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September 11, 2006

What makes Great Lives: Emma Hamilton - Julie Peakman

Posted by Jeremy Black

Emma Hamilton
by Julie Peakman
Haus Publishing, 2005
Paperback, 10.99

The "Life and Times" series, of the publisher Haus, provides interesting guidance on those who are thought sellable. Alongside Alexander the Great, Bach, Beethoven, Caravaggio, Curie, Einstein, and Kafka, we have books on, for example, Bette Davis, Bevan, Roger Casement, Mosley, Welles and Wilde.

Eighteenth-century Britain is represented by Samuel Johnson and Emma Hamilton. This is a curious choice and one that Peakman's book fails to justify. Instead, we have a bright and breezy tale, energetic in tone, but one that is very familiar through the work of other scholars. Peakman argues the case for her subject's importance and pathos, and makes some instructive comments about the contemporary role and reputation of women, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples providing a helpful foil for her subject, of whom a lover wrote:

Emma's passion is admiration [she] is capable of aspiring to any line which would be celebrated.

Unfortunately, the small size of the pages in the book ensures that the page-length provides little guidance to what is on offer. Peakman has made good use of the Hamilton material in the British Library, and has also used manuscript sources in the National Maritime Museum, but, as she notes, there is no shortage of Emma biographies.

It is also useful to see the list of relevant novels and films. Peakman's perspective on Nelson is instructive - though more on the making of the latter's reputation has lately emerged from Laurence Brockliss et al Nelson's Surgeon (Oxford, 2005), a work that also, in part, covers Nelson's bequest regarding Emma.

Independent, or at least independent-minded, women have of late provided a fruitful topic for work, and some of the scholarship, such as Janet Todd's on Mary Wollstonecraft, has been first-rate. Other works bring forward useful information, such as the fate of sensitive documents discussed in Valerie Irvine's The King's Wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert (Hambledon, 2005).

Yet, as in biographies of men, there is a general tendency to exaggerate the role of the protagonist. This is seen in Peakman, Irvine and, indeed, Amanda Foreman's commercially very-successful, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998), which appears to have set the tone or, at least market, for much that has followed. While a profitable synergy links publicity and authorship in pursuing the careers of prominent eighteenth-century women, we can expect more work of this type. As with biographies of men, it is preferable if authors offer new insights or sources, but expect claims about either of them to be more prominent in the blurbs of books than in their contents.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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