So I have just finished reading Terry Coleman’s biography of Horatio Nelson, and it has got me thinking that it is time to revive some of this blog’s old features. I have always been fascinated with toadies and flatterers, those invaluable creatures who attach themselves to anyone who simultaneously has a bit of power and a lack of common sense (a description that seems to apply perfectly to Nelson, who appears to have been 100% dipshit and/or scumbag except for when it came to winning naval battles, which, in fairness, is what you’re really looking for in an admiral).
Partly the appearance of toadying is the result of varying cultural norms — what would appear to a Byzantine reader as a scathing indictment reads to the modern eye as revoltingly unctuous, for instance. So it could just be that the norms in speech and writing of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were particularly flattering by the standards of the modern day. But Nelson’s contemporaries certainly regarded his appetite for flattery as unseemly and ridiculous, so I’ve decided to forge ahead with today’s Age of Nelson special edition of Profiles in Toadying!
Our special flatterer for this week is Horatio Nelson himself, who never passed up the opportunity to polish his own medals when speaking or writing to someone. Here he is shit-talking the governor of the Leeward Islands:
I have the honour, sir, of being as old as the prime minister of England, and think myself as capable of commanding one of his majesty’s ships as that minister is of governing the state.
Here he is writing to the future Duke of Clarence, his wenching buddy and … is there such a thing as an anti-patron? A fatuous titled dipshit that gets in the way of you being successful?
I am interested only that your royal highness should be the greatest and best man this country ever produced … Nothing is wanting to make you the darling of the English nation … .
And here he is blowing himself in the third person, the insufferable toad:
“I defy any insinuations against my honour. Nelson is as far above doing a scandalous or mean action as the heavens are above the earth.”
– this in response to a complaint about his victualling practices, from a serial adulterer who never ceased intriguing to get cushy government jobs for his relatives.
I feel myself highly honoured and flattered by your ladyship’s charming letter … I am bound by my oath of chivalry to protect all who are persecuted and distressed … I am happy … to have a knight of superior prowess in my train, who … will soon make his appearance …”.
But no one, no one, toadied to Nelson like his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton.
Here she is, writing about Nelson (while trashing his wife, Frances):
When He came home maimed lame and covered in Glory She put in derision his Honnerable woudns … because He had seen a more lovely a more virtuous woman … who had her heart and senses open to his Glory to His greatness and His virtues. If he had lived with this daemon this blaster of His fame and reputation He must have fallen under it and His Country would have lost their greatest ornament – No, let him live yet to gain more victory and to be blessed with his idolising Emma.
She once described him as:
the Victor of the Nile, the Conqueror of Copenhagen, the Terror and Stop of the Northern Confederacy, St Vincent’s prop & the Hero of the 14 of Febry, the restorer of the King of Naples, the preserver of Rome, the avenger of Kings, the Guardian angell of England & the man of men who in this war as been in one hundred & 24 battles & come off loved with glory honner virtue & modesty the pride of his country & friend.
Lord Minto describes her:
She goes on cramming Nelson with trowelfuls of flattery, which he goes on taking as quietly as a child does pap. The love she makes to him is not only ridiculous but disgusting; not only the rooms but the whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of him and her, of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour, the flagstaff of L’Orient, &c — an excess of vanity which counteracts its own purpose. If it was Lady H’s house there might be a pretence for it; to make his own a mere looking glass to view himself all day is bad taste.
So yeah — Nelson was a monumental egotist, and when he met Lady Hamilton he got an A+ tier toady attached directly to him, amplifying the roaring pain in the ass he already was.
But Nelson and his people could be bitchy too. Tune in next time for an Age of Nelson edition of Invective Through the Ages!