Nelson's a hero, but we are all at sea over Emma

April 22, 2005

Horatio Nelson's reputation may still be intact after The Times Higher 's latest debate but the same cannot be said about his mistress, Emma Hamilton, who emerged as the prototype footballer's wife.

If ever there was a right time and place for a debate titled "How will history judge Horatio Nelson?" then this was it. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The venue was the National Portrait Gallery, in London, just round the corner from Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column. But June Purvis, professor of women's and gender history at Portsmouth University, seemed to think rather less of Lady Hamilton's reputation than Nelson's.

A member of the audience described Lady Hamilton as "one of the most remarkable women in the British Isles" and dismissed Nelson's long-suffering wife, Fanny, who "just did not rate".

Professor Purvis, a feminist and biographer of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, was aghast at this. She bristled: "I do not have a lot of patience for those women who make a virtue out of beauty and then find a famous man."

Andrew Lambert, Laughton professor of naval history at King's College London and biographer of Nelson, leapt gallantly to the defence of his hero's mistress. "First of all," he said, "she came from nowhere. She makes her way in the world trading on what skills she has." (This raised a few titters among the audience.) "But when she gets to be wife of the ambassador to Naples, she learns Italian and she becomes the reason for going to Naples.

"If people like Goethe are travelling to see her then there has to be something about her."

As for Nelson, the feeling was that he remains a great British hero although, like many of them, he was not without his flaws - not least his treatment of his wife.

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