Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women At Sea: Remembering Nelson

Today is the 252nd anniversary of the birth of Horatio Nelson. I hope all the British Brethren get to leave work early at the very least on such an auspicious occasion. If I’m honest, I hadn’t really thought up a good plan for a post. Given that so many more worthy historians and writers have poured over the esteemed life and brilliant career of one of naval history’s most storied heroes, it seemed a little redundant for me to summarize Lord Nelson’s life. A life which is, in fact, far beyond simple summary.

As I was rifling through my mounds of Nelson information it occurred to me that one planet in the great Nelson’s solar system frequently gets short shrift. Though we hear plenty about Emma Hart Lady Hamilton, who is both skewered as whore and lauded as free spirit to this day, Frances Herbert Woolward Nisbet Lady Nelson is only spoken of rarely. When she is talked about at all it is as an adjunct or a foil. She is either Nelson’s nagging laundress or Emma’s shrewish rival. It occurred to me that this oversimplification does neither Horatio nor the ladies in his life much credit. So, to remember the man I thought I would honor his woman. How’s that for taking it in a different direction?
Frances Herbert Woolward was born to wealthy and prominent British parents on the beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis in 1761. The baptismal records from St. George’s Church state only that she was born in May. Her father, William Woolward, was a wealthy merchant and High Court Judge and her mother, Mary Herbert, was from a very well connected family whose ancestors were Earls of Pembroke. The Woolwards were comfortable in the extreme; they even owned slaves which at the time was unheard of back in England. The story goes that by age 8 Frances, or Fanny as she was known, had her own African manservant.

Both Mary and William died when Fanny was young and by the age of 18 she was in possession of her father’s extensive estate. Unfortunately Judge Woolward’s debts were even more extensive and Fanny was left with very little after selling off almost everything to satisfy her father’s creditors. At this point Dr. Josiah Nisbet appears on the scene. Very little is known about the 31 year old physician who came courting the young orphan. He seems to have been from the island and was probably familiar with the Woolwards prior to their deaths. He may even have been the family’s doctor. What ever the “connexion”, Fanny agreed to marry the good doctor in the same year as her father passed away.

There is very little documentation of Fanny’s life during her first marriage. She gave birth to a son named Josiah in May of 1780 and took passage to England with her husband in 1781. Some biographers say the Nisbet was touched and died of his madness but it may be that malaria or yellow fever came with the Nisbets to chilly England. Whatever the cause, Dr. Nisbet died in October of 1781 and Fanny found herself once again in financial distress but this time she had her son to think about as well.

Fanny seems to have been a natural caretaker and, as often happens, was therefore well liked and sought after for her mothering/nursing capacity. She was taken into the home of a fellow Nevis native, Mr. Pinney, who was evidently suffering from dementia, and became his nurse. This arrangement got her back to Nevis, where Mr. Pinney’s family took up his care. Fanny then moved in with her mother’s unmarried brother John Herbert and became his housekeeper and hostess. Herbert was the president of the Council of Nevis and did quite a bit of entertaining, particularly of visiting politicians and the Royal Navy officers stationed on and around the island since before the American Revolution.

One of these officers was a dashing and tightly wound Captain named Horatio Nelson. The 26 year old then in charge of HMS Boreas was also in the middle of a court battle with American privateers over his taking and libeling of their ships. Unlike Fanny, Nelson did not come from privilege. As the sixth son of a country parson who had eleven children to see to every last pound of prize money mattered. A young woman who was her wealthy Uncle’s sole heir and could obviously produce children might have looked more attractive than she would have been in a different situation. There can be no doubt that Nelson was under a good deal of stress when he first met Fanny and this may have contributed to his quick decision to court and then propose to the nubile widow.

Though described by Nelson’s contemporaries who knew her at Nevis as pretty, attractive, a general favorite of the naval officers and “fresh in her countenance”, no one ever called Fanny witty, intrepid or fun. Words like sensible were used, particularly by Nelson’s friend Prince William Henry who seemed to push the two together perhaps thinking that Fanny’s sobriety would tone down Horatio’s impetuous nature. Looking back on it the fatal flaw in the relationship raised its head early. Horatio needed a kindred soul who would give him a good fight now and then, praise his guts and glory and provide heirs to his greatness. What he got was Fanny, the caretaker.

Despite family reservations on both sides and separations brought on by Horatio’s naval duties, Fanny became Mrs. Nelson in March of 1787 at St. John Figtree Parish on Nevis. The Captain left in short order to return to England and Fanny and her son followed a little while after. The end of the war with France meant Nelson was left on half pay and without a ship which in turn meant that the young couple had to take up residence with his family. Initially Reverend Nelson was cool to his new daughter-in-law but her mothering ways endeared her to him and she almost immediately began taking care of the aging Parson. Their comfortable friendship would continue for the rest of the old gentleman’s life.

Fanny was happy with Nelson at home but Horatio chafed at the bit. Half pay was one thing, no ship was worse and now the woman he thought would present him with the many children he longed for couldn’t even be got with one. Five years of living in close quarters with an elderly father and another man’s son probably did nothing to improve Nelson’s attitude. What Fanny thought goes unmentioned; even after he left her for his mistress, Lady Nelson would utter not one bad word about her husband. It is a certainty that the marriage had become strained at best by the time France again declared war and Nelson took the helm of the 64 gun ship of the line HMS Agamemnon.

Unfortunately Fanny did nothing to help her cause. As Horatio’s star rose she chided him repeatedly to stay out of harm’s way and let others charge into the fray. When he was promoted to Rear-Admiral after the Battle of Cape St. Vincent Fanny redoubled her pleas that he leave the fighting to his Captains. Of course this was a ridiculous request to make of a man like Horatio Nelson; he first and foremost believed in leading his men from the front and nothing – least of all a whining wife – was going to change that. One can only imagine the private enmity between husband and wife when Nelson came home following his heroic victory at Santa Cruz de Tenerife to be nursed back to health after losing his right arm.

Nelson would not be kept down for long and the glorious victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 raised him to the level of Saint in the eyes of the British people. Admiral Lord Nelson seems to have bought his own press at this point. Like a rock star who has forgotten what “real life” is like, he began living far differently than a humble sea captain born to a country parson. His flagrant affair with Emma Hamilton was certainly the icing on that cake. His triumphant return to London overland through Europe, where he was feted at every stop with Emma at his side, surely crushed his wife’s spirit.

The shrewish behavior Fanny is now famous for came out in a final showdown shortly after Horatio’s return to England. Fanny had met her husband’s now pregnant mistress and would no longer tolerate Horatio’s constant praise of someone Fanny privately referred to as “my husband’s whore”. She gave Nelson a “her or me” ultimatum and the Admiral chose Emma. As of December in 1800, Nelson cut all personal if not financial ties with his wife. When he died aboard HMS Victory at Trafalgar the Admiralty awarded Fanny a pension along with the 1,200 pounds a year left to her in Nelson’s will.

Fanny’s life after Nelson’s death in 1805 was long but decidedly quiet. She became ill upon hearing of her husband’s demise and never quite regained the strength she had once possessed. People, particularly her son and his curiously named wife Frances Herbert, now took care of Frances Nisbet, Viscountess Nelson. She lived mostly with Josiah, who became a wealthy merchant after his bid for a career in the Royal Navy fizzled due to his continued badmouthing of the great Nelson, first in Exmouth and then in Paris. When Josiah died suddenly in June of 1830, Fanny seems to have succumbed at last. She lingered for almost another year and died at her Exmouth home on May 4th, 1831.

Frances Nisbet Nelson probably would have lived much more happily, and perhaps more fully, had her first husband not died. She and Horatio were cut from very different cloth and the gift that endeared her to so many, generous caretaking, only managed to smother her beloved husband. But she always remembered him fondly, and never spoke ill of the great Admiral Lord Nelson.
Paintings: Captain Horatio Nelson, probably painted in France, 1783
Frances Lady Nelson, a 1798 watercolor by Daniel Orme


Charles L. Wallace said...

What a tragic figure in her own right! Thank you o much for sharing her history... [herstory?] ;-)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles! Tragic is a good word for Fanny. And, if you think about it, Emma too. Horatio was probably not the best guy for a gal to get involved with, but I'd follow him over the gunnels any day!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And huzzah for Lord and Lady Nelson... may they forever rest in peace.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and Huzzah! indeed.

Undine said...

Thanks for this post. In everything I've read about Nelson, I find myself with a great sympathy for Fanny. She may have been a bit of a drip, but a well-meant sort who certainly didn't deserve what she got. And when Nelson openly dumped her, she bore this ultimate humiliation as well as could be expected of any woman.

I actually feel for Emma, too, although I couldn't stand the woman. She was, in her way, the most pitiful and tragic figure of the whole bunch.

What a trio!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! I agree with you on all counts. I think Nelson as a man would have been better off unmarried but, coming from a large family, he obviously wanted one of his own. Enter poor Fanny who was probably swept off her feet (he does look terribly dashing in that portrait) and you've got the makings of a Greek tragedy.

Emma was indeed the most pitiful in the end. Any woman who would adopt out one of her twins because she "just could not bear" the strain of taking care of two children... Well; judge not lest ye be judged, I guess. So I'll shut up now.

Maybe next year we'll talk more about Emma.