Join Date: July 2005
Re: Emma, Lady Hamilton
We have discussed how Lady Hamilton influenced the arts of painting and sculpture, and even created an art form of her own--her "Attitudes," which merged acting, dance, and posing into a unique form of aesthetic performance, similar to present-day fashion modelling.
What is less widely known, at least in English-speaking countries, is the extent of her influence on literature.
Lady Hamilton was the prototype for the title character of Madame de Staël's Romantic novel, Corinne. (De Staël describes Corinne as having a "tall, slightly plump figure, in the style of a Greek statue.") And, as we have already noted, she features prominently in Goethe's Italian Journey.
However, of all major writers, none was as deeply enamoured of Lady Hamilton as was Alexandre Dumas, père (1802-1870), the author of stirring adventure tales which are still read throughout the world, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers.
Dumas penned no less than three novels in which Emma plays a part, and in the last of the three, Souvenirs d'un favorite, she is the book's central figure. However, only the first two Dumas novels involving Lady Hamilton have ever been translated into English.
Dumas's portraits-in-words of Emma are utterly captivating. This living muse exerted as potent an influence on men of letters as she did on painters and sculptors, and Dumas's rapturous prose testifies as vividly to Lady Hamilton's beauty as do Romney's impassioned brushstrokes.
Dumas describes Lady Hamilton as follows:
If ever a human being arrived at the perfection of beauty, then it was Emma, Lady Hamilton. If you looked long at her—and who could wrest the eye away?—the goddess appeared where the woman stood. (11)
When one tired of examining her in detail, each new phase was a successive dazzlement. The chestnut tresses wound around a countenance like a girl in her teens.
Her eyes could not be called any one color; like the rainbow, they sparkled under brows which only Raphael could have traced; her white and flexible neck was as the swan's; arms and shoulders, they recalled not the cold contour of the Greek statuaries, but the living undulations of Germain Pilon's; supple, slightly rounded, palpitating—the gracefulness was in itself charming. (12)
Her pliant and harmonious form, yielding to all poses by its natural undulations, attained the labored perfection of the most skillful ballet-dancers. (22-23)
Dumas also records that, like present-day goddesses such as Christina Schmidt, Lady Hamilton enjoyed lounging in bed throughout the morning and long past noon, noting that Emma was supremely
indolent, so that often half the day was gone before she began her day . . . (241)
Dumas also gives us the most complete extant description of Emma's "Attitudes." In the following passage, he describes her performance on one of the most significant evenings of her life--the moment when she seduced Admiral Nelson:
Only those who participated in the queen [of Sicily]'s private evening parties, in which "Emma Lyonna" was the great charm and principal ornament, could relate to what height the modern Armida lifted her beholders in delirium and enthusiasm. If her magical poses and voluptuous pantomime had deep influence on northerners, how much more must they have electrified the violent southern imagination impassioned with song, music and poetry, and knowing Cimarosa and Metastasio by heart?
(In our own tours of Naples and Sicily, we met old gentlemen who had witnessed these magnetic exhibitions and, after fifty years' past, they had quivered like youths over the burning memories.)
It is admitted that lady Hamilton was lovely. What must she have been on this evening, when she wished to bewitch Nelson and outshine the belles in their elegant costumes?
Faithful to her traditions of liberty and art, Lady Hamilton wore an attire which, though novel, was to be adopted by all the beauties. A long tunic of blue cashmere fell in those folds only seen in antique statuary; floating over her shoulders in long wavy tresses, her hair threw off the reflections of melting gold . . . Her arms were bare from the shoulder to the finger-tips; but one arm was clamped in at the top and wrist by serpents in diamonds with ruby eyes; one hand was loaded with rings, while the other, on the contrary, shone solely with the brightness of the fine skin and the luster of the pink nails. . . .
This stupefying glamour, heightened by the odd apparel, had a touch of the supernatural, alarming and terrifying. From this revival of Greek paganism, women shrank with jealousy and men with dread. To love this Astarte was to be found dead, by one's own hand, on her temple steps. (86-87)
Dumas concludes his ardent account by describing the almost hypnotic trance in which the seductive moves of her voluptuous body held her audience:
When the queen retook her place, Emma Lyonna, wound in an Indian shawl fringed with gold, amid enthusiastic applause from her audience, was concluding a step by falling on a sofa with the reckless affectation of ease of a prima ballerina; no professional dancer had ever lifted her beholders to that seventh heaven; the ring around her when she began had, by insensible attraction, contracted, as if every one wished to feel the whirls of air and perfume which she sent forth. (102)
The sheer, overwhelming allure of Lady Hamilton's well-fed beauty and self-indulgent nature compelled the luminaries of her day to devote their energies to gratifying her limitless desires. She was a muse in the truest sense of the word, a goddess who inspired artisans to hone their talents to the highest, to immortalize her intoxicating presence for all eternity.
When our culture once again recognizes the timeless beauty of its Emma Hamiltons, it will also bring forth more Goethes, Romneys, and Alexandres Dumas. And when that happens, the arts of the West will blossom once more, like an orchard in spring.
Dumas, Alexandre. The Lovely Lady Hamilton ("Emma Lyonna"); or, The Beauty and the Glory. Trans. Henry L. Williams. New York: Street & Smith, 1903. Trans. of La San Felice. 1863-65.