The Nelson Touch


by Terry Coleman (Oxford University Press)


(This column was first published in the July 25, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


Three years ago Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson (Doubleday), a book I also highly recommend, told of a biographer trying to defend Horatio Nelson from the revisionists and ultimately failing. Terry Coleman's excellent The Nelson Touch: The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson, the book I comment on here, makes clear why Unsworth's character should fail.


Most of the writing about Nelson is best described as hagiography: Nelson as the hero of a Central American expedition and at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson fighting the French in Italy, Nelson leading the naval forces at Trafalgar. And physically, Nelson giving up an eye, then an arm, then his life for his country.


He certainly did all those things, but he and his family (excepting his first wife) were a very unappealing gang. In some ways, of course, they represented their age when the caste system encouraged snobbery, obsequious deference to royalty and an intense battle to gain one's due, whether it be a court or legislative appointment or simply a financial award. Those may indeed characterize their times but the Nelson family represented all those characteristics in spades.


In the process he got away with all kinds of bad conduct, conduct in many cases for which others were executed. But of course Nelson was a winner. How do you condemn a man whom you credit for saving your country? The answer to that is straightforward: You don't at the time of his heroism.


But problems remain for his legacy.


After reading Coleman's estimable book, I have to agree with Admiral St. Vincent's final analysis: "Animal courage was the sole merit of Lord Nelson, his private character most disgraceful, in every sense of the word."


In no way does Coleman play down Nelson's achievements. They were outstanding, but it was the between-times that were bad news. Consider some of them:


As was the custom in the navy, he considered the very sailors who fought for him generally beneath contempt: "he was in trouble with his crew, having punished John Kelley, George Hoskins, and John Chilcott with twenty‑four strokes of the cat for using mutinous language. Strictly, only a court martial could order a man more than twelve lashes. It was a rule often broken, but not in a happy ship...."


But he did as he damned well pleased with regard to personnel: "there was the matter of Nelson's having appointed Joseph King, the supposedly insane late boatswain of the Boreas, as sail maker's assistant at the Antigua yard. He had no authority to do this, he had driven the officers of the yard mad, and they protested. To the admiralty Nelson replied that he had indeed appointed the man; that as to King's being insane he was merely struck with the sun; and that as to the yard officers' objections: 'I know not of remonstrances I never allow inferiors to dictate.'"


And even his heroics were out of order: "the action was a disaster. Nelson, doing without the army, and with fewer than a thousand seamen and marines, had directed a land battle in which he, as a rear‑admiral, and five post captains, were committed to the thick of the fight. Rank for rank, that is as if a battalion of soldiers were to have been personally led into action by a major general and five full colonels.... Since they were so near the citadel they walked into heavy fire. Fremantle was badly wounded. As Nelson stepped ashore his right arm was shattered by grapeshot above the elbow. Josiah, who was with him, bound the wound with silk handkerchiefs, and Nelson was rowed out to the Theseus, where his arm was amputated high up. A great sea officer had suffered his second terrible wound, like his first, not in any fleet action, not even at sea, but on land. He had lost the sight of his right eye arranging the besieging artillery at Calvi, which was hardly his proper business. He had lost his right arm leading what would now be called a commando raid, which was certainly not a flag officer's business." Coleman places these actions in context, but there they remain.


And then there was Nelson's mistress, Emma Hamilton, who replaced his wife Fanny in his retinue. "Few knew that she had started life as a blacksmith's illiterate daughter, had a child out of wedlock at sixteen, was taken up by a rake by the name of Charles Greville, and was then handed on by him to his uncle William Hamilton with the recommendation that a cleanlier, sweeter bedfellow never existed. Emma protested at this handing on, but by late 1786, in Naples, had settled in well enough to tell Sir William that she was obliged to play whist that evening but would much rather 'play at all‑fours' with him.... By 1790 Hamilton was writing to his friend Sir Joseph Banks saying he had not neglected the study of 'the animal called woman', that Emma had infinite merit and no princess could do the honours of his house with more ease and dignity than she did, but that he was not thinking of marrying the girl.


"But next year he did marry her, in England, privately and by special license." Hamilton seems then to have passed Emma on to Nelson in the same way she had been passed on to him. He and Nelson remained friends.


Here is Emma writing about Fanny in her barely readable style: "The apoticarys widow, the Creole with her Heart Black as Her feind like looking face was never destined for a Nelson for so noble minded a Creature. She never loved Him for Himself She loved her poor dirty [first husband] if she had love, and the 2 dirty negatives made that dirty affirmative that is a disgrace to the Human Species [her son]. She then starving took in an evil hour our Hero she made him unhappy she disunited Him from His family she wanted to raise up Her own vile spue at the expence and total abolation of the family which shall be immortalized for having given birth to the Saviour of his Country. When He came home maimed lame and covered with Glory She put in derision His Honnerable wounds She raised a clamour against him because He had seen a more lovely a more virtuous woman who had served with him in a foreign country and who had her heart and senses open to his Glory to His greatness and His virtues. If he had lived with this daemon this blaster of His fame and reputation He must have fallen under it and His Country would have lost their greatest ornament ‑ No, let him live yet to gain more victory and to be blessed with his idolising Emma."


Not a very nice companion.


And what a man to have as a friend: "What St Vincent wrote was tactful, and harmless enough. 'To find a fit successor for the command, your lordship well knows, is no easy task, for I never saw the man in our profession, excepting yourself and Troubridge, who possessed the magic art of infusing the same spirit into others, which inspired his actions.' From then on all intimacy between Nelson and Troubridge ceased. It was one thing for Nelson himself to call Troubridge his superior, as he had two years before, but quite another for St Vincent to name them as equals. From then on Nelson never had a word to say about his friend that was not bitter."


The rest of the family was, if anything, worse. Here is his brother who gained some of the rewards derived from Nelson's death at Trafalgar: "After the death of his first wife in 1828, Earl Nelson disputed the bill of 92 pounds for her burial in the vaults of St Paul's cathedral, and then within a year took as a bride the pretty young widow of a captain of hussars, winning her with a marriage settlement of 4,000 pounds a year. He was seventy. She was twenty‑eight."


No wonder Unsworth's fictional character in Losing Nelson was finally driven mad by his attempt to exonerate this man.


I found Coleman's biography fascinating and, despite the quotations in this commentary, very even handed.-- Gerry Rising