Review: Kate Williams's "England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton"

Posted: November 1, 2006 in Book Reviews

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England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Lady Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams

Not every historical biography is as compulsively readable as this. If they were a lot of school children would be much more happy.

Many biographies claim to be as compelling and fascinating to read as novels, but I can’t recall a single other biography I’ve read that’s lived up to that very big claim. Kate Williams manages to strike the perfect tone between the feel of fiction prose and an informative and engaging history lesson. She grabs the reader immediately, partly due to the fact her subject is, to put it mildly, an interesting figure. But it’s more than that. Williams writes in such an approachable style, and it’s probably what I’d consider the absolute perfect style for writing a historical biography. There are no places interest flags in this book, so perfectly has Williams paced the material. From start to finish it’s as gripping to read as the best literary novels, and it’s made all the more fascinating knowing every word of it is true.

As for Lady Emma Hamilton herself, what a woman! Whether you think her bold and courageous or a gold-digging tramp, you have to give the lady credit for having her wits about her. She reminds me of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, though Moll never hit the big time the way Emma did. Moll was crafty, it’s true, but lacking the stunning beauty and obvious and unflagging street smarts of Emma. As far as fictional characters go, though, I think Moll would be as near the mark as they come.

What an amazing cast of real-life historical characters pepper this book. Not really knowing much of the hard history behind Lady Emma’s life, I didn’t realize her relationship with Admiral Nelson beforehand. That very likely made me even more riveted to the book, but I can’t imagine any fiction being any more compelling than the truth of this woman’s life. What a lot of cheek, on the one hand, but what a brilliant use of her resources, too. And I DO mean all her resources…

Whether you end up loving or reviling the woman, it’s inarguable that she was hugely influential in 18th century society. How much she actually did help write history could be debated, but I’d personally be willing to bet her imprint was vastly influential. After all, the woman had the ear of so many of the elite, not to mention the heart of the national hero. Her moral scruples may not have been enviable, but her cunning is something if not to admire, at least to acknowledge as being very much out of the ordinary. However you feel about Lady Emma going into the book, by the time you’re done you’ll have had such a good history lesson, and an entertaining one at that, you’ll ultimately know how you stand on the issue. Kate Williams presents all the facts without prejudice, and with such a flair, there will be no lukewarm reaction.

I can’t imagine anyone who loves to read well-written historical prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, wouldn’t find something in this book. Whether your genre is fiction, biography or history this book fits the bill. It’s simply one of the most impressive, and satisfying, first efforts I’ve ever seen, and I can only hope Kate Williams is working on a follow-up book.

It’s been a while since I’ve been this smitten with a work of biography, and I came away with so much more knowledge on the 18th century, a topic I already thought I knew a bit about having spent a good deal of time reading the fiction of that period, and also a burning desire to read everything else that’s out there on the topic of Lady Emma Hamilton. However, whatever else I do wind up reading I know I’ll consider Williams’ work the benchmark by which I judge the sheer readability of the other works. The simple fact is, a book’s readability determines its appeal, and judged by this England’s Mistress is one of the absolute best works of biography I have ever read.

Well done, Kate Williams!

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Author and Historian Kate Williams

Kate Williams’s website

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