England’s Mistress by Kate Williams

When I don’t have time to read, I often download audio books from I Tunes. It gives me the chance to ‘read’ while doing the housework or driving. I have just finished listening to England’s Mistress, while un packing boxes after our move.

I have read very mixed reviews of the book and didn’t really know what to expect. I absolutely loved Williams’s other book Becoming Queen so was excited to see if her earlier book was as good.

England’s Mistress tells the story of Emma Hamilton , famous social climber and mistress to Horatio Nelson. Although not as polished as Becoming Queen, England’s Mistress flows well and paints a wonderful picture of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The first few chapters describing Emma’s early life are in effect fiction. There is so little known about Emma’s early life that Williams has had to fill in the gaps herself. The problem really is that there are too many gaps to fill. Although well researched, I did feel the early chapters were a little too fluffed out.

This does improve as the book moves on and the author has more material to work with. I really enjoyed reading about Emma’s life before she became famous, each small scandalous step giving her higher status. It is fascinating hearing about her work as an artist’s model and her many many sittings for Romney.

Williams gives the sense that Emma is different from all the other poor country girls who came to London for a better life. Emma uses her beauty and talent all through her life to get what she wants, be it as an artist’s model, courtesan, entertainer or mistress.

The book’s slightly fictitious feel works better as it goes on, and helps the reader to empathise and understand the feelings and desisions of its subject. Key themes throughout the book are well covered, and include Emma’s reliance on the men around her, her need to be a mother and her need for high social status even if it leaves her destitute.

Emma’s life is particularly interesting because of the time in which she lived. The french revolution and the rise of Napoleon all went on around her, with as much turmoil as her personal life. One of the highlights of the book has to be Emma’s life in Naples which Williams covers extensively. Williams’s ability to describe the events of the time with relevance to her subject works very well.

I loved the section on Emma’s life with Nelson in Merton. As someone who was born and raised in the area where they once lived together, I found this all the more fascinating.

In conclusion I think this is a very enjoyable book, and I think it can be praised and criticised for the same thing. Williams tells a very good story and the fine line between fact and fiction which Williams crosses on several occasions are the very thing that makes this a great read. I feel the book would not have been so good had the gaps been left unfilled.

I give this book 3.5 out of 5

Want to know more?

Visit the Kate Williams website here

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