Picked this up after Kristine Kathryn Rusch mentioned it on her blog. A breezy read -- about 50% is bestseller lists, with the rest being commentary on trends in the list over a decade. As someone who listens to a lot of Librivox and other public domain audiobooks, I especially found the lists prior to 1923 interesting -- many authors of that period I only know because they're out of copyright and have no idea how popular they were. Finding out that E. Phillips Oppenheim and Mary Roberts Rinehart were the Clive Cussler and Mary Higgins Clark of their day is fascinating.
The one drawback of the book is that it limits itself to hardcover bestsellers, so all the paperback originals of the 1940s and '50s are left off, including Mickey Spillane who is one of the all time bestselling authors.
You know what I like about historical biographies? There's no sensationalistic scandal-mongering. Biographers can't pay a maid $5000 to dish dirt. There aren't any former-friends or school-mates who can come forward with an axe to grind. Historical biographies are histories and deal in facts, not gossip.
In England's Mistress, Kate Williams does her damnedest to bring Kitty Kelley-style biography to the 18th Century. The book is more supposition and innuendo than fact.
This is apparent right from the get-go. Emma Hamilton's childhood is shrouded in the obscurity. Just look at her Wikipedia entry and note how little info there is about her early life. Yet Williams spends several chapters here, spinning a salacious story out of nothing.
We start with Emma's father. Practically nothing is known about him apart from his name (Henry Lyon), occupation (blacksmith at a local mine) and that he died shortly after Emma's birth. Williams concludes that he didn't die in a work related accident. Her evidence for this is that there's no record of an accident (reasonable but hardly conclusive) or that Emma's mother received a pay-out from the mine (more compelling, but still not conclusive). Williams also discounts the possibility that Henry was tubercular, based on the premise that Emma's mother, Mary, wouldn't have married him if he were (reasonable, but women have been known to behave unreasonably out of love). But then Williams doesn't discuss any other diseases that might've killed a working man in the 18th Century; she jumps straight to her preferred theory -- that Henry died from alcoholism or a booze-related incident. Her evidence is simply that alcohol-related deaths were quite common among the working-class of the time.
Okay, all that's fairly reasonable, and if Williams just left it there I'd be fine with it. Henry's dead, doesn't matter how, let's move on. But Williams doesn't do that. Instead, she builds an even more tenuous theory on top of her already shaky conclusion, and decides that either Henry must've committed suicide, or Mary killed him. The evidence for this is simply that Mary left the town where they were living and moved in with her parents -- she must've had something to hide!
Because, y'know, a young, widowed mother would never move back to her parents for financial reasons. The most absurd part comes when Williams claims, no source provided, that widows at the time were often suspected of witchcraft and it would've been dangerous for Mary to remain in the mining town. Um ... what? Henry died in 1765, thirty years after England repealed the laws against witchcraft. I suppose some ignorant hicks might've clung to old superstitions, but such an assertion needs good sources, which Williams doesn't provide.
Then for the next several chapters, Williams keeps mentioning Mary's dark secret. Everything about Emma's early life is filtered through this unproven theory, until I reached the point of throwing the book across the room. Alas, it's an audiobook, so I had nothing to throw.