John Sugden, Nelson: The Sword of Albion. Henry Holt: New York, 2013.1

Who was Horatio Nelson? Why does his likeness stand above Trafalgar Square in London? Was he a singularly great warrior? Was he just a product of the British navy? Why is he revered in Britain?

“He was, after all, a married man returning with his adulterous love, threatened with being unmasked by the secret child growing inside her, and her cuckolded husband.” (355)

In the second volume of a two-part biography of Nelson, Sugden narrates the twists and turns of the last seven years of Nelson’s life. He begins the story in September 1797 when Nelson was recovering from the amputation of his arm and follows the admiral through the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In between, he recounts Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay, and his northern campaign, as well as Nelson’s troubled family life and extended affair with Emma Hamilton.

In his introduction, Sugden says that the naval aspects of Nelson’s career have been well documented, so this biography serves to illuminate Nelson as an individual. For this reason, he provides exhaustive details about Nelson’s life, a product of extensive knowledge of Nelson’s personal correspondences, ship’s logs, and the records of other contemporaries who talked about Nelson. He does narrate the military exploits that made the admiral famous. But, while the the discussion of the battles and campaigns are usually adequate, they are not the strength of this book. The strength is the weight of correspondences that Sugden brings to bear. These documents reveal that Nelson was not a singularly gifted warrior or sailor, but a man who oscillated between supreme confidence in the abilities of his fleet with an insatiable hunger for public accolades and suffering from bouts of illness and depression. The letters reveal, in particular, that Nelson was petulant about perceived mistreatment by the board of the admiralty and bitter that, repeatedly, other admirals were appointed to command fleets at his expense. Sugden also uses these letters to examine in some depth Nelson’s relationship with Emma Hamilton that caused Nelson to become estranged from his wife, Fanny. While Nelson’s affair with Lady Hamilton is the most lurid relationship presented, Sugden locates Nelson within a web of personal relationships that promoted, sustained, and impeded him by turns, as was the norm for upwardly mobile young men in the Royal Navy.2

Sugden’s biography of Nelson is what it purports to be: a blow by blow account of the last seven years of the admiral’s life enriched by an extensive documentary evidence. In the sense that, in the author’s mind, there is no extant biography of Nelson that sufficiently reveals the man, Sugden’s work is a valuable read. Sugden also tries to posit some long term effects of Nelson’s naval victories such as the revolutions in Central and South America, growth of the United States, and the nineteenth century Pax Britannia. But in the context the inclusion of such sweeping statements serve more to justify the biographical subject than to actually discuss historical causation.

Hence a larger critique. For all the revealing detail Sugden includes about Nelson’s personality and family, one is left to wonder: so what? To be sure, Nelson was a man whose military achievements elevated him from a middle of the road non-noble family to the peerage with estates in two kingdoms. Moreover, despite Nelson’s exceptionalism he is one of the most enthralling examples of an officer in the British Navy and well worth study on both counts. But both of those could be examined without the same sprawling narrative. The extensive quotation from letters and logs is informative, but it is often possible to disagree with his interpretation (see below) and many of those sources are unavailable to readers. What remains is Nelson, a hero, as the subject of fascination still today.

The result is that the second volume of the biography is a form of the dreaded great man history.3 Throughout this volume Nelson is an admiral in the British navy, he courts the favor of royalty, and he trades his devoted middle-class wife for the wife of the British ambassador to Naples.4 Sugden also includes a large number of names–of ships, of captains and other officers, of people close to Nelson and his family–but the gaze is focused on the extended family (so to speak) of the officer- and future officer corps of the British Navy. Absent are the sailors from the British navy, the French, Spanish, Danish, Neapolitan, and Portuguese sailors and many of the officers, and, often, even the names of the ships in the other fleets. The inconsistent detail, like Sugden’s affectation of the phrasing found in the letters, perhaps sets the audience alongside Nelson himself, but the result is that there is a relatively shallow narrative of the events and Nelson set as the apex of the enterprise. With minimal exceptions, the events narrated, complete with suffering and heroism, actually take place in a shadow world only glimpsed through the incomplete fictions of ships logs documenting food intake, diseases, and casualty statistics that Sugden occasionally mentions.5

As one might expect in writing a biography that makes such extensive use of letters, Sugden tends to read into the psyche of his subjects. But it is likely that Sugden also reads too much into these letters. For instance, he is overly credulous when it comes to epistolic conventions and gendered assumptions–particularly between men. To wit, two examples both dealing with Nelson’s relationship with Thomas Troubridge, one of the captains at Aboukir Bay:

“Troubridge was a fine sea officer, amazingly energetic and tigerish in disposition, but he was too quick-tempered, artless and emotionally unstable to command a complicated theatre. Yet the two men worked well in tandem–almost too well. Their friendship had attained a rare intensity, not so surprising in Nelson, whose feminine sensitivity fuelled deep attachments and innumerable kindnesses, but more remarkable in a figure as masculine, bluff and brutally blunt and down-to-earth as Troubridge. Any stresses that beset their friendship frequently reduced both men to tears.” (60)

And when describing how Troubridge tried to pry Nelson away from Emma Hamilton:

“Of the brothers none loved Nelson more than Thomas Troubridge, once the admiral’s soulmate… They had dreamed dreams together. But now it was increasingly the Hamiltons who provided Nelson with that close, confidential and emotional support, and Troubridge’s increasing bellicosity may have had its roots in jealousy.” (293)

Sugden may be appraising these situations correctly, but it seems more likely that these descriptions are caricatures that a simplistic reading of these letters would lead to. Too, some of these statements are without hint of source material, suggesting that they are inferences that Sugden makes based on his interpretation of other letters.

In sum, Sugden reveals a portrait of Nelson the man that is frequently engaging. In full disclosure, this author has had a fascination and some measure of resonance with Nelson for about a decade and immensely enjoyed the first volume of Sugden’s biography of Nelson. But whether it is discontent with the biography genre6 or more (noticeable) instances where Sugden fell victim to sweeping generalizations and shallow caricatures, Nelson: The Sword of Albion just seemed superficial.

1I received this book as a free review copy and it does not include the plates that will be in the edition that goes on sale this month. There are also endnotes indicated in the text, but they are not included in this early print. Included is a glossary, bibliography, and a note on the sources.
2 The promotion aspect of this web was more evident in Sugden’s first volume that tracked Nelson’s early career. While his relationships did earn him promotions later, Sugden describes Nelson as a man whose impetuous and sometimes sullen nature caused him to be disliked by an increasing number of senior officers as his career wore on. At the same time, he describes Nelson as becoming increasingly sensitive to the criticisms of those same officers.
3Volume one did not suffer to the same extent because while you knew that Nelson was destined for greatness (as it were), he was not yet a great man hobnobbing with the elite and it was therefore easier to examine the stages in the career of a young officer in the British navy.
4Sugden provides a cursory account of Emma’s life. As an upwardly mobile nobody who charmed her way into some of the upper ranks of society, Emma would perhaps provide a more telling biography about that aspect of society than Nelson does.
5 Much better in this regard is N.A.M. Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean, which includes chapters dedicated to the social history of the British Navy (recruitment, procurement, training, health, etc).
6As a budding historian, this is an ongoing concern.

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