Every Regency history buff knows about Lord Horatio Nelson’s love for Emma Hamilton, and many of us have felt sympathy for poor Sir William Hamilton, the most openly cuckolded man in England. But few have spared a thought for Nelson’s pathetic wife, the former Frances “Fanny” Nesbit.
Nelson met Fanny when he was 26 and in commanded of the Boreas while it spent time in the West Indies. Just a few months older than Nelson, Fanny had been widowed three years previously when her son, Josiah, was only two years old. Upon her husband’s death, she returned to the Indies to live with her uncle, a planter who was the largest land owner on the island of Nevis.
Nelson was good with the lad, and a romance with the mother blossomed. On the outside, the plain, slender woman appeared the perfect wife for a man who had grown up in a country parsonage with a curate father, like the senior Nelson, who sired five sons and three daughters. Fanny certainly was the complete antithesis to Emma Hamilton, a former courtesan.
The romance between Nelson and Fanny began, on his part certainly, as somewhat of a love match. Prince William of the Royal Navy would write, “Poor Nelson is head over ears in love.” When Nelson and Fanny had to be apart, he wrote affectionately to her with phrases like this: “At first I bore absence tolerably, but now it is almost insupportable.” Not exactly bursting with the passion that would later scorch the pages of his letters to Emma, but affectionate nevertheless.
They married on March 22, 1787, and set sail for England. Five peaceful years at his father’s parsonage (which Edmund Nelson turned over to the newlyweds) followed before he was called back to active duty after the French Revolution. One wonders if the marriage may have been different had Fanny been able to conceive her husband’s children.
Horatio and Fanny Nelson would be apart a great deal over the next six years – and indeed the remainder of their marriage – though all that he was and all that he felt (mostly about his career) he would impart to his wife in letters – even after he lost his right arm.
Then in the summer of 1798 their lives would dramatically change when he demonstrated his superiority in naval battle strategy and gained fame across Europe as the Hero of the Battle of the Nile. Not only did he earn a peerage, but during his subsequent posting in Naples (while Fanny was glorying in the accompanying fame back in England) the beautiful wife of the elderly English ambassador at Naples threw herself at Nelson’s feet – or, more appropriately, in his bed.
Nelson and his “Beloved Emma” would remain passionately in love until a musket ball killed him at Trafalgar in October 1805.
While Lord Nelson never had any compunction about later shunning his own wife at every turn, strangely, he never wished to estrange Sir William; therefore, Nelson, Lady Hamilton, and her husband would thereafter live together in a bizarre triangle – even while Emma attempted to conceal her pregnancy with Nelson’s child (whom he later adopted – and adored).
Nelson did not return to England until a year and half after the Battle of the Nile, and he would return accompanied by the Hamiltons. He would tolerate Fanny’s company only for a few weeks before he formerly separated from her. For her part, Fanny had attempted in every way to do all that was pleasing to her hero husband.
Though Nelson’s last thoughts and last concerns were about Emma, Fanny came out the winner. Of sorts. Emma was denied the pension Nelson begged that she receive and died in poverty. Fanny would forever be Lady Nelson and receive a generous pension from a grateful nation. Sadly, both women died heartbroken.– Cheryl Bolen, whose next Brides of Bath novel, Love in the Library, can be preordered now at all sites.