What a girl! Readable, imaginative account of a widely misunderstood woman. We all know someone like Emma – naive, exuberant, extravert, generous and sensual, outwardly without a care in the world. Often, as with Emma, what is not always appreciated is their apparently contradictory nature: sensitive, caring, intelligent and vulnerable. Emma, ridiculed and cast off after Nelson’s death had been widely misunderstood. Despite her infidelity to Sir William Hamilton, she showed him touching loyalty, and her love for Nelson was real and deep. Kate Williams reveals Emma’s fascinating back story – humble origins and almost total lack of education – which she overcame without trampling on others.
Also recommended: Josephine by Kate Williams
This book, which in my opinion has not had the attention it deserves, I found on a table in Waterstones in Piccadilly. If I had not been browsing that day I may never have been aware of it. It focuses on the tragic figure of John Polidori, the 21-year-old Edinburgh-trained doctor who accompanied Byron on his European adventures in 1816, the Year Without a Summer, ending up in the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. It lays bare Byron’s casual and callous cruelty, to the emotionally vulnerable Clairmont (who was pregnant with his child) and Polidori (who regarded himself as a writer on the same level as the Shelley and Byron). We all know that the troubled relationships between these players ended in tragedy, but this book details the awful and avoidable fate of the baby Claire gave birth to.
I snapped up this book on a second-hand stall outside the BFI on the South Bank. It’s an odd one. The opening chapter “Women’s Bodies – and How Men Looked at Them” is a detailed discussion of what Georgians preferred in terms of shape and type of breast (think of those high, pillowy, nipple-less Fragonards in the Wallace Collection). There are some interesting ideas on “The Waning of Female Lust” and “The Deviant”. Definitely worth reading, not least because it contains a good deal of information. Lots of rather rude illustrations.
Currently, I am deep in Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (Hutchinson, 2015), at that stage when I want to stay up all night reading, but never want the book to end. Readable, erudite – and while being a fascinating double biography also adds an interesting counterweight to McConnell-Stott’s work.