1. The passionate love affair between Emma and Nelson was real life that became romantic legend. Although divorces were extremely difficult to obtain during that era, both Emma and Nelson were committing adultery. How do you feel about that? Given the hypocritical moral standard of the day (“It’s okay as long as you’re discreet”), and the state of their respective marriages at the time Emma and Nelson began sleeping together, do you accept, or condone, their romance?
2. Given your discussion on the previous question, when soul mates find each other, should true love conquer all?
3. The three principal characters in the novel-Emma, Nelson, and William Hamilton-are drawn from actual people, and their fictional actions are derived from actual events. Each is undeniably flawed, as real human beings undoubtedly are. Do their flaws help you better understand their actions? Do these flaws (discuss them) make you sympathize with them—or not?
4. Emma and her mother have a rather atypical relationship, and yet an utterly symbiotic one. What do you make of it? Do you think Mam should have tried to be more present during Emma’s difficult teenage years, or do you think she did all she could under the circumstances (hers and Emma’s)?
5. Bearing in mind the era in which this novel is set, do you agree that the life of a courtesan or kept woman is preferable to an “honest” life as a servant, factory worker, or farm laborer? Do you think the former profession gives a woman more independence and autonomy than any or all of the latter trades mentioned? If you lived in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, which life would you choose, if faced with a similar dilemma to Emma’s?
6. Do you think the British Crown and the Admiralty were right to come between Nelson and Emma and make life difficult for each of them, as a sort of “punishment” for their public displays of affection? Do you think Nelson’s love for Emma had any impact on his nobility? Or on his ability to serve his king and country just as bravely and effectively as he did before he met Emma? Do you think the government should have stayed out of Nelson’s personal life? Do you think they were right in ignoring his dying wishes and the terms of his codicil?
7. Do you believe that a leader’s personal life-regardless of whether you agree with or condone his behavior—should have any bearing on whether he should retain his position or remain a leader, as long as he continues to be effective? Can you think of more contemporary events than Nelson and Emma that spark a parallel?
8. Do you think societal hypocrisy and appetite for scandal is any different now than it was 200 years ago?
9. Emma paid a terrible price for a past that she endeavored to overcome, proving herself a model of fidelity, particularly during the years from 1786 (when she traveled to Naples) to late 1799 (when she and Nelson commenced their affair). Yet royalty, and high society, scorned and shunned her, or refused to admit her into their homes (while still enjoying her Attitudes and her hospitality at Palazzo Sessa), citing not only Emma’s former “dissolute” life but her low birth, which rendered her ineligible to mingle in their midst. How do you feel about the way Emma was treated?
10. If you lived in Emma’s day, what strata of society might you have fit, or been born, into? How do you think others might have treated you?
11. Would you have shunned, or welcomed, Emma? Would she have been a friend?
12. Emma is a flawed heroine, as many of us might be, should our lives become the stuff of fiction. Which of Emma’s many attributes do you find less than admirable? Which qualities do you admire?