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England's Mistress    by Kate Williams order for
England's Mistress
by Kate Williams
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

Born into devastating poverty in England in the late 1700s as Amy Lyon, Emma Hamilton worked in domestic service between the ages of ten and twelve. Not lasting long at that drudgery, from twelve to fourteen, Emma lived the life of a prostitute. Catching the eye of Lord Greville Hamilton, she became a courtesan and entered a new phase of her life.

The favorite of artists because of her extraordinary beauty, her portrait was sought by royals and the public alike. Her skill at striking poses for classical paintings made her much sought after and so delighted her. Becoming a mother to a child she was not permitted to raise always was a dark spot in her life, even as she rose to eminence as Lady Hamilton, wife of Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the court of Naples. This was a long road she traveled to become the belle of England's elite. Hard work and a desire to please helped her to rise to the position she wanted in life.

Her ability to entertain (mastered through years of dance and music lessons) caught the eye of Lord Horatio Nelson, Admiral of the British Navy. With the grudging tacit assent of her husband William, Emma launched an affair that enabled her to ride on Nelson's coattails to become one of the glitterati of her times.

What is more fascinating to me, reading of Lady Hamilton, is the realization of how quickly author Kate Williams thrusts the reader into Emma's life, and the ease with which we follow her triumphs and despairs, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of London and Naples of that time. Williams' four years of archival research and the use of hundreds of previously undiscovered letters and documents allowed her to accurately portray the woman who was once the belle of the drawing room.

Williams has published widely in books and journals and appears regularly on Channel 4 as an historical expert and presenter. England's Mistress is her first book. She presents Emma as a determined woman with a very soft heart, and a burning passion for life that comes across on every page. Much maligned for her lifestyle, she held her head high and romanced the court and the public with her talents and sympathy for those less fortunate than she.

England's Mistress also shines a spotlight on the plight of women at that time and their dependence on men to just eke out an existence. We have come a far piece, but aren't there quite yet. This is a wonderful book.

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