If you cherish Nelson as an untarnished hero, this is likely not the book for you. If, however, your interest is more exploratory, then this book represents a treasure trove of meticulously compiled documentary evidence.
Jonathan North, in researching Nelson at Naples, has translated documents from half a dozen European languages, traveling from "Syracuse to Monmouth and St Petersburg to Naples" in order to do so. The fruits of North’s years of research are comprehensive, diligent and clearly referenced.
His question: was Nelson a war criminal for his role in the suppression of the 1799 Neapolitan revolution? The answer, to North's mind: yes.
For me, as Nelson and Emma's direct descendant, I feel strong, protective affection towards them both. It has been hard though for me to connect emotionally to Nelson as he has, for my whole life, (literally) been on a high pedestal; lofty and unreachable; the nation’s hero; beyond-human and a saint. I prefer to know the truth “warts and all”, and North delivers, along with some fantastic snippets of correspondence which shed new light on Nelson, Emma and Sir William. For example, in the words of Captain Edward Foote (p. 139), "Sir William interpreted between Lord Nelson and Cardinal Ruffo, till he was almost exhausted with fatigue... The venerable Sir William, at length vexed and wearied, calmly seated himself and requested his lady, though less loquacious than the generality of her sex, to assist their honourable friend, who continued pacing the cabin with the most determined perseverance in conducting this war of words."
The picture North documents of 1799 Naples (before and after Nelson's intervention) is vivid and terrifying for the extent of depravity and carnage. Nelson emerges as a powerful human being; not a saint, and not to my mind a monster either, but a fallible human who could be bad tempered, impatient and brutal, make mistakes and overstep the mark. North, for example, quotes John Rushout (p. 135): "we found Lord Nelson in a violent passion, which Sir William Hamilton was vainly trying to appease.”
This darker side of Nelson has been brushed aside by Nelsonophiles. It has been fashionable
to blame Emma or claim Nelson had been following orders, but North demonstrates that Nelson had acted of his own volition.
This human Nelson is for me both accessible and forgivable. His apparent reckless disregard for wartime convention may have caused untold suffering – which I feel should be acknowledged by historians – alongside his truly magnificent victories. The courage, passion and audacity which led Nelson to greatness, perhaps just this once led him astray. In honesty, the existence of his human side is a relief for me to find as it transforms him from unimpeachable to a multi-dimensional man I feel I can really know. To realise Nelson’s fallibility surely increases his grandeur? If he could err, then surely his successes are even more impressive still?