Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin [NOOK Book]


The remarkable Mary Nisbet was the Countess of Elgin in Romantic-era Scotland and the wife of the seventh Earl of Elgin. When Mary accompanied her husband to diplomatic duty in Turkey, she changed history. She helped bring the smallpox vaccine to the Middle East, struck a seemingly impossible deal with Napoleon, and arranged the removal of famous marbles from the Parthenon. But all of her accomplishments would be overshadowed, however, by her scandalous divorce. Drawing from Mary's own letters, scholar Susan ...

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Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin

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The remarkable Mary Nisbet was the Countess of Elgin in Romantic-era Scotland and the wife of the seventh Earl of Elgin. When Mary accompanied her husband to diplomatic duty in Turkey, she changed history. She helped bring the smallpox vaccine to the Middle East, struck a seemingly impossible deal with Napoleon, and arranged the removal of famous marbles from the Parthenon. But all of her accomplishments would be overshadowed, however, by her scandalous divorce. Drawing from Mary's own letters, scholar Susan Nagel tells Mary's enthralling, inspiring, and suspenseful story in vibrant detail.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The lively and sharp-witted Scottish heiress Mary Nisbet (1778-1855) shone as the wife of Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and Ambassador Extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire-whose name became associated with the Parthenon friezes brought to England. In the earliest years of marriage, Mary was her husband's staunchest ally and participant in his diplomatic work, as her diaries and letters reveal. As Nagel shows, following Elgin's incarceration under Napoleon and after the tragic loss of their only son as an infant, Mary's feelings for Elgin began to cool. She resisted his demand for another heir, and their relationship collapsed when Elgin discovered Mary's affair with his best friend. The glamorous couple's marriage ended in scandal and a humiliating public divorce. Nagel, who has written for the stage, screen and scholarly journals, creates a sympathetic and emotionally charged portrait of Mary, tracing in vivid detail the couple's travels, the diplomatic challenges they faced and their growing marital tensions. Elgin's acquisition of the notorious "Elgin marbles" makes for dramatic reading, but the biography's chief merit is its wealth of domestic and intimate detail and Nagel's ability to chart the course of an elite marriage with insight and compassion yet without sentimentality. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Tina Bennett. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Perceptive biography of an aristocrat Scottish lady who broke social, political, and diplomatic ground. With a clarity graced by a trove of surviving letters, ably selected and deciphered, Nagel (Humanities/Marymount Manhattan College) follows her subject's rise and fall. Born late in the 18th century into the wealthiest family in Scotland, Mary Nisbet did not have unlimited access to her monies. So she married Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, a dashing, intelligent striver perennially short of funds. Though her husband is now better known than she, thanks to the marbles he famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) removed from the Parthenon and transported to Britain, Mary actually had an equally strong-and more positive-impact than Thomas during their lifetimes. In Constantinople, where he was first posted as ambassador, Mary won the hearts of the sultan, Captain Pasha, and the Grand Vizier with her ample supply of brio and dash. In Athens, shocked to see how greatly the Parthenon had suffered from Alaric the Visigoth to the Venetians-it had been used for target practice and as a public toilet; vandalized hunks of the temple had been carted off to every corner of Europe-Ambassador Elgin used the British passion for Hellenistic antiquities to open purse strings back in England and finance the marbles' relocation. Nagel suggests that Elgin believed "he was rescuing history . . . instead of leaving them to wither and disintegrate," but his act was not roundly applauded; not only the Greeks but Lord Byron himself thought it scandalous. While her husband was increasingly away from home, involved in one diplomatic imbroglio after another, Mary found herself caught in theaffections of Robert Ferguson, a close family friend. When uncovered by Elgin, the affair resulted in Mary losing custody of her children and Elgin losing his bankroll, devastating blows for each. A unique life related with animation, admiration, and affection, but also faithfully and unfancifully. (16-page b&w photo insert, not seen)Agent: Tina Bennett/Janklow & Nesbit
People Magazine
"A lively and welcome account of a charismatic woman."
“A lively and welcome account of a charismatic woman.”
“Absorbing...required reading for anyone interested in cultural history as well as the art of biography.”
“A lively and welcome account of a charismatic woman.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062029249
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/19/2010
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 399,402
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Susan Nagel is the author of a critically acclaimed book on the novels of Jean Giraudoux. She has written for the stage, the screen, scholarly journals, the Gannett newspaper chain, and Town & Country. A professor in the humanities department of Marymount Manhattan College, she lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Chronology xiii
Family Tree xviii
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Launched from a Safe Harbor 7
Chapter 2 New Horizons 18
Chapter 3 The Newlyweds Set Sail 29
Chapter 4 A Battle of Beauties 39
Chapter 5 Letters: A Lifeline 45
Chapter 6 Constantinople: "Ambassadress Poll" Makes Waves 60
Chapter 7 Motherhood: Mary's North Star 78
Chapter 8 Captain of Her Ship 90
Chapter 9 Favorable Winds 99
Chapter 10 The Stronger Vessel 107
Chapter 11 Scuttled 119
Chapter 12 Awash in Antiquities 124
Chapter 13 The Acropolis: Caution to the Wind 130
Chapter 14 Sailing, Sailing 143
Chapter 15 The Calm Before the Storm 148
Chapter 16 Shanghaied 152
Chapter 17 In Irons 162
Chapter 18 Rudderless 171
Chapter 19 At Sea 182
Chapter 20 Drowning in Debt 192
Chapter 21 Breakwater 203
Chapter 22 Shipwrecked 215
Chapter 23 Rescued 228
Chapter 24 A Beacon 238
Chapter 25 Starboard Home 251
Epilogue 255
Appendix 261
Notes 275
Bibliography 281
Index 285
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First Chapter

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles
A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin

Chapter One

Launched From a Safe Harbor

In 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, England and Scotland formally ratified an agreement officially creating the United Kingdom. This uneasy truce, which hoped to end centuries of violence between the two countries, was really established for the economic enrichment of both parties. Before 1707, Scotland's ancient royal, military, and commercial alliance with France, stemming from the 1295 Auld Alliance and various royal unions between the Scottish Stuarts and the French Bourbons, antagonized the English. The frequent insurrections by the Scots -- an ongoing attempt to secure a Stuart on the throne of a united kingdom -- and the belief by English noblemen that Scotland was an inferior stepsibling provided little reason for Englishmen to allocate their resources to Scottish businesses and alliances. With the new establishment of a legally protected partnership, the tide would now turn, making it more attractive for Scotland and England to settle their differences. England could now take advantage of Scotland's cheaper labor force and considerable supply of natural raw materials; from the Scottish point of view, once aligned with England, the expanding English colonial empire would provide tariff-free consumers.

In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of the deposed Stuart and Catholic king James II, led one final insurgence to place, once again, a bona fide Scot on the English throne. Although some Highland factions, known as "Jacobites" for their loyalty to King James, supported the young pretender to the throne, Prince Charlie was defeated, causing the collapse of the Stuart schism. Despite the fact that the prince's five-month adventure, after he escaped and was supposedly hiding in the hills with the help of a lass named Flora Macdonald, made for a very romantic legend, his failure unintentionally furthered the stabilization of English-Scottish relations for a very practical reason: the British Empire was expanding, and the Scots did not wish to be left behind.1 In 1754, England cemented its holdings and control over India, leading the way to immeasurable riches; and in 1763, victory over France as a result of the Seven Years War netted the United Kingdom vast territorial gains in America, and yet again additional wealth.

Empire empowerment brought another dividend: creativity at home. Inventions by James Watt (the steam engine), Josiah Wedgwood (division of labor in factories), Joseph Priestley (early studies of electricity), energized a new class of commerce on the scale of mass production.

The city of Edinburgh, a stunning and dramatic town built high on volcanic rock, bordered at one end by a gigantic seventh-century castle and at the other by the Crown's Holyrood Palace, became in the eighteenth century a stimulating center of modern achievement and progressive thought. Success was evident at the bottom of High Street, the Cannongate section of town, beside the newer Holyrood. Cannongate became the fashionable hub for prosperous merchants, Scottish baronets, architects like the Adams family firm, and philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith. America's preeminent colonial doctor, Benjamin Rush, attended the University of Edinburgh's medical school to study the newest ideas and treatments. Perhaps by accident, Edinburgh had become an international city and its inhabitants quite cosmopolitan. Those prosperous Scots who journeyed frequently to London also made the Grand Tour, and some even traveled to the far-flung out-posts of Great Britain's burgeoning empire. In the 1790s, the future French kings Louis XVIII and Charles X both resided at Holyrood Palace for a time after their brother and his family were guillotined.

New thought included debate on the God-given rights of man.The movement against tyranny resulted in campaigns such as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the rebellion of the American colonies, which helped stir the Whig Party into action against the monarchy in England.

Barely six months after the ink had dried on the American Declaration of Independence a quiet but significant merger took place. On January 31, 1777, an illustrious daughter of England, Mary Manners, the twenty-year-old granddaughter of the 2nd Duke of Rutland, married William Nisbet of Dirleton, a Scottish landowner. As the niece of the 3rd Duke of Rutland, who, in August 1762, was among less than a handful of people asked to witness the birth of the Prince of Wales, and first cousin to the then current 4th Duke of Rutland, Mary Manners Nisbet traveled in the most rarefied of British aristocratic circles. William Nisbet possessed the distinction of belonging to the small but enviable group of people who controlled the majority of land in Scotland. As the smallest percentage of people to control the largest amount of land in all of Europe, these Scots were richer than most European princes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- and some would argue it still exists today -- this group of landowners formed its own close-knit aristocracy. One year and three months after the Manners- Nisbet wedding, Mary and William Nisbet had a daughter, Mary Hamilton Nisbet, born on April 18, 1778. Upon her birth, tiny Mary was immediately, though unofficially, crowned the royal princess of this landed association as one of the richest heiresses in the new United Kingdom of Great Britain. What was unusual about Mary's inheritance was that it would be passed to her, not to a male heir (under Scottish law, a brotherless daughter such as Mary inherited); and most of it would come to her via a matriarchal chain of ancestors.

Mary grew up in the fairy-tale, bucolic village of Dirleton, approximately thirty-six square miles of the country's most arable land, situated eighteen miles east of Edinburgh in the corner of Scotland known as East Lothian. Her home, called Archerfield, sat in what was once a sylvan, medieval, Benedictine sanctuary a few acres from the centuriesold ruins of Dirleton Castle, a reminder of Scotland's violent, bloody history, which was also part of the Nisbet estate. The name Dirleton meant "ton" (or "town") of "Dirl," or "trembling."

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles
A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin
. Copyright © by Susan Nagel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2014

    Mistress of the Elgin Marbles

    Illuminating biography of how a woman. Is punished for not wanting any more children after having 5 in 6 years. Parliament itself got involved in her case, penalizing her. She was rich, but married to a poor nobleman. She supported him and even paid for THE ELgin Marbles for him. In return, he took her children from her and tried to get her fortune, but that he couldn't do. Engrossing, well-written

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2006


    This book is a readable, enjoyable biography of a person I hadn't heard of before. I was most interested in the part about Mary's time in Turkey as Ambassadress, but after that the story seems to come apart. After so much detail about her first marriage, the book seems to skim over the rest of her life. There is a whole chapter about finances that includes information previously stated in the book. I didn't have a problem with the writer's style, I spotted a few typos (such as 'grizzly' instead of 'grisly') but overall it's a book worth reading.

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