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In Calais, a destitute English woman is caught stealing a bottle of wine and put in jail, where she tells another prisoner, Mary Smith, that she is the once-famous Emma, Lady Hamilton: In 1786, beautiful young Emma Hart arrives in Naples with her mother, Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon, at the palace of Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador and uncle of her lover, Charles Greville. Emma is shocked when Hamilton informs her that Charles never intended to marry her, and that he sent her to Naples in exchange for money to pay off his debts. Hamilton offers Emma a new life in Naples, and she agrees to stay with him, eventually becoming his wife. One morning they are visited by Horatio Nelson, a British naval officer, who tells them that England is now at war with France. Nelson has come to Naples seeking military support, and Emma uses her influence with the queen to secure troops for him. However, the ensuing five years of war exhaust both the resources of the navy and the sympathy of the neighboring European countries, who are, Nelson bitterly complains, too intimidated by Napoleon Bonaparte to stand behind England. While anchored outside of Naples, Nelson receives a visit from Emma, who is horrified to see that he has lost an arm and the sight in one eye. She brings a promise of assistance from the queen, and Nelson goes on to defeat Napoleon in Egypt. After returning to Naples in triumph, Nelson is overcome by illness and nursed by Emma, with whom he falls in love. Nelson, who is married, departs for Malta, but disobeys orders and returns to Naples when word reaches him that revolution has broken out. He saves the royal family and the Hamiltons, but his actions earn him the scorn and disapproval of the British Admiralty, who order him to return to England alone. While awaiting Nelson at a London hotel, the dour Lady Frances Nelson and her father-in-law, Reverend Nelson, are visited by Lord Spencer, who discreetly reports that Nelson has already arrived, accompanied by Emma. The next day, Emma faints at the House of Lords, and Lady Nelson, concluding that Emma is pregnant, angrily reproaches her husband and vows never to divorce him. Reverend Nelson implores his son to do the right thing and end his affair with Emma, but Nelson refuses. After Emma gives birth to a daughter, Horatia, her mother urges her to reconcile with the ailing Hamilton, if only to protect her inheritance, but Emma refuses and is left penniless when he dies. Nelson and Emma move to a home in the country, where they live happily until 1805, when Nelson is called to defend England against Napoleon, who has formed an alliance with Spain. Nelson leads his men to a stunning victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, but is killed by a sharpshooter's bullet. Nelson's aide, Captain Hardy, tearfully brings the news to Emma, and years later, in the jail at Calais, she observes that the story of her life ended at that tragic moment.