In a letter to Cassandra (8 January 1801), Jane Austen mentioned that their sister-in-law Eliza Austen had met Lord Craven at Barton, and found his manners ‘very pleasing indeed. The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him’.
Although Jane does not mention it in her surviving letters, the adulterous love affair with Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton caused a sensation even in a society which often turned a blind eye when a married man kept a mistress.
Emma’s story began in rural Cheshire. The daughter of a blacksmith, Henry Lyon, she was baptised Emily in the spring of 1765. Henry died when Emily was very young, so she was brought up by her grandmother at Hawarden (on the Welsh border) while her mother Mary went out to work.
At some point Emily changed her name to Emma Hart, and her mother took the name Mrs Cadogan; they both moved to London. According to a scurrilous, anonymous early biography, Emma found work as nursery-maid to a respectable family in Leicester Square (Memoirs of Lady Hamilton, 2nd edition, 1815).
By the early 1780s, Emma’s amazing beauty procured her a less exceptionable role at Dr Graham’s infamous Temple of Health ‘in the Centre of the Royal Terrace, Adelphi’ in London (Dr Graham, Medical transactions, 1780). Graham’s ‘Celestial Bed’ purported to help couples achieve healthy offspring. Emma was one of the exhibits. She displayed her figure draped with fine gauzes, posing as the Goddess Hygeia. (Although fencing master Henry Angelo later loyally asserted in his Reminiscences (1830) that Emma was not the female in question).
|Sir William Hamilton.|
After a brief spell as the mistress of Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh of Uppark in West Sussex, Emma was befriended by Sir Charles Greville, the Earl of Warwick’s son. She had a little girl (probably Greville’s) who was sent to Hawarden to be cared for by her great-grandmother. Greville, a parsimonious gentleman, settled down with Emma in a house on the Edgware Road. Her mother was housekeeper and kept the accounts with strict regularity. Greville allowed Emma to visit her daughter in Wales now and again, but to her grief, refused to let her stay in London.
Two years later, Emma was introduced to Greville’s uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador at the court of Naples, and a noted collector of antiques. Greville hoped to inherit his estates.
Emma loved the cold, calculating Greville with all her heart. She had no suspicion of his real motives when he suggested she and her mother visit his uncle’s residence at Naples for a holiday. Emma had a fine singing voice; she could have the benefit of the best Italian masters there.
But Greville wanted her out of his life. He was on the lookout for a respectable bride. When Emma realized that Greville had sent her to Naples to warm Sir William’s bed, she was completely heartbroken. But Sir William courted her with kindness.
Emma behaved like a woman of spirit. Reader, she married him – although it took her several years. Sir William and Emma wed at Marylebone Church on 6 September 1791. The newlyweds went to Naples, where two years later, Emma met a dashing naval Captain Horatio Nelson, commander of the Agamemnon. And the rest, as they say, is history. You can find out more about the very public love affair between Lord Nelson and Emma in my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World.
Emma, Lady Hamilton. Heroes of the British Navy, Frederick Warne & Co., c. 1900. Nigel Wilkes Collection.
The Cheshire seaside resort of Parkgate, where Emma Hart stayed in 1784. Illustration by Roger Oldham for Picturesque Cheshire, Sherratt & Hughes, 1903. Author’s collection.
Old Marylebone Church, c.1750. Emma Hart married Sir William Hamilton here on 6 September 1791; her daughter Horatia Nelson was baptised in the same church in 1803 (the present structure on Marylebone Rd dates from the following decade). Old and New London Vol. IV, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1890). Author’s collection.
Sir William Hamilton. An elderly Sir William Hamilton inspects his antiquities, all of which refer to his wife, Lady Emma Hamilton and her lover, Lord Horatio Nelson. Courtesy of Library of Congress: LC-USZC4-8796.