Too Great a Lady
Elyot (the pseudonym used by actress-novelist Leslie Carroll for her historical novels) presents a sweeping, emotionally intense portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, half of one of the most famous romantic couples from history. Emma tells her life story in the form of a fictional confession, which she writes from a London debtors’ prison in 1814, less than a year before her death.
For readers not familiar with Emma Hamilton, Elyot recounts everything here, in lush and magnificent detail: her poverty-stricken childhood in North Wales; her time spent as mistress to several wealthy aristocrats; her marriage to the much older Sir William Hamilton, England’s ambassador to Naples, a love match in truth; her close friendship with Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily, which made her an important yet unofficial envoy in the war against France; and her all-encompassing love affair with Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero. Although beautiful, witty Emma continually reinvents herself as she ascends society’s ladder, changing her name several times and improving her education, her irrepressible, saucy attitude remains, along with her unfashionable country accent. Rather than simply disobeying society’s rules, she ignores them altogether, and – for a time at least – people love her for it. Yet despite all the glory, her story is ultimately tragic; she renounces parentage of her two daughters for their own sake, and with Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, she loses her country’s affection and respect.
Emma Hamilton is a historical novelist’s dream subject, and her fictional voice is as entertaining as it is convincing. Elyot is a rising star in the realm of biographical fiction, and to me Too Great a Lady is as good as anything Margaret George ever wrote.