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.
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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
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