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Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin Hardcover – August 10, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

One of the most controversial issues within the contemporary art-museum world is the relocation of artwork back to the country of its origin, and there is no sorer point within this clash of opinions than the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens now housed in the British Museum as "property" of the British government. These extremely significant cultural artifacts are named after the earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who acquired them for his personal collection, but the primary focus of Nagel's absorbing book is Lord Elgin's wife, one of the most beautiful, vivacious, and internationally popular public figures of the early nineteenth century. Born into wealth and privilege, the countess of Elgin eventually plunged into scandal, and in fact, she was ultimately buried in an unmarked grave. The reconstruction of her sparkling personality and her exciting life story makes required reading for anyone interested in cultural history, as well as the art of biography. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; First Edition edition (August 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060545542
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060545543
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,219,375 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Christine B. Whelan on August 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Susan Nagel's biography of the Countess of Elgin makes history come alive in a dramatic, romantic page-turner. You'll be transported to a land of wealth and privilege, where egg-sized emeralds are exchanged as small tokens of affection, where cannons salute the arrival of dignitaries into new ports and where love of art and love of man mixes to create a heady and destructive combination of emotions.

This book is perfect for a day at the beach or an evening curled up at home - if only all history could be this fun!
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Angela Cason on September 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"Remember the ladies" Abigail Adams charged her husband John -- that's what Nagel does with "Mary Nisbet"; she fills in fascinating and colorful details of the world of the women of society in England during the war against Napoleon. All the teasing glimpses we get in O'Brian's masculine epic are fleshed out, as it were; the opulence of the Bey's court; Emma Hamilton's manipulation of Admiral Nelson; the impact of the war with Napoleon on life and travel -- all the dinner parties O'Brian glossed over in passing come springing to vivid life as we read from Mary's actual letters. If you loved Master and Commander or the whole series, pick this up and treat yourself to a richer picture of the period.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By MsCindyBooks on October 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Seldom do I read Biographies and feel so intimately close to the subject as I did with this skilfully researched piece of work. I felt as if I had lived right along with Mary through her travels, adventures, exploits and tragedies. Packed with Romantic locals and historical people. It's an intimate peek into a fascinating life, who was Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on October 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Quite a Girl! We have this vision of the women of a century ago being totally subservient to the men. It has been the men who made history. Where there have been women in the story, they are often viewed only as a companion to the men, as examples, the recent biographies of Washington and Nelson. In recent years we've begun to see well written biographies of women who certainly led fascinating lives.

Mary Nisbet was smart, rich, beautiful. She took smallpox vaccine to the Middle East, brought classical marbles from the Parthenon back to England (before Napoleon could get them). Then she 'replaced' her husband with his best friend.

Quite a Girl, Very interesting character, well written book.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Rampaging Hippogriff on October 18, 2009
Format: Paperback
Page 60 of this book states that "...the Ottomans, suspicious of the West, would prepare documents for foreigners in Italian because Venice was, for centuries, under Ottoman control."

How could any book claiming even a passing relationship with historical accuracy say this about Venice? It is not only wrong, it is so absolutely wrong as to make one wonder whether the author's claim to be a professor in the humanities department of Marymount Manhattan College (which may be a perfectly innocent victim in this, I don't know)is true - or to wonder which specific subject she may actually teach - creative writing perhaps?

Having already been made uneasy by her representation of the Jacobite rebellions in Scotland, the Union of Scotland & England, and the general depiction of the subject of this biography as a modern girl, the shocking ignorance displayed above was too much, and the book - once the fell sentence had been read out to those around me to the general horror of them all - placed in the take back to the library pile.

Some of the other reviews compare this one to the Captain Aubrey books - at least the author of those was concerned with historical accuracy, and his works were officially fiction.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lois on November 20, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Having read this book I am filled with admiration for the energy and people skills that Mary Elgin not only had, but used so successfully on behalf of her husband, Lord Elgin a British diplomat based in Constantinople. A wealthy heiress, with strong family ties, she seems to be the original holder of the 'charm brigade' award and was loved and feted by all with whom she came into contact. Her most notable conquests however were the Turkish sultans who not only showered her outrageously expensive and exclusive gifts, but who relinquished political advantage and power to the Christian West represented by Lord Elgin. The latter is portrayed as a selfish man who spent not only his own meagre funds, but also those of his wife in order to live in style and build his collection of ancient Greek artifacts. He also was intent on producing an heir and plenty of spares for the future despite his wife's pleas to the contrary having had to endure four pregnancies in under six years. It was this selfishness, jealousy and arrogance that began to undermine his previously idyllic marriage. Mary turned to his best friend Thomas Ferguson for support and was eventually to marry him after a divorce that rocked British society and which gave Elgin full custody of his children. Mary was devastated at the loss of contact with her children but threw her heart into her relationship with her new husbands illegitimate children. Her new husband became a politician and once again benefitted from Mary's charm and ability to transcend class, party politics and social convention. Their marriage was an extremely happy partnership based on equal admiration, love and the joy of sex without children !!Read more ›
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