An incredibly powerful rumination from our resident Rattigan expert:
Terence Rattigan’s late play “A Bequest to the Nation” reflects on the love affair of Lord Horatio Nelson with Emma Hamilton. This is well covered material both on stage and screen. Rattigan, however, chooses to focus on Lady Nelson’s relation to her husband’s affair, and especially on the quality and impact of the forgiveness she extends to her husband.
What I did not know about this dramatic business of the year 1801 and before, is that Nelson was a child of the rectory, and his brother a clergyman, as well. What Horatio (Lord Nelson) did in leaving Frances (Lady Nelson) for Emma (Lady Hamilton) was extremely acute and notorious. It also afflicted his conscience in classic Christians terms.
In Scene II of Act Two, Nelson unburdens himself in the presence of his nephew, George Matcham. What is at issue is a letter, very disturbing to Nelson, that he has received from his wife. He has memorized the letter.
GEORGE. What kind of person do you think I am?
NELSON. … A nephew I am proud to have… Very well, George. Here it is. Now you may begin your lesson in the understanding of adult emotions.
(Nelson begins to recite from memory the contents of the letter.)
‘The eighteenth of December, eighteen hundred and one. My dearest husband, it is some time that I have written to you. The silence you have imposed is more than my affection will allow me —
GEORGE stares at him with wide eyes.
‘and in this instance I hope you will forgive me for not obeying you. One thing I omitted in my letter of July which I now have to offer for your accommodation — a
comfortable warm house.’
(Continuing gently but remorselessly.)
‘Do, my dear husband, let us live together. I can never be happy until such an event takes place. I assure you again, I have but one wish in the world, to please you. Let everything be buried in oblivion, it will pass away like a dream.’
GEORGE makes a gesture for him to stop.
Hear it out. A few more tears tonight won’t hurt. ‘I can only entreat you to believe I am most sincerely and affectionately your wife, Frances H. Nelson.’
You see that you and she need have had no fears that I didn’t read it. …
GEORGE. But it’s a kind and loving letter.
NELSON. It’s brutal.
GEORGE. It isn’t —
NELSON. Many brutal acts are done out of love and kindness, George. Perhaps most. (Seeing his blank face.) Oh dear God, must I explain? Is this so important to you?
GEORGE. (Simply.) The most important thing on earth.
NELSON. It won’t save my honour, which you seem so to cherish.
GEORGE. If it’s true, it will.
NELSON. It’s true.
He sits beside him, and speaks very quietly.
He drinks. GEORGE stares at him in silence.
I shock you, of course. You’re my Reverend father’s grandson and to answer forgiveness by hatred must seem unchristian at the least. But is it? Jesus told us how to answer a blow on the cheek, but he never told us how to answer a kiss. I haven’t always been a bad Christian, George. I’ve even managed sometimes, to love my enemies a little. Not too much, mind you. Moderation in all things. But I do try to save them from drowning, even at risk to our ships, and no one can say I ever treated a prisoner-of-war other than with honour and gentleness. But George —
He seems to find it hard to continue. GEORGE’S eyes are unwaveringly fixed on his, and they are the eyes of his own conscience.
George — what about an enemy who won’t retaliate? Who answers every broadside with a signal gently fluttering at the mast which says: ‘Whatever you do to me, dearest husband, I will always forgive you and go on loving you for ever.’ What about that enemy, George? In this matter of loving enemies my dearest wife has beat me in the chase. What is there, then, left for me but to hate?
He finishes his glass… There is a long pause.
That ends your opening lesson in a long and difficult course. Human love and human hate. It’s a perplexing study for anyone. …
Have you understood, even a little.
At the end of the play, Lady Nelson proffers a forgiving act and blessing to her successful rival, Emma. It is all quite overwhelming, and penned by a brilliant English ‘toff’ near the height of his powers.
I myself don’t know what to do with this scene. Is it a representation of that great old song, ‘There’s A Thin Line (Between Love And Hate)’? Is it the purest Gospel? Is it a little lame on the part of Lady Nelson, who, in the last line of the play, “hobbles her birdlike way into darkness”? I’m not sure I know.
What anyone can see, however, is the fact of our ‘nuanced’ Cosmopolitan playwright grasping head-on the impact of forgiving love when its loved object has done its worst, and continues to do so and ‘we’re loving it’. Fortunately for the dynamic of the play and its great issue, Nelson was killed at Trafalgar.