Of Love & Duty: Nelson, the Hamiltons, the Prince & Miss Knight

Written by S. R. Whitehead
Review by Loyd Uglow

The Napoleonic period saw many European aristocrats, as expatriates, reduced to living off the hospitality of more prosperous members of their class, moving from court to court in order to avoid the embarrassment of being seen as permanent hangers-on. Such is the unenviable state of Miss Cornelia Knight and her aged but feisty mother. Forced by the French to flee from Rome, they find refuge in the neutral Kingdom of Naples. Here they enjoy the patronage and friendship of British diplomat Sir William Hamilton and suffer under the cruel tongue of his haughty younger wife, Emma.

Cornelia, at forty-one, lives with the likelihood of permanent spinsterhood—that is, until the handsome and noble Neapolitan Admiral Francesco Caracciolo takes a loving interest in her. Larger forces are at work, however, as the conflict between Napoleon and Britain threatens to force Naples to take a strong stand for one side or the other. The situation deteriorates further with the arrival of Admiral Horatio Nelson, fresh from the British victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson begins a scandalous affair with Emma that will put all of Cornelia’s fervent hopes for a future with Francesco in grave jeopardy.

Although the story begins in the fashion of many a romance novel, it grows into something more substantial. Shortage of description at the beginning may give readers a false impression of Cornelia’s age and appearance. Her character comes out more and more, however, as her first-person narrative skillfully reveals strengths, doubts, and regrets that make her a sympathetic and believable protagonist. This is an engaging tale that shows the power of both love and noble character.