Semper aliquod novi ex Nelson ..
- Martyn Downer
Biographical books about Nelson (including Downer's “Nelson's Purse“) take up five metres of shelving in the naval reference section of Portsmouth public library. Can there be scope for yet another volume? Yes indeed. Here is the fascinating story of the Chelengk, the diamond-encrusted brooch that Nelson, famously from portraits and cartoons, wore on his hat after the Sultan of Turkey had awarded it after the Battle of the Nile (1st - 2nd August 1798 ) .
The story covers, in remarkable detail, the vicissitudes of the jewel leading to its presentation to the National Maritime Museum from whence it vanished forever in 1951. The Chelengk's (and Nelson's) anabasis starts with its attendant posse of Turks making its tortuous way to our hero in Naples. Nelson succumbs to Emma. The cuckolded Sir William Hamilton is superseded and we follow the equally tortuous return to London of the Hamiltons, Nelson and the Chelengk - via Vienna - in 1800.
Most Nelson books major on Nelson afloat. Here we see Nelson ashore. The two are bridged by the mutual hostility between Nelson and Sir Sidney Smith, gallant hero of the Siege of Acre (1799), Chelengked in his turn as were many others, his relationship with Nelson soured by ambiguity over command arrangements, they largely the child of the time it takes anything to travel from London to the Mediterranean - the official Nile despatches took two months. Back in London the hatchet is buried but the portrait of Smith is an informative aside. Nelson ashore at home emerges as a small physical wreck happily buried under his fur pelisse and a weighty load of medals and decorations, his position undermined by vanity, tactlessness towards his King, his appalling treatment of his wife, and Emma, her baby bump obscured by a mounting pile of blubber as she empties Nelson's well-filled purse with her gambling - but keeping up with the Neapolitan Joneses had been no help there.
After Nelson meets his destiny at Trafalgar we see the Chelengk as it cascades down through the Nelson family via ennobled, acquisitive, unlovable, even emetic brother William. We also see the unedifying family in-fighting over the division of spoils including the Brontë title and land. From the Nelsons the Chelengk passes to the Hoods, until its sale, by now much mutilated, when it is rescued (as is much other Nelsonia) for the nation, ending up in the then new National Maritime Museum, whence it was stolen in 1951.
This is a very rich book, not to be speed read. It is packed with anecdotes - whose wardroom was forced to eat roast rat?
A large cast of characters is illustrated via contemporary paintings reproduced in colour and there is a further section of black and white illustrations. Sources are meticulously recorded, supported by a good bibliography, all indicative of a great depth of research. As a minor carp, the rather sparse index failed me occasionally when I wanted a reminder of how so-and-so had first come into the story. I also felt the lack of a family tree to sort out three generations of Nelsons, Nisbets, Hamiltons, Boltons, Matchams and Hoods.
The picture, supplied by the publisher, is of the 2017 replica.