nelson; he has written about the admiral many times before. (He was a naval correspondent in the Second World War.) But Pocoek doesn’t give much historical stature to Nelson’s feats, and Nelson doesn’t come across as a genius of military strategy. Many of his decisions feel as if they were wrong, or even botches (for example, he urged the King of Naples to attack Rome after the French had taken it). One of Nelson’s greatest victories was the Battle of the Nile, in 1798, in which the British effectively destroyed the French fleet in the Mediterranean. As Pocoek recounts it, Nelson isn’t—surprisingly—the architect of the victory, and it isn’t clear how much he had to do with his greatest triumph, at Trafalgar, where he died.
Nelson does rouse our real interest, though, and our affection, as the book progresses. The English public, perhaps in response to Napoleon, needed a hero, a valiant defender, and Nelson, who was essentially a man of unusual courage and physical daring, rose to the occasion.
The Royal Navy in the late eighteenth century was at its peak of glamour and importance. It was England’s major political tool, not to mention one of its major industries. Nelson might be seen as a man who signed up to be one of the Navy’s leading young executives and, in time, became its poet. Like Géricault, Kleist, Keats, and many other artists and writers of the period, Nelson thought a great deal about his fame and his posthumous reputation; he wanted to make his mark on the world with a single act. Pocoek doesn’t probe, and he’s never witty, but he seems scrupulously fair, and his biography comes to resemble a trustworthy documentary. You watch a real-life version of the heroes of the Romantic poets, storytellers, and painters.
Nelson himself wrote lively and forceful letters and reports. (Editors later tidied his punctuation.) There is an immediacy to his recorded conversation, too. When he talked about himself in the third person, he could be revoltingly vain, but many of his remarks make you smile. Telling Emma how much she meant to him, he capped it off with “. . . if there were more Emmas there would be more Nelsons.” When he asked Benjamin West why there weren’t more paintings of military leaders fallen in battle, West answered that it was because there were so few real-life examples, and Nelson said, “Dammit, I didn’t think of that.”
Nelson’s appearance was striking. He was painted and sculpted a great deal, and in the portraits that feel truest and most lifelike—in particular, a marvelous oil sketch by William Beechey in the National Portrait Gallery, in London— his face is at once haggard and confident. He was more youthful than most English military heroes (they were generally august and faceless personages to the English public, Pocock says). Nelson had lost his right arm in a battle —he wore the empty sleeve pinned across his chest—and, also from fighting, he had lost sight in one eye, which left it with a somewhat glazed look. He had light-colored hair and sensuous, creaselike dimples and a protruding lower lip. He was short, even by the standards of his time. And he loved medals; he liked to wear as many as he could fit on his uniform. He seems to have been alternately silly and stirring, a strutting puffball of vanity and a sensual, self-contained man of action.
LAURENCE OLIVIER says (in On Acting) that when he played Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, he went along with the moviemakers’ idea of portraying Nelson as a “gallant yet gentle” hero—not the “neurotic” he found in his own research. Pocock doesn’t give us enough information (even after the mound that’s here!) to decide what Nelson was. He had a sense of humor and irony, especially with the men who served under him and his fellow officers. Nelson was more of a teacher to his sailors than many captains were, and, in his warm understanding and grief when they suffered, he was something of a father and a lover to them too. Nelson’s politics, though, were uncomplicated and reactionary; he saw himself as Saint George, a defender of the faith (he can resemble a less shrewd Oliver North). His guiding principle might be expressed as Death to all traitors—and may all monarchies be preserved. And Nelson certainly can’t be compared to Napoleon, who, not forgetting his cruel exercises in power and vanity, was, especially in his early years, a man of vision, a hero of many parts. Napoleon wrote a romance when he was a young officer, and he identified the new political and social liberties with science, history, education, the law. In their thinking and aspirations, Napoleon and Nelson were in different leagues.
Nelson treated his wife shamefully. Fanny Nisbet had a son from a previous marriage, but she and Nelson couldn’t have a child, and Pocoek infers that the problem was Fanny’s. She was mousy, it seems, and Nelson grew impatient with and wearied by her anxiety over one thing or another in her letters to him. After Lady Hamilton came on the scene, Nelson grew colder to his wife. Essentially, he left her; he simply went to live with the Hamiltons when not at sea. On the job Nelson was genuinely fearless. Maneuvering his ships directly into the enemy’s line, spearheading the attack himself, he acted as if he literally didn’t see an enemy out there before him. But after he took up with the Hamiltons, he was, Pocock says, fearful that he’d run into Fanny, who had only egoless good will for him. He didn’t attend his father’s funeral because he was afraid of running into her.
Maybe this Nelson is the neurotic figure that Laurence Olivier found. Nelson’s involvement with the Hamiltons comes under this heading too. Perhaps because Pocock doesn’t emphasize the affair, though, it is less the funny scandal, or less revealing psychologically, than one had expected. Sir William Hamilton was the English consul to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose capital was Naples. Hamilton wrote about archaeology and was an enthusiast and collector of ancient art. He was thirty-five years older than Emma, and had been married before, to a woman he was said to have loved a great deal and who died.
Emma, the subject of a recent biography by Flora Fraser, was an actress without a stage. She posed for many English and Continental artists, who represented her as the “spirit" of this or that. In a typical picture her mouth is open and her luxuriant mass of reddish hair flies behind her with careful abandon. George Romney made some paintings of her that remain attractive pieces of sheer confectionary brushwork, but most of the pictures she posed for appear slight. They’re like First World War recruiting posters for nurses. Emma entertained guests in Naples and, later, in England, when she, Hamilton, Nelson, and their retinue were living outside London, with skits called “Attitudes.”There would be costume changes and props, and she’d strike poses.
Pocock only touches on Emma’s contemporary fame, and he does so long after she has been presented as an element in Nelson’s life. The most vivid picture we’re given of her (and of what life was like in the Nelson-Hamilton household) comes in a quote from Lord Minto, a friend. He wrote that the Hamiltons lived with Nelson at his expense, and went on: “She is in high looks, but more immense than ever. She goes on cramming Nelson with trowelfuls of flattery, which he goes on taking as quietly as a child does pap. The love she makes to him is not only ridiculous but disgusting; not only the rooms, but the whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of her and him, of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour. ...”
Nelson and Emma had a child, named Horatia. She was given the surname Thompson and lived, during the years when Nelson was alive, with a nanny in London. Nelson was crazy about her and recognized her as his child at Trafalgar. What was Sir William thinking in all this? Occasionally he felt crowded— Emma and Nelson liked to have family and friends around—and sometimes he complained. But we gather that the excitement in his life vanished when the boat taking his art treasures from Naples to England was shipwrecked and when, later, he realized that it would be politically impossible for him to return to Naples. He seems to have regarded Emma with a genial, fatherly affection and to have sincerely admired Nelson.
NELSON’S LIFE CHANGED after the Battle of the Nile. He began to live in expectation of a great fulfilling deed —and of his death—and Pocock’s dayby-day account becomes absorbing. The last chapters have the momentum of the close of a Shakespeare play. Reading A Portrait of Lord Nelson by Oliver Warner, you learn that Nelson was well read in Shakespeare; his favorite play, it seems, was Henry V. Perhaps no period was as Shakespeare-mad as the decades before and after 1800. Keats, Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Lamb, Coleridge, and many others quoted and wrote about Shakespeare as if he were the Bible, and many lived their lives as if they were characters in his plays. Wordsworth and Coleridge saw themselves as faced with Hamlet’s dilemma of how to break out of thought into action, and at least one of Lamb’s friends saw him as something of the Fool in Lear.
Hazlitt described Romeo as “Hamlet in love,”and these words suit Keats and, to a degree, Nelson, too. For different reasons, Keats and Nelson were in love with immortality, and they grew in stature as they got closer to their deaths. In Aileen Ward’s wonderful John Keats: The Making of the Poet (it was recently reissued) the final pages, which follow the twenty-five-year-old Keats to Rome, where he died of tuberculosis, are fairly overwhelming. Nelson’s end is more of a fairy tale; we don’t get the sense, as we do when we read about Keats, that we are looking at our own death.
Nelson apparently wanted to stand on deck during a battle and be an actual target—and in his own sacrifice be the inspiration for England’s victory. Although he doesn’t appear to have directly shaped government policy, or even Admiralty policy, Nelson personified the Navy—he personified England—in the period 1795 to 1805. He made it known that he hoped to “annihilate" the French fleet in a battle, and the French seem to have made their moves in direct response to his. Pocock doesn’t say that there was anything suicidal about Nelson’s end, at Trafalgar, but a reader can feel it. He led the attack with his ship, Victory, and was quite visible on deck during the battle—and he was fatally wounded within the first two hours. The naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison says that Nelson’s death was due to, if anything, foolhardiness.
Keats was a teenager during the years after Trafalgar, when Nelson in his death became even more vivid to the English than he had been in life. His loss was coupled with his great victory, and this left people with a sudden vacancy, as it they had lost a member of the family. Lamb wrote Hazlitt, “Wasn’t you sorry for Lord Nelson? I have followed him in fancy ever since l saw him walking in Pall Mall . . . looking just as a hero should look; and I have been very much cut about it indeed. He was the only pretence of a Great Man we had. Nobody is left of any name at all.”Keats could never have idolized Nelson or what he stood for. Yet Keats, who gave himself at twenty to the goal of being a significant poet—who believed right from the start that the point of being a poet was to add to the tradition of English verse—breathed the new, charged atmosphere that Nelson (and Napoleon) helped create. Keats mentions Nelson; he talks excitedly about going to see one of Nelson’s fetters. He might have seen in Nelson’s colloquial yet oddly formal and play-actory words something of his own way of talking in his letters.
Nelson is most alive as an image of a likable vanity. He expressed it best himself, in a note to Emma, written not long before Trafalgar. Nelson told about a meeting with his officers—he had just rejoined the fleet—and said, “When I came to explaining to them the Nelson touch, it was like an electric shock. Some shed tears, all approved—‘It was new — it was singular—it was simple!'”