The situation of Lady Hamilton makes a brief appearance in my forthcoming novel, Mansfield Parsonage!
The day after Sir Thomas’s homecoming dawn clear and mild, an ideal situation for a long walk, of which Mary and Henry took advantage. Soon after breakfast the siblings departed on their ramble, this time heading away from the River Nene and into the meadows and woods to the northwest.
“I have some bad news, I’m afraid,” Henry said, helping his sister over a stile.
“Is it to do with Russia?” Mary asked. Ever since Napoleon’s sack of Moscow and the conflagration that rendered it a veritable pile of ash roughly a month before, the British had been waiting for the news that Czar Alexander had surrendered and sued for peace.
“No, it has nothing to do with Russia — although that does remind me to tell you that it appears that the Russians set fire to the city during their flight, rather than acts of arson by the French. Rather it has to do with someone we both like; Lady Hamilton.”
Mary’s brows contracted in concern. “Is she ill?”
“Worse,” Henry’s was not speaking in his usual jocose manner.
“She has died?” Mary was saddened, but not surprised. Lady Hamilton had grown older than her true age since Nelson died at Trafalgar, and had driven herself into debt trying to keep her home in Merton Place a veritable monument to her deceased lover. The government and the crown had broken their promise to Nelson to provide for Lady Hamilton and their daughter Honoria Thompson, and the ladies resources were rapidly depleting. Their relative poverty and their status as the beloved mistress and daughter of the heroic Lord Nelson had made them figures of sympathy among the populace and beau monde.
“Worse,” Henry’s face was grim.
Mary could only look her question at him.
“She had been thrown into debtor’s prison,” His sister gave a soft cry of dismay, and he continued. “Miss Thompson has gone with her.”
“Is there no one who will give Miss Thompson shelter? Does the entire Admiralty forget what is owed to Nelson, and how much he loved his daughter and Lady Hamilton? Would not our uncle give her succour?” Mary was dismayed. She could think of nothing worse than to be scourged from society as a pauper. She, like Henry, thought of being cast out of the ton as a fate worse than death.
“Our uncle wrote to tell me of it, and he did offer to take Miss Thompson and a suitable companion for her into his home. He even made it clear that he would set up Mrs Chatsworth in her own house so that Miss Thompson’s delicacy would not be wounded.”
Mary could not help the reflexive and corrosive bitterness that information caused her. She did not begrudge Miss Thompson the civility, but she was deeply offended that the admiral had not shown a similar concern for her.
“Miss Thompson,” Henry went on, “is so young that it has been decided she will stay by her mother’s side. They have been given rooms by the jailer in his own house, so they are not being left to rot with the rabble in common cells or a hulk in the harbour, at least. Our uncle and several of the other men who served under Nelson in the Mediterranean are paying the jailer to keep Lady Hamilton and Miss Thompson in comfort.”
“Is there nothing to be done? Will not Nelson’s sisters and their husbands come forward to help?” Mary wondered.
“There is little they can do,” Henry said regretfully, “Lady Hamilton’s debts are too massive to be fully addressed by anyone but the royal family, and you can imagine how likely that is. The Admiral tells me that he, and some of Lady Hamilton’s other friends, hope to free her and her daughter by stealth and get them to Calais, where they can be kept up in freedom with very little expense.”
“What an ignoble end for one of the most glittering jewels in the ton,” Mary said mournfully. “A woman is never truly safe unless she has led a blameless life. If she had been merely Lord Hamilton’s widow, and not Nelson’s famous paramour, she would have found more friends willing to help her.”
“That is not always true,” her brother disagreed. “Prinny’s inamoratas have all done rather well.”
“Not because of his efforts, though,” Mary was sharp. “If Mary Robinson had not been the English Sappho and so celebrated for her writing, she would have died in penury, so little did he care about his promise of an annuity. Most of his other mistresses were too highly born to suffer much.”
“Dearest Mary, you are overly nice about such things. This is the nineteenth century England, not fourteenth century Spain; there is much more liberality in matters of love nowadays than formerly. When Mrs Armistead, one of London’s brilliant courtesans, married the Honourable Charles Fox, that was the death knell of such Gothic obsessions with absolute virtue. Lady Hamilton is in her current predicament because of her gambling debts; no other reason.”
Mary couldn’t help it. She rolled her eyes at her brother. “One of the many qualities I love about you is that you are a fantasist. What fairy story will spin for me next? That you narrowly escaped Raw-Head and Bloody-Bones when you were a tot?”
Henry, rather offended by Mary’s cynical dismissal of his brave new world, was silent. The siblings walked on, traversing a beech copse and entering a meadow, until the progression of time restored equilibrium and harmony between them. This took a little more than a quarter of an hour.
The hard reality of it was that Henry was wrong. The death rattle of liberalism and tolerance could be heard in England, the last shaky gasps of aristocratic license. Moral panic was on the ascendant, spurred by the fears of the upper-classed that an English revolution to match the one in France would occur, and by the growing intolerance of the lower-classes for the socio-economic inequality that keep millions starving while the wealthy elites gorged. Pretentious pseudomorality and national pride in military conquest would be used as a band-aid to cover up Britain’s gaping social wounds, a stop-gap measure that at least partially hid the rot of festering disparity. In the not too distant future, the hidebound prudery of the middle classes would compel those both higher and lower on the social scale to at least pretend they were conforming to austere respectability, especially in regards to anything sexual. This rigorous obsession with purity would become so scrupulous that it would become more lewd than any open display of wantonness. The natural and inescapable side effect of being constantly told “don’t think about sex” would be that sex was never very far from anyone’s mind. Queen Victoria’s coming reign would spawn the golden-age of written pornography and the beginning of psychoanalysis, but bequeath few other positive influences to its cultural descendants.