This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography…

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

by Susan Nagel

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
211885,094 (3.6)18
"Mistress of the Elgin Marbles is the 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 Ambassabor 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)



Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 18 mentions

English (7)  Dutch (1)  All languages (8)
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Mary Nesbit was the richest heiress in Scotland when she married Lord Elgin at age 21. He, in turn, had just been posted as ambassador to Istanbul – a highly sensitive diplomatic position during the Napoleonic wars. His beautiful young wife charmed the Ottomans, becoming the first European woman to visit the Sultan’s harem, and the first to actually see the Sultan in audience (although she had to do that disguised as a boy). Her husband, in addition to his diplomatic duties, was an antiquary, and in his spare time sent agents around the area to pick up old stuff that looked interesting. This included the marble frieze decorating the Parthenon. Mary was invaluable here as well, she was the one who actually organized the collection, packing, and shipment of the Elgin Marbles – in the last effort, she charmed a succession of Royal Navy captains who agreed to transport the marbles back to England on their warships, despite a specific prohibition against private cargo by Lord Nelson.

With the Peace of Amiens, Lord and Lady Elgin headed back to England overland, four children in tow, and going by way of France. They were there when war broke out again, and Lord Elgin was interned as a valuable hostage. This is where their life started to fall apart. Lady Elgin stayed in Paris and worked “behind the scenes” to get Elgin released; given her past history of success in areas like this, it was certainly a good idea. Lord Elgin, confined in a series of varyingly hospitable French prisons, wanted his wife by his side – despite her pregnancy. Each began to have suspicions of the other – and in Lord Elgin’s case, those suspicions may have been justified, as Mary was supported in her endeavors by Robert Ferguson, an Englishman who had exiled himself to Paris because of his political views. When the Elgin’s finally got back to England, Mary’s final pregnancy was so difficult that she demanded a separate accommodation from Lord Elgin; Elgin, in turn, began opening Mary’s letters and found an exchange of incriminating correspondence between her and Ferguson (also now back in England, and a Member of Parliament). The divorce proceedings were the scandal of the day, with the prosecution at one point calling a former servant who said he had once seen Lady Elgin and Robert Ferguson sitting together and Lady Elgin’s petticoats were around her waist. Thankfully, modern politicians are never guilty of such offenses to morality.

At any rate, the divorce went through, Mary lost custody of her children but married Robert, and Lord Elgin found a more complaisant second wife and sired eight more children. Author Susan Nagle, although more sympathetic to Mary, is relatively even-handed; it was obviously not fun for Elgin to be in a French prison, especially with the French continuously trying to plant evidence incriminating him as a spy, and while Mary did work with various French diplomats for her husband’s release, she also obviously enjoyed the social life of Paris; thus this is not a feminist diatribe against the inequalities of 19th century English divorce laws. Although everybody’s heard of the Elgin Marbles, I never realized that Lady Elgin was a lot more involved in their acquisition than Lord Elgin, so it was informative. I was also amused to find that the mineral fergusonite, a well-known constituent of several rare-earth ores, is named after Robert Ferguson, who was apparently an accomplished amateur geologist when not attending parliament or Mary. The book does taper off a little abruptly; Mary Nisbet Ferguson lived to her seventies, but her post-Elgin life only occupies one short chapter; I suppose it wasn’t as interesting as her first thirty years, at least in the Chinese sense of “interesting”,br>

There's an interesting connection to modern pseudoscience. Mary kept a copious diary in which she detailed, among other things, the various medical ailments and remedies of her family. The Elgins dosed themselves, and were dosed by doctors, with so much mercury that Lord Elgin’s nose fell off. (One of the suggestions made at the divorce trial was that this was due to syphilis and not mercury poisoning, but neither Lord Elgin, Mary, or any of the children displayed any other evidence of syphilis, and chronic heavy mercury use does apparently cause various kinds of skin ulcers. Elgin’s nose was amputated to prevent a particularly unpleasant ulcer from spreading). Mary’s letters to home from Paris are full of admonitions to her nannies to make sure her children took their mercury – mixed with honey or sugar to make it more palatable. And as a result, did the Elgin family develop all the horrible things that happen to you when you look at a fluorescent lamp sideways or get vaccinated? Not as far as I can tell, other than the Lord’s unfortunate nose; none of the family seems to be any more mentally deranged than the rest of the British nobility of the time.

An interesting book about an interesting person and an interesting time. Let’s say four stars. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
While the story was engaging, the only person who came off as a real, well-rounded person is Mary. All others seemed shallow versions of stock characters.
  tmscott13 | Jan 23, 2016 |
Mary Nisbet led quite a fascinating life in the late 1700s and 1800s. One of the wealthiest women in Scotland and heir to an even larger fortune, at a young age she married Lord Elgin, aristocratic but debt-ridden diplomat who counted on his wife's money to finance his interest in antiquities. The young couple seemed very much in love in the early years of marriage, but Elgin's frequent travels (both diplomatic and personal) and Mary's frequent pregnancies (which prohibited her from accompanying her husband) later got in the way. Mary did, however, join him in Turkey, Egypt, and Athens, where she thoroughly charmed sultans and pashas. She was the first Eurpoean woman invited to visit the Turkish sultan's seraglio, and she even attended court disguised as a man--with his permission. And indeed, it was Mary's money that paid for most of the expenses of transporting the famous Elgin marbles back to London.

The Elgins were travelling during the Napoleonic wars when Mary again became pregnant, this time with their fourth child. She decided to stay in Paris to await the birth, but Elgin continued his travels--in the course of which he was taken hostage by Napoleon's forces and imprisoned in a remote Swiss village. Elgin said repeated demands that Mary join him there, along with demands for luxury items that Mary tried to secure and send. She continued to work at negotiating his release but refused to take on the perilous journey in her pregnant state. Elgin became convinced that she had abandoned him and was enjoying the social whirl of Paris. These quarrels were the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Mary gave birth to a second son, William, who was the closest to her of all her children. An early advocate of smallpox vaccinations, she had helped to bring the practice to many of the foreign countries in which Elgin served. Because smallpox vaccinations were not mandatory in France, she decided to nurse William (unusual for noblewomen at the time) rather than risking the use of a wet nurse. Still working to secure her husband's release, Mary was assisted by his good friend, Robert Ferguson, who adored both Mary and her children. Sadly, William died suddenly before his father ever met him; Mary mourned alone, with Ferguson at her side.

Elgin's selfishness, anger, and jealousy increased, but once he was released, the couple attempted to save their marriage. Mary became pregnant for a fifth time, and her health was so damaged after the birth that she begged her husband to promist that there would be no more children. Elgin, having lost his second son and needing more than one to secure his titles, refused, and when Mary moved into a separate household, he began divorce proceedings. It didn't help that at about this time, Elgin discovered a letter from Ferguson to his wife that revealed how close they had become (which was VERY close but apparently not yet adulterous). The proceedings scandalized London at the time. Elgin was granted the divorce and sole custody of the children, who were not allowed even to see their mother, but his efforts to gain control over her remaining fortune failed. Still, Mary was, for a time, a social pariah. She married Ferguson and moved north to Scotland, where she lived a relatively happy life, supported by friends and family.

Nagel's biography was, for the most part, a fascinating depiction of the life of English aristocrats and diplomats and their wives in both home society and abroad. She includes many excerpts from letters and journals written by those involved, and these add much color to the story. The final four or five chapters sped by with much less detail and at times seemed like a list of dates and events--with the exceptions of Mary's reunions with her son Bruce and her three daughters. Recommended for those interested in the lives of women in this time period. ( )
3 vote Cariola | Dec 17, 2014 |
Too much mistress, not enough marbles... ( )
  dylkit | Feb 3, 2014 |
She was the first Western woman to freely visit the sultan of Turkey’s Seraglio. Five months pregnant and dressed as a man, she was the first woman to attend a political ceremony in the Ottoman court. She brought the smallpox vaccine to Turkey, was held hostage by Napoleon, and was instrumental in bringing the marble sculptures from the Parthenon to England. Yet Mary Nisbet, the one-time Countess of Elgin, was buried in an unmarked grave. Susan Nagel’s biography of Mary Nisbet tells of this remarkable woman whose name is scarcely remembered today, except insofar as it is connected with the Elgin Marbles. Born to great wealth in Scotland in 1778, Mary lived a life of acclaim and notoriety that soured along with her marriage to Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin.

Nagel’s biography of Mary Nisbet is a competently written overview of the life of a fascinating woman. Nagel relies extensively on Mary’s own letters and diaries, and the quotes from those writings leap off the page, filled with Mary’s own vivacity and passion. Nagel’s own prose, on the other hand, is at best merely workmanlike and at worst a trifle awkward. She has an unfortunate tendency to overexplain quotes that are self-explanatory and to string together short quotes—often just a word or two—that don’t add much to the discussion, other than showing that Nagel is not drawing these ideas from her own head.

A more serious issue than the writing was that I think Nagel loved her subject so much that she couldn’t help but take her words at face value. In the portion of the book that focuses on the divorce, Nagel never seems to question Mary’s own version of events, no matter how suspicious the circumstances are. To be sure, Thomas Nagel sounds like a selfish piece of work, especially given his actions after the divorce, but that doesn’t mean that his charges of adultery didn’t have some basis in reality.

On the question of the Elgin marbles, Nagel does write a bit about the controversy, and again she is careful to keep Mary free from guilt. Here, her approach is to explain the various positions people have held regarding the removal of the marbles without passing judgment on any of these positions. Nagel’s own view is unclear, but what is clear is that Mary herself was acting out of love for her husband without considering the political ramifications. The implication is that Mary herself is guilty only of loving too much.

Nagel’s attempts to exonerate Mary from any charges of wrong-doing make the book seem more like hagiography than biography. I wish she had been more willing to ask tough questions about Mary herself, but given how history has minimized women’s contributions and villainized women for their weaknesses, I suppose it’s not a bad thing to shower a few historical women with nothing but praise. Nagel’s account, even if one-sided, does bring a little-known woman to the public’s attention, and that is a very fine thing.

See my complete review at Shelf Love. ( )
  teresakayep | Jan 18, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
no reviews | add a review
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
First words
Last words
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

No library descriptions found.

Book description
Haiku summary

Quick Links

Popular covers


Average: (3.6)
2 3
3 9
3.5 2
4 12
4.5 3
5 2

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 138,169,820 books! | Top bar: Always visible