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

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

by Susan Nagel


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

Filled with romance, danger, and scandal, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles is the intriguing story of Mary Nisbet, the Countess of Elgin -- one of the most influential women of the Romantic era whose exploits enriched world culture immeasurably. The richest heiress in Scotland and the wife of accomplished diplomat Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, she traveled to Turkey when Elgin was appointed the Ambassador Extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire -- a journey that would change history. Interweaving extensive details gleaned from primary sources and excerpts from the countess's own letters, Susan Nagel draws a vivid portrait of this formidable woman who helped bring the smallpox vaccine to the Middle East, financed the removal and safe passage to England of classical marbles from the Parthenon, and struck a deal with Napoleon that no politician could have accomplished. Yet, as Nagel shows, those achievements were overshadowed by scandal when Mary's passionate affair with her husband's best friend flamed into the most lurid and salacious divorce trial in London's history. Lively and informative, this is an engrossing story of an astonishing woman who both defined and shaped an era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060545550
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/16/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 972,919
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About 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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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.

Table of Contents

Family Treexviii
Chapter 1Launched from a Safe Harbor7
Chapter 2New Horizons18
Chapter 3The Newlyweds Set Sail29
Chapter 4A Battle of Beauties39
Chapter 5Letters: A Lifeline45
Chapter 6Constantinople: "Ambassadress Poll" Makes Waves60
Chapter 7Motherhood: Mary's North Star78
Chapter 8Captain of Her Ship90
Chapter 9Favorable Winds99
Chapter 10The Stronger Vessel107
Chapter 11Scuttled119
Chapter 12Awash in Antiquities124
Chapter 13The Acropolis: Caution to the Wind130
Chapter 14Sailing, Sailing143
Chapter 15The Calm Before the Storm148
Chapter 16Shanghaied152
Chapter 17In Irons162
Chapter 18Rudderless171
Chapter 19At Sea182
Chapter 20Drowning in Debt192
Chapter 21Breakwater203
Chapter 22Shipwrecked215
Chapter 23Rescued228
Chapter 24A Beacon238
Chapter 25Starboard Home251

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Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been fascinated by the story of the Elgin marbles for years and was looking forward to reading this book. I have started it four times and cannot get beyond the writer's tedious style. I will continue to try to read it because I am interested in the subject, but I do wish the author had read 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' before writing. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about buying this book to be prepared to tolerate the writing in order to enjoy the subject matter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the most interesting biography I have read in a long time. I am a big fan of this genre and find some to be very boring. Lady Elgin was passionate and brilliant. This is an excellent read for anyone interested in history, women's studies and biography! Well done!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I spent a summer in the UK, visited the British Museum & wondered how countless Greek, Egyptian, and Roman treasures made their way from their respective countries into the UK. This book tells an excellent story of how a portion of the Greek treasures, mainly the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, made it to the British Empire. This is a most interesting biography from a women's rights perspective as well. This lady and her family were ahead of their time. The book is written excellently, you can tell the author performed very thorough research.