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Georgian Society – an Insight into Fanny’s World

Overlooking sparkling Middle Harbour was an excellent location to reflect on the life and times of Horatio and Fanny Nelson. I appreciated the warm welcome from Middle Harbour Probus Club as guest speaker at their monthly meeting at the Yacht Club. This time, I took the opportunity to share some of the insights into Georgian society that I had discovered whilst researching Fanny and Nelson’s lives together – and apart.

I’ve learned from my years in finance in several nations that effective leadership is about much more than barking orders. It’s about how we influence people by the lives we lead and the decisions we make. Using this wider definition helps us to appreciate how a single mother from a small Caribbean island played a leadership role while taking care of naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson’s affairs as he faced political, naval and personal battles.


To understand her role, the modern person needs to appreciate the difference between the meaning of the Georgian word 'Society' and today’s equivalent, the 'Elite'.

Today’s Elite Not as Respected

Generally the press is disparaging when it talks about the ‘Elite’ but the journalists today know there is enough interest in the goings on of the rich and famous for it to be a ‘hot topic’. In many ways, the Elite are hounded and idolised, but not respected. The members, according to the press, usually do not deserve their influence nor are worthy of the esteem of ordinary folk.

The Power of 18C Society

‘Society’, however, had a very different meaning in 18th Century Georgian England. It referred to those people – often aristocrats or gentry and included both men and women who were at the apex of influence in English Institutions - the Court, Parliament, Church, Military and Judiciary. They were often titled, owned huge acreages of fertile agricultural land, had beautiful country houses and city mansions and were also distinguished from the middle classes and the lower classes by the way they spoke, the way they dressed and their mannered way of conducting themselves.


If, like the Nelsons, you wanted to rise in government service, you needed to secure the approval of ‘Society’. If we have read Jane Austen we know about the ways this was done.


If we compare ‘Society’ with the ‘Elite’, we know the latter is not a homogenous group and membership is determined largely by who the media consider to merit inclusion. The ‘Elite’ may live in the same suburbs, send their children to the same schools and belong to the same clubs and have cottages on the same beach but it is more often based on finances than culture. In contrast, being an accepted member of ‘Society’ meant you were governed not only by respect for the other members but also by your willingness to abide by unspoken and strict codes of behaviour, speech and appearance. Above all you needed to know your place and to refrain from challenging the system. If you didn’t, there were sanctions.

The rules of membership were largely determined by women – usually of noble blood – who knew everyone and decided behind closed doors who should be admitted or who should be shunned. There was a routine to be followed. If you were a gentleman, you must have a visiting card and know when the ladies were receiving visitors – usually late morning. If you were a woman, you may be invited to take tea in the late afternoon.


 If you had aspirations to be admitted to Society, to be recognised and accepted by its unofficial rulers who indirectly controlled the best of jobs, money-making opportunities and marriages, you had to be willing to undergo initiation with all its attendant challenges.  This was Fanny’s world.  


Fanny Wins Society’s Respect

At the beginning the Nelsons were fringe members, if members at all – two of the family were in 'trade' (and one married a farmer!) which could have easily disqualified them. Fanny’s role was to enter Society - which she did when her husband was knighted - and to rise in Society by playing by its rules and using her name and influence on behalf of her husband and his family. This was no small achievement at the time and no doubt helped Horatio to gain recognition, promotion and acceptance where it mattered.


When Horatio returned to London from Naples with his 'friends' - both Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton, he tried to insert them into Society. But he was not playing within the rules. He could have possibly have succeeded if Fanny was willing to co-operate and turn a blind eye. However Fanny’s terms were that he break off his love affair with Emma, his pregnant mistress.


Horatio returned to live with his ‘friends’. Society was not fooled and for most of the rest of Horatio’s life he was accepted only by virtue of his position and his prestige. Emma Hamilton and their child were never accepted. Fanny on the other hand continued to be welcome in Society and had enduring friendships where it counted.

New Members Welcome in 2024

I ended with a reading from my latest novel, ‘Nelson’s Lost Son’, to share what can happen when someone, albeit inadvertently, makes powerful enemies.


Afterwards, as I commented on their friendly crowd and the excellent location, Warren mentioned they were looking for new members – so if you live in the area – I suggest you may like to explore their invitation!


"I would highly recommend Oliver as a guest speaker. He covered a wide range of interesting topics – confirmed some of the things we knew about that time in history and shared many things we didn’t. Very entertaining.”

-        Warren Kennedy, Middle Harbour Probus Club, tours and speakers manager.

If you would like me to speak at your club or event, email me and we can discuss potential topics.

You may also enjoy hearing my recent ABC Radio interview 'Reinventing Fanny Nelson, Lord Horatio Nelson's much maligned wife' available on the ABC Listen app or their website at:


Links to order my novels are on my home page. 'Nelson's Folly' is also available as an audiobook.

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