Tony's Reviews > Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles by Susan Nagel
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Jun 08, 09

bookshelves: biography
Read in June, 2009

Nagel, Susan. MISTRESS OF THE ELGIN MARBLES: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. (2004). ****. This is a fascinating look at Miss Nisbet who came from a family that was one of the richest in all of Scotland, and later married Lord Elgin (Remember...It’s a hard “g”) and went on to become one of the most famous women of her time. When her husband was appointed as England’s ambassador to Turkey, Countess Elgin so impressed the sultan, Selim III, that she was allowed access to areas in the capital of Constantinoble that no other Western woman had ever seen. She was also instrumental in getting permission for her husband and his staff of artists to draw the artifacts that abounded in Turkey and Greece. At the time, Greece was under the control of Turkey, so the sultan’s permission gave them carte blanche throughout the whole territory. Later, when Lord Elgin began to acquire the collecting bug, Mary got the necessary permits from the Sultan to remove artifacts for transport back to England. Lord Elgin became almost pathologically maniacal in his desire to collect these artifacts to amass his own collection and spent money like it was water. He assumed that he could tap into his wife’s money to cover his debts, but her money was too well protected for him to do so, so he lived under the constant onus of debt. This ultimately led to trouble later on in their marriage and to a disastrous divorce case which became the talk of England and France. Of course, it wasn’t the money. Lord Elgin accused his wife of adultery with his friend Robert Ferguson, and took legal action to take their children away from her and to attach her money. He got the children, but not the money. In her lifetime, she was able to assist in the introduction of smallpox vaccine into Turkey and Greece where the death toll from that disease was atrocious, cut a deal with Napoleon regarding the ransom of her husband, and arrange for the dismantling and shipment back to England of the frieze sculptures of the Parthenon, later known as the Elgin Marbles, and which are now in the British Museum. A fascinating read from this author that is made even more so by her access to personal letters of the principal players. Recommended.
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