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The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (2007)

by Linda Colley

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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305662,337 (3.55)18
Presents a portrait of one of the eighteenth century's most remarkable women, Elizabeth Marsh, a Jamaica-born explorer, adventurer, and writer, detailing her world travels, her personal relationships, and her exploits in light of the dramatic changes of the period.

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A microhistorical biography using Elizabeth Marsh as its main subject. Some of the tense shifts bugged me about the writing, but the deep research is much in evidence and the potential was there for an even more interesting book. ( )
  JBD1 | Jun 16, 2019 |
This is a very good book in a genre that lacks a name - history told through relating the life or events surrounding an insignificant player. Vignette history? Anecdotal history?
The author has done a wonderful job here - found a hero who played no role in world history, but whose life was buffeted by events, and, importantly, left enough of a paper trail to be able to examined and explained.
Elizabeth Marsh lived from 1735 - 1785, conceived in Jamaica, born in England, lived in the Mediterranean, captured by Moroccan pirates, freed by English influence, later lived and travelled in India - you couldn't make this stuff up!
The author is thorough in examining the scant available sources, and developing an understanding of what happened to Marsh and what it meant, both to the individual, and in the broader historical context. I felt at times that the analysis stretched the facts - I was entirely unconvinced that Marsh's mother may have been a descendant of slaves, and conversely, I could think of many scenarios to explain Marsh's travels independent of her husband not considered by the author. But not to be churlish - this is a quality book in every way. ( )
  mbmackay | May 29, 2016 |
The impression I received was that Elizabeth Marsh's life was ripe with material. If that is indeed the case, why couldn't the author do more with what was available? ( )
  cat-ballou | Apr 2, 2013 |
Elizabeth Marsh was truly an interesting and remarkable woman. Conceived in Jamaica and born in 1735, Marsh literally traveled from the time she was in the womb. She visited Morocco, the Mediterranean, Florida, and India. The books covers not only Elizabeth’s story, but her family’s and, by extension, world history. Because her father and grandfather were shipbuilders, Marsh’s life was linked to the English Royal Navy and the world of the British Empire. It was a time when there was a growing awareness of and connections between various cultures of the world, and Marsh’s story in some part personalizes that experience.

In some ways, her life and adventures were similar to those of Eliza Fay, who wrote her “Letters” from India roughly a generation later. Both were lower-middle class (if you could use that term for 18th century social classes); both married and followed their husbands to India; both had unusual adventures in captivity and out of it. Marsh also kept a record of her travels, mainly from her Moroccan and Indian journeys. There is an unusually large record of Marsh’s life and the lives of her ancestors, which the authors drew from in order to write this book. Unlike Eliza Fay, however, you don’t really get a feel for what Marsh might have been like; certainly she was intrepid and adventurous, but you don’t get much of a concrete sense of her personality beyond that. I would have loved to have read actual passages in their whole from the diary.

Still, the book does a great job of tying Marsh’s story in with the larger events of the period. The book is punctuated throughout with black and white and color portraits and pictures. ( )
  Kasthu | Sep 9, 2012 |
An individual's desire to migrate, John Berger has written, is often 'permeated by historical necessities of which neither he nor anybody he meets is aware'.

Who was Elizabeth Marsh? A mid-eighteenth century woman, conceived in Jamaica, born in England, growing up in the Mediterranean, and as an adult voyaging (involuntarily) through Morocco, planning to emigrate to Florida, and finally ending up in India. In many ways an unusual life story, yet Colley manages to use her to illustrate the wider historical forces of the time, picking up many themes from this first age of globalisation which echo our own time: the world is shaped by networks of connections and commodity flows rather than state boundaries, there are overlapping personal identities, and fears about conspicuous consumption - even a banking crisis. (This comparison is lightly worn, though - the book is really about its own time and not ours, although it did make me think about the comparatively short historical timespan of a world made up of states, however formative that is to our current world view - since this is exactly the period where states were growing in power and the ability to control information, money and people, and this is one of the forces which comes up several times in the story.)

The narrative zooms in and out of different levels very effectively. In one passage, narrating what happens after Elizabeth is kidnapped and taken to Marrakech, we hear they are to be kept as hostages until Britain agrees to establish a consul in Morocco. This draws back into the ruler Sidi Muhammad's foreign policy (to develop links with the rest of the world - he was the first Muslim ruler to acknowledge America's independence); the reasons for it (to develop commerce); and the reasons for that choice (demographic differences with other powers of the time such as China and India); what this represents about the globalisation of the era; and what this says about Sidi Muhammad himself (including his attitude to women, which brings us right back to Elizabeth). All in the space of two or three pages. There are many other asides where Colley adds very illuminating context and background to things that I was already aware of - just why cotton was so important to the world economy, for example, or the importance of minor social ritual to Britons in India.

There were occasional moments when I felt that Colley was squeezing too much into this book, but for the most part, it was very well done: clear, readable and thought-provoking.

What about Elizabeth herself? The sources covering her life are scattered and leave some gaps - indeed, one of the smaller themes of the book is how individual lives end up in the archives. After the kidnapping, Elizabeth's (male) companions petition the powerful to come to their assistance. "Elizabeth Marsh by contrast has no contacts with powerful males at this stage of her life, and so writes only to her parents. Consequently her letters, unlike most of the others, do not survive."

But fortunately, Elizabeth told her own story twice - in a book about her experience of being kidnapped, and another about her peregrinations around India. She did this despite the social pressure against it: one writer of the time had commented "It's very unnatural to love those {women} who ... are of a bold, impudent deportment ... Courage in that sex is to me as disgustful as effeminacy in men". But Elizabeth was forced into it by financial pressures (another interesting thing about this narrative is that it covers the 'precariat' rather than the wealthy, and particularly how they navigated the world by appealing to and developing links with men of power).

Fascinating, and highly recommended. ( )
3 vote wandering_star | Dec 7, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Linda Colleyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bischoff, UlrikeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilkinson, PeterMapssecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This is a biography that crosses boundaries, and it tells three connected stories. - Introduction
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Presents a portrait of one of the eighteenth century's most remarkable women, Elizabeth Marsh, a Jamaica-born explorer, adventurer, and writer, detailing her world travels, her personal relationships, and her exploits in light of the dramatic changes of the period.

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