Fawning over Flora
A few weeks ago, I had the incandescent pleasure of being present at the opening of an exhibit of Emma Hamilton memorabilia at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library on the autumn leaf-strewn campus of the University of Pennsylvania. I tried to convince people that I was just in Philadelphia for the cheese steaks, but they knew better.
Although I had only heard about the event a few days earlier, with the help of my terrific publicist at NAL (who I just found out is leaving there today--isn't that the way it always happens?), I let them know that I am the author of TOO GREAT A LADY: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma Lady Hamilton, a current release and the only work of historical fiction written in decades on Emma-- and that I would be delighted to attend the exhibit. I promised the hoydens I would let everyone know about the experience.
Art collector Jean Kislak and novelist Amanda Elyot
On display, supplemented by items from the University of Pennsylvania's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, was the private collection of Jean Kislak, an art collector and Emma Hamilton aficionado. Lining two long walls were portraits of Emma (including a couple of Romneys, one of which I would have loved to have grabbed for my home office wall) as well as one of the famous portraits of her lover Charles Greville, numerous documents including letters and ledger books, correspondence to and from Emma, her husband Sir William Hamilton, and her lover, Lord Nelson. It was enough to make an Emma idolizer like me tremble and tear up.
The head of the library asked me to stand up, introduced me, and told everyone that if he'd known sooner about me and TOO GREAT A LADY, I would have been added to the program
But the real guests of honor were Ms. Kislak and the noted historical biographer Flora Fraser, whose biography of Emma Hamilton, BELOVED EMMA, first published in 1986, is, in my opinion, the definitive nonfiction account of Emma Hamilton's life. Ms. Fraser's book was a valuable research asset as I was writing TOO GREAT A LADY. Now, I would get the opportunity to tell her how much I appreciated her book, present her with a signed copy of my novel, and ask her to autograph the copy of her book that I had dog-eared and highlighted, hoping that I wouldn't appear like too much of a groupie.
But Ms. Fraser was graciousness itself. And it was a treat to have the chance to talk with her about a woman we both admired so much.
After wine and nibblies (no cheese steaks), Ms. Fraser and Ms. Kislak spoke to the dozens of people who had gathered to see the exhibit about Emma's life and how Ms. Kislak came to acquire her collection of rare "Emma-rabilia" (I just coined that this second on less than a full night's sleep, so please don't groan too loudly). Ms. Fraser gave a quick summary of Emma's biography, also referring to certain incidents in Emma's life, particularly during her youth, that may or may not actually have taken place.
After the talk, I briefly spoke with Ms. Fraser and brought up one of those did-it-happen-or-not incidents she had referred to: the fifteen-year-old Emma dancing naked on the tabletop of her lover, Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh. I loved the possibility that this might have happened and it became one of my favorite scenes in TOO GREAT A LADY, relishing one of the joys of being a novelist--that we get to play with the "what-ifs." Secretly, I hoped that she would read my novel and not mentally "downgrade" me for doing just that--filling in the gaps and imagining what might have taken place within the framework of historical accuracy.
I wish I'd had more time that evening to view the exhibit because I could have spent hours examining the treasures enclosed within each case. There were people to meet and schmooze, a book to promote. Even though I've had something like a dozen books published, I still get surprised when someone wants to meet me.
Although there was a Romney portrait of Emma's head, wreathed as a Bacchante which I'd never seen before, I kept returning to the most touching item in Ms. Kislak's collection: Horatia Nelson's crib. In that large, fraying, mahogany and brown wicker basket slept the ultimate love child of the 19th century, the only offspring of the passionate affair between Emma and Nelson.
Horatia was born in London at 23 Piccadilly on or about January 29, 1801 while Nelson was away at sea. He was horribly anxious for Emma's pregnancy, which of course had to be kept as secret as possible. He invented an alter ego, a sailor named Thompson, who was the expectant father, so that without fear of censorship (his letters were often open and read by the Admiralty before they were sent on to their recipient) he could express his overflowing emotions to Emma, who he had chosen, in their epistolary fiction, to be the guardian of Thompson's child (being carried by a fictional pregnant London sweetheart) .
Nelson rarely had the opportunity to see Horatia because he spent her first few years mostly at sea, and of course was killed during the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. But he did cherish the rare days they had together, and the little idyll he enjoyed with Horatia and Emma at Merton in late August and early September of 1805. Nelson spoiled his little daughter rotten.
There's a wonderful story where she asked him for a dog and he wrote to Emma to tell her that there were no dogs at sea--but while he was busy trying to track down the French fleet and defeat Napoleon, he managed to find (or had made) a delicate gold pendant on a chain. Much of the delicate disk is cut away to reveal a shape inside the circle. You guessed it: it's a dog.
Horatia never learned that Emma was her biological mother. She had always been told that Emma was her guardian, and to spare her from being tarred by society with the same brush that had painted Emma Hamilton immoral, it was best just to leave the identity of the mother of the British naval hero's only offspring a mystery. Horatia resented Emma like mad and was horribly rude to her as an adolescent (this may be par for the course for mothers of adolescent girls, though). Emma bore the insults, but didn't crack. Although she scolded Horatia for not treating her with the respect due to a mother, she never told the girl that she was her real mother after all.
There's no photo of Horatia's crib in the glossy catalog from the exhibit. It's hard to tell from this one that the crib is raised off the ground (it's at waist to chest height) and was on display within a huge glass vitrine. I let my imagination wander to "dear Merton," the little estate in Surrey that Emma had fixed up for Nelson, to the room where Horatia lay in this crib, where Emma might have sung her to sleep and Nelson stroked her soft brown hair off her forehead. After Horatia outgrew it, the crib went to the family of Nelson's beloved younger sister "Katty" Matcham. Ms. Kislak eventually acquired it through their descendants.
After the discussion about the exhibit, my husband and I were among about 30 people invited upstairs to a dinner in the library's oak paneled dining room. I was seated next to the rare books curator, which is a bit like sending a six-year-old into FAO Schwarz. It was such a treat to have the chance to discuss all my "friends" -- Emma, and Nelson, and Sir William Hamilton, and the subject of my next historical novel, Mary Robinson, with a room full of freakishly erudite, fascinating people who shared the same enthusiasm for them. Among the guests was a Nelson biographer who bought a copy of my novel (I'd brought about a half dozen with me). I can't remember when I'd so enjoyed a meal, and it wasn't just the Beef Wellington.
Nearly every time I mentioned an historical figure, or a period I was interested in writing about, the rare books collection curator would turn to his right and say, "See that door?" Behind that oaken door lay this history hoyden's bibliophilic fantasies.
And when I mentioned the 18th century actress/royal mistress/poet/feminist Mary Robinson, because my February release from NAL, ALL FOR LOVE, is Mary's story, it felt like I'd hit another jackpot. Just a few feet away from me, seated on the other side of the table, was a young English professor who not only teaches Mary, he just submitted an academic paper on her.The Emma Hamilton exhibit, titled " 'Surely no person was ever so happy as I am': Emma Hamilton's Path to Fame" will be on display at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center on the University of Pennsylvania's campus in Philadelphia until February 17, 2008, and admission is free of charge.
U. of P. library people would like me to come back and do an event while the exhibition is still up and running, speaking to a group about how a historical novelist goes about her research. That prospect is exciting in itself, but I'm still tingling over seeing so much original correspondence, caricatures, portraits and other papers pertaining to Emma Hamilton--and I remain most profoundly moved by seeing Horatia's crib.
Have you seen or handled primary source material pertaining to your characters? Touched what they did, or might have? Walked in their footsteps? How did it make you feel, and what impact did it have on your novel?
Also, have you ever met and conversed with an author whose book you relied on for your research? What was it like?