David Donachie,
Nelson & Emma #3: Breaking the Line
(Orion, 2000; McBooks, 2004)

It's a bittersweet romance.

Lord Horatio Nelson, the great naval hero of British history, seems to have truly loved Lady Emma Hamilton. He, however, was married, albeit in a loveless relationship, and she was the wife of Sir William Hamilton, a valued English ambassador and one of Nelson's best friends. That Hamilton knew about the affair -- and gave it at least his tacit approval -- is clear; that Lady Nelson eventually learned the truth is also indisputable, although she was certainly less sanguine about her husband's activities.

The reaction of the England in general is perhaps of more interest. Much like today, people then cried out for details on the lives of the rich and famous, and Nelson was, without question, the most popular celebrity of the day. The people adored him, even if the British royals and political elite steered clear of him for various reasons -- some having to do with his personal life, while others had more disdain for his vanity and obstinance.

Breaking the Line is the third and final book in David Donachie's Nelson & Emma trilogy. By this point in their story, their lives are fully entwined. Barely paying lip service to the dictates of propreity in the circles within which they moved, the couple lived together when they could and had a child together, even if they maintained a public fiction that young Horatia was an adopted foundling.

It cost them both, socially, and it certainly affected the direction Emma's and Horatia's lives took after Nelson's death. But it's the getting there that's the meat of this book, and Donachie tells their tale richly and warmly.

But the love story is secondary to readers, like me, who thrive on yarns of nautical adventure. Throughout the span of fiction and history, you'll find few naval heroes to equal Nelson, and Donachie here has two great stories to tell: the sea battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Without being laborious with the details, he outlines Nelson's strategies, the movements of the ships under his command and the fierce actions that resulted. Of course, both battles ended in stunning victories for England, although Nelson paid the price for his boldness at Trafalgar and died from a marksman's bullet aboard his beloved HMS Victory.

Love story and war story both, Breaking the Line offers riveting, blow-by-blow action and a thorough development of these thrilling, larger-than-life characters. Heavily fictionalized -- there is, of course, no way to know the majority of Nelson's thoughts, or the words he and Emma exchanged in private -- the book still provides a great deal of insight based as much on Donachie's research as his imagination. The series is excellent, and this final book is by far the best of the lot.

book review by
Tom Knapp

17 November 2012

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