Wednesday 24 May 2023

Fields of Fire by David Constantine at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 The Dr Johnson Book Circle met to discuss David Constantine’s book, Fields of Fire, an autobiography of William Hamilton. 

William Hamilton was the youngest son of a noble family who had to make his own way in the world and went into the army. There he didn’t show any particular flair or commitment. Then he became an MP, where he showed absolutely no commitment before become an Emissary to the Court of Naples. It was a small job in an unimportant little kingdom but Hamilton discovered the two great passions of his life; volcanoes and vases.

Presumably like most readers, the members of the Reading Circle largely know Hamilton for being the redundant leg of the relationship featuring Nelson and Emma, so Constantine took a lot of time to flesh Hamilton out before he got to that part. Some members thought this caused pacing issues, as there was a lot to read before the famous relationship entanglements. 

Most of us were surprised that Hamilton had a first wife. If the later Emma was a volcano, Catherine was a vase, or at least, she was at first viewing. Suffering throughout her life from a respiratory illness that was also linked to problems with her nerves, including periods or depression, she seems to be a fragile person. It seems clear she thought of herself like that. However, after leaving England near death’s door, she lived for another twenty years and made several arduous trips between Naples and England. 

During this time, Hamilton turned his collecting instincts to the ‘Etruscan’ vases pouring out of tombs being unearthed around Herculaneum, Pompeii and beyond. Not only did he collect them, he had them recorded, engravings made and lush books created. He helped establish the fact they were Greek vases, not Etruscan, and purposely sent the pictures (and samples) to people like Wedgewood to inspire British craftsmen to adopt the same clean lines. Meanwhile, he was also spent many hours clambering up Vesuvius and making observations which he sent to the Royal Society in London (unlike one associate, he did this fully dressed). In this way he established himself as an authority in both his two passions. Constantine spends a little too long trying to establish this, invested as he is in portraying Hamilton as more than a famous cuckold. 

Despite being a relatively unimportant outpost, Hamilton was successful in integrating in Neapolitan life, becoming firm friends with King Ferdinand and a confidante of his Queen. The town, which Nelson would later describe as ‘a country of fiddlers and poets, thieves and whores’ was certainly a louche place and indifferently run. Ferdinand had been raised to take no interest in politics his principal interest was hunting, which consisted of killing thousands of creatures at a time – he also was fond of a practical joke, like putting marmalade on people’s hats.

Naples only became important when it was on Napoleon’s shopping list. In response, the British Navy sent a fleet headed up by Nelson. By this time Catherine had died and Hamilton had married his second wife, his nephew’s former mistress, Emma. Of astonishing beauty, Hamilton seemed to have appreciated her in the same way as his vases, principally by looking. The two developed her ‘attitudes’ a performance where Emma adopted the poses and emotions depicted in ancient art and theatre and artists flocked to paint her. Eventually, the two had settled into a routine, developing a relationship that was physical but, above all, domestic. Until Nelson.

Both were smitten with the hero of the Nile, or what was left of him. As Emma and Nelson’s relationship grew physical (and obvious, Emma was pregnant), Hamilton became a figure of laughter or pity. Hamilton was recalled to England and the three, rejoicing in the motto of the Order of the Bath ‘tri juncta in uno’ went home the long way, Emma and Nelson revelling in the fame. There’s a town in Germany that still celebrates the visit with the model of an erupting volcano.

Hamilton seemed perfectly fine in his unusual relationship, praising Emma and admiring Nelson to his end. In many ways it encapsulates the difficulties in writing a biography about him, he was a man who was private and rather detached. He observed rather than participated and collected rather than created. He seems to have been very happy letting life wash over him and taking in the things that interested him. It’s probably a nice way to live but it makes for an elusive subject. While the death of Catherine did affect him greatly for a while, it wasn’t long till he was negotiating to have Emma round. When a ship called The Colossus sunk off the British coast with a large portion of his vase collection, he was upset but seems to have shrugged it off easily enough. Perhaps Hamilton was a true stoic, after reading and discussing Fields of Fire, we still weren’t sure.

Fonthill seems to set itself quite a challenge – to get the reader to like and root for a character who inherits obscene wealth, owns hundreds of slaves and a has a more than academic interest in pederasty. William Beckford, author of Vathek and creator of the impossible Fonthill Abbey was also driven out the country for his reported intrigue with titled schoolboy, William Courtenay. 

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