I can’t remember when I first “met” Emma Hamilton because it feels like there’s never been a time when I haven’t known her. I used to kid people about being her reincarnation because the empathy I felt for her was so visceral. I would visit her portrait in the Frick Museum when I was in high school, just to say hello.
I sold the novel to Crown on a sentence. “I’d like to tell Emma Hamilton’s story from her POV,” I told my editor, right after I turned in the manuscript to By a Lady—in those days when editors actually read hard copies—and rang for the Random House elevator. Rachel’s reply was “Great! I love her!!” So I went home, read about forty books on the story’s principals and the late Georgian and early Regency eras, and the book poured out of me. I traveled to England for the bicentenary celebration of Nelson’s death at Trafalgar and toured the Admiralty with its historian and the HMS Victory in the company of experts on Nelson’s navy.
Then my editor moved on and her successor had barely heard of Emma Hamilton, let alone loved her with the passion and fire that we did. Although fully written, the novel was now homeless. But Too Great a Lady soon sold to NAL and remains one of my favorite books, even though that’s a bit like choosing a favorite child. I grew so fond of Sir William Hamilton that I cried when it was time to write his death scene. And after reading several biographies of Nelson, although he was undoubtedly a hero, I discovered that he wasn’t such a saint. His flaws made him all the more human and interesting to me as a man. I collected Nelsoniana and Emma memorabilia, which sat on my desk as I researched and wrote the novel. I have a bust of Nelson made from copper taken from the Foudroyant, Nelson’s flagship during the time he and Emma consummated their romance. She may even have become pregnant with their daughter Horatia during their lovemaking on board the vessel. And I have two signatures of Emma’s, probably snipped from tradesmen’s IOUs. The anonymous nineteenth-century note that came with them refers to Emma as the “widow of the late Lord Nelson of Trafalgar.”
I got a lump in my throat when I read it. She would have been so pleased.