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The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History
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The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History

3.3 of 5 stars 3.30  ·  rating details  ·  268 ratings  ·  57 reviews
This is a book about a world in a life. Conceived in Jamaica and possibly mixed-race, Elizabeth Marsh (1735-1785) traveled farther and was more intimately affected by developments across the globe than the vast majority of men. She was the first woman to publish in English on Morocco, and the first to carry out extensive explorations in eastern and southern India. A creatu ...more
Hardcover, 363 pages
Published September 4th 2007 by Pantheon (first published 2007)
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In journalism, there's a saying: Show, don't tell. Sometimes I think other disciplines could learn from this. There is no question the author conducted an inordinate amount of research and pieced together information from multiple continents. The book's concept is fascinating -- using the life of an 18th-century woman to explore/explain colonialism, the rise of the British navy, slavery, free trade, revolution, women's roles. But the overall execution left much to be desired. There are parts, pa ...more
In and of herself Elizabeth Marsh has little historical significance. She was not married to or related to any important historical figures; she played no major role in any wars, catastrophes, scandals, elections; her travels in Europe, North Africa and India, whilst unusual for a woman in her age, were not especially ground-breaking; in short, she has left little imprint on history. So why is she the subject of this book?

As Linda Colley herself argues, Elizabeth Marsh lived in and was affected
I had to read this for an English class, and I have to say it was really hard to get through it. It would have been easier if it was considered a novel, as opposed to a historical account. This is by no stretch of the imagination a historical account. Why? Maybe because it does not present a lot of information that the author is basing her writing on. There is no doubt that she did a lot of research for this, but she did not really show it to us. I kept wanting to scream at her to give us the pr ...more
A lot of the reviews here seem to be criticizing the book Colley didn't write. Yes, this is an academic work of history. Colley is a professor at Princeton, so to expect a work of pop history or journalism pretending to be history is foolish. As a historical study, it's very good. Colley uses the very interesting life of Elizabeth Marsh to explore the proto-globalization of the 18th-century British Empire. Marsh's reactions to foreign cultures in India and Morocco are interesting, as is her rela ...more
It could have been a really interesting book, but it's style undercuts the content; the author is obviously used to writing papers for academic journals, and has no handle on making dry facts fun to read. She also tells us several times that she's made or is making points that aren't really supported by the text, though they could have been if the book was better written.
I wouldn't suggest it as a good read; I'm taking my copy to the used bookstore to see if I can trade it for somethign worthwhi
Amydebolt DeBolt
Sounded so interesting...and yet it was so dull. If you want to read a tedious research paper with snippets of an interesting woman's life mentioned once in awhile, this is a great book. If you're looking for more excitement, find something else to the newspaper's business section.
Extremely thorough, engaging history. It really brought the time period (1750-90 or so) alive in a new way for me. A nice break from my usual fiction reading.
I love this kind of book -- a biography that teaches us about the history of the world in which the subject lived. In this case, the time period was the 1700s and the geographical location was -- all over the place! The Caribbean, Britain, the Middle East, India...partly the story involves her relationships with her uncle, her husband, her children, and others who were not actually her blood relatives at all. The author talks about conventional roles for women in that era and how Elizabeth Marsh ...more
I wanted to read this book because the life of Elizabeth Marsh sounded profoundly liberated and interesting, regardless of the time period in which she lived. She was a woman who had many adventures, traveled the world, flaunted conventions, and wrote about it. What's not to find interesting? How about this book, for a start?

I was under the impression that this book was Elizabeth's story, based largely on her own words. I read over 100 pages before I came upon anything substantial about Elizabet
It seems to me that this book was badly -- or erroneously -- marketed. At any rate, I'd expected from the reviews and jacket blurbs something far less academic, bordering on clinical, and something more entertaining instead. That's not to say The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh was not an interesting book in many ways; just that it required some adjustment in my expectations when it became quite clear a few chapters in that the book was never going to loosen its tightly-bound corset of academic propri ...more
Wow, took me forever to get through this because of the level of information. The author is a Prof at Princeton and should be commended for her incredibly detailed biography of this woman, unknown in history, yet her life is compelling and it is a fascinating window into a century we know little about, the eighteenth. I actually tagged a page early on, where she writes, "Biography, it has been said, is like a net that catches and brings to the surface an individual life. But a net is only a set ...more
With a fascinating topic and a pleasantly motley array of archival materials and resources, Linda Colley weaves together the story of an unusual 18th century woman who proved to be a vivid embodiment of an important and transitionary era in British history. This book proved disappointing in that the quality of writing never really stood up to the subject. The generally speculative tone of most of the narrative, though caveated, is unbounded and tied together only with strands of fairly basic tex ...more
Jul 14, 2008 Jeanette rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: History lovers
Surprise! I initially tossed this aside after shlogging through the introduction. But one afternoon in desperation for a book, tried again and found it pretty good.

A true story -- not a novel and not just a history book.
Elizabeth Marsh's life is so widely traveled that she is most at home on board ships! The author asks questions that leads you to understand her motives. Certainly Collins does a lot of reading between the lines to offer insights into why this woman rode the crest of good connec
A true story reconstructed from diaries, etc. of Elizabeth Marsh, born 1735. A pretty amazing story of a woman who travels the world from a young age, hopping on boats the way we travel on airplanes. She was the daughter of a shipwright, then Elizabeth married a man who traveled to India and other places for the East India Company. She seemed to be constantly in motion. Often times she traveled on her own. It is quite amazing the number of places she visited in the late 1700's when most people n ...more
I enjoyed reading this book because it was a neat departure from the pulpy books that have so far filled my summer reading. It was not, however, always an easy book to engage! Some other reviewers of this book pan the writer's style, while others argue that it is a scholarly work and shouldn't be evaluated in the same way we evaluate fiction. Both sides of the argument are true, and the bottom line is that the writer's style can be VERY dense. (She is addicted to subordinate clauses, and I often ...more
A very well-written biography which provides a different viewpoint on the mid-late 18th century in the British Empire.

Despite being a woman of humble origins, Elizabeth Marsh travelled widely and met some very important people. I enjoyed seeing the Empire through her experiences. I'm not sure I always agreed with Colley's theories as to Marsh's motivations, but then she had read the woman's letters and diaries which allows one to get to know a person far better than reading a transcription of th
Sep 21, 2010 Joyce rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: historians and women's history enthusiasts
Shelves: history, biography
Fantastic and true story, well written and supported by excellent research, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh tells us about the life of Elizbeth Marsh, a global traveler who resided at the far edges of the English speaking world in the sge of sail. Although my opinion is that the author, historian Linda Colley, is really stretching in her discussion of Elizabeth's maternal ancestry, that is my single caveat; documentation by many others and Elizabeth's own records paint an accurate picture of the o ...more
Sep 27, 2008 Tamra marked it as wish-list
Recommended to Tamra by: The Economist
The biography of an 18th century Englishwoman who spent time on four continents, was kidnapped by pirates, almost became a member of a Moroccan sultan's harem, and was one of the early Western explorers of the Indian subcontinent. Sounds utterly fascinating, right?

Not so much. Maybe it's just me - the sun is shining, the Cubs are in the playoffs, etc. - but this book was too dry and academic to tell such an amazing story. And I usually LIKE dry and academic.

So I'm not giving up on it yet. Maybe
Lillian Huynh
Since I am not that interested in history, I thought that I would give the book a try to see how it is like. Turns out that the book was not interesting at all.
Jan 10, 2010 Stacey rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: British history fans
Recommended to Stacey by: NY Times
This book definitely reads like non-fiction and not historical fiction -which I liked. Because of the lack of definitive information Elizabeth Marsh, understanding the political, social and geographic context of her time and place is essential. I did feel, however, that the author was judgemental at times, judging Marsh by today's standards. For example, in marrying off her daughter to the wealthy and connected suitor wasn't manipulative and scheming(as the author implies) but being a good mothe ...more
Fascinating look at the globalization of world politics and economics in the 1700s. Only at that time expansion was through naval power rather than computers as it is today. Elizabeth Marsh traveled the world in the 1700s and is the first female to record her impressions of Morocco and India. Historian Linda Colley pulls together Marsh's writings, those of her keenly observant uncle which survive today on a family website and maps them with her own world of knowledge about seafaring, politics, e ...more
I would really like to rate it a 3 1/2. I definitely learned something that I didn't know before. A lot of people have rated this book negatively, but maybe they were expecting some more like historical fiction. Today I feel that many authors of historical books feel the need to write the story like a fictional novel so that people will read it. I enjoy those books as well, but having History as one of my majors in college I can really appreciate a book that tells the history of the person witho ...more
Debby Stewart
Outstanding historical and I believe non-fiction. So well written.
April Lashbrook
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 04, 2008 Suju marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: unfinished
Sadly I have given up on this book. The "excuse" reason is that it's due back to the library on Thursday (can't renew it) and I'm not going to finish it by then. The fact is, however, I had plenty of time to finish it if I'd read regularly, but after a good start I got bogged down in this chapter about Elizabeth's husband and kept falling asleep while reading. I think if I'd gotten through this chapter the rest would've been more interesting, but I guess I'll never know (or at least not now).
A very well researched book, but just not a very interesting read. The premise sounded so exciting ... a woman who was captured by pirates in the 1700s and got away ... a woman who traveled more extensively than any other woman of her time, but the story got bogged down in too much historical trivia. It was like reading a doctoral thesis. I kept thinking that Linda Colley was writing the book to support a thesis that the Elizabeth Marsh's life was influenced by the events of the world.
Generally I hate describing a book with a term as neutral as "interesting" but that's the best I can do in this case.

Colley, an excellent historian, tries to write a 300 page biography of a woman about whom we know very little. As a result, the book becomes more about the world of Elizabeth Marsh than about Marsh herself.

That said, it's a fascinating world and Colley tells a great story. If you're at all interested in women's history or the British Empire, I'd recommend it.
Took me an abnormally long time to finish this book. It isn't exciting and the author gets really bogged down with side stories but it is all to set the story of the era. It was interesting to read of a woman traveler in a time when women weren't supposed to do that. One of the most interesting topics was her breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy in 1778. . . with no anesthesia. . . . hadn't really thought about mastectomies back then but she wasn't the first!
Chris Bartholomew
The book was okay. Well written. Elizabeth Marsh though was really not extraordinarily interesting nor nearly as well traveled as the author implies. Certainly for her time she did more than the average human being and their daily trials would allow for, but most of her "adventure" was not of her choosing. She did have an unusual travel experience in India, but apparently more from the desire to avoid her husband than from an urge to explore.
I really expected this to be a good book. The premise is that there was a woman born in the early 19th century that travelled all over and experienced many of the huge changes going on in the world at that time. She was not an aristocrat and her movements were not always of her own volition. Anyway, the premise sounds great, but it was hard to read this book. It just never took off for me.
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“Strange, awkwardly written, and even shocking, it broke new ground in more than geographical and observational terms.” 1 likes
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