Emma Lyon was born to working-class parents in 1765. She grew up to be breathtakingly beautiful–and wild. Early in her life, she worked as a maid, but she soon left dustcloths far behind. She herself joked about her “giddy ways.” She was a popular dinner guest in certain aristocratic circles. Small wonder: she was fond of dancing naked on the dining-room table.
At Uppark, a country home in England, I actually saw one of those dining room tables where Emma frolicked long ago. No photos were allowed. I looked closely for scratches and there were none; Emma must have been light on her ((bare) feet.
In the raffish household of the owner of this particular house, the Prince of Wales, who later became George IV, was a frequent guest. He was the ultimate playboy. So there were plenty of aristocrats more than happy to dally with the beautiful Emma. She bore an illegitimate child to a gentleman at age 16.
One Charles Francis Greville took Emma into his home, educated her, and introduced her to society painters such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds. They loved painting her portrait.
Eventually Greville passed Emma on to his elderly uncle, Sir William Hamilton. She married him when he was 60 and she was just 26. He was Ambassador to what is now Sicily, and in Naples the couple were popular in high social circles. Still beautiful, charming and uninhibited, she delighted men in particular by appearing in flimsy mythological costumes.
In 1791, Emma met Horatio Nelson, and he fell head over heels for her. Her husband, Sir WIlliam, didn’t mind; in fact the three of them lived happily together, although Nelson had a wife living elsewhere. Emma bore Nelson’s daughter, Horatia in 1801.
Sadly, Lord Nelson was killed in action at Trafalgar.
Emma’s life was all downhill from there. She inherited a little money from Hamilton, but his brother held on to most of her money. By this time, she was an alcoholic–from way too many champagne toasts in her wild youth. She eventually was able to move across the Channel to Calais, where she died at age 49, poor and ill. But out of respect for Lord Nelson, the captains of many English ships attended her funeral.
I love English country homes. I feel they’re inhabited by the ghosts of people living their colorful lives long ago. There are always volunteer docents happy to tell stories of the past.