Cover image for 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
Nagel, Susan, 1954-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : William Morrow, [2004]

Physical Description:
xvii, 294 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
NB92 .N34 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

Susan Nagel is a professor in the humanities department of Marymount Manhatten College.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. Agent, Tina Bennett. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

There are relatively few biographies of Mary Nisbet (1778-1855), and this newest contribution by Nagel (Marymount Manhattan College) reveals a life of exploration, romance, and political intrigue. As the wealthiest heiress in Scotland, Mary enjoyed every advantage of pedigree, education, and social etiquette. Although it was Mary's husband, Lord Elgin, who served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, it was her charisma that captivated kings, queens, and sultans. Obsessed with antiquities, the Elgins used their diplomatic position to their advantage, acquiring what is now known as the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. But this story is really about Mary, who proved to be an effective political force in a world ruled by men, although even she was not immune to gender discrimination. Throughout her marriage, she begrudgingly produced children; after a shameful divorce, she lost her four children and her elite social status. Mary's biography is a valuable contribution to women's history and struggle for equality. Scholars will find nothing new concerning the Elgin Marbles, except for a letter detailing the artifacts taken from the Acropolis. Highlights include a bibliography, an index, and 28 documents/photos. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty; comprehensive collections. R. M. Cooke Florida Gulf Coast University

Booklist Review

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 2004 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Behind the controversial removal of the Elgin Marbles from Greece stands an equally controversial heroine-an heiress whose affair wrecked her marriage to a leading diplomat. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin by Susan Nagel All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Chronologyp. xv
Family Treep. xx
Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1 Launched from a Safe Harborp. 7
Chapter 2 New Horizonsp. 18
Chapter 3 The Newlyweds Set Sailp. 29
Chapter 4 A Battle of Beautiesp. 39
Chapter 5 Letters: A Lifelinep. 45
Chapter 6 Constantinople: "Ambassadress Poll" Makes Wavesp. 60
Chapter 7 Motherhood: Mary's North Starp. 78
Chapter 8 Captain of Her Shipp. 90
Chapter 9 Favorable Windsp. 99
Chapter 10 The Stronger Vesselp. 107
Chapter 11 Scuttledp. 119
Chapter 12 Awash in Antiquitiesp. 124
Chapter 13 The Acropolis: Caution to the Windp. 130
Chapter 14 Sailing, Sailingp. 143
Chapter 15 The Calm Before the Stormp. 148
Chapter 16 Shanghaiedp. 152
Chapter 17 In Ironsp. 162
Chapter 18 Rudderlessp. 171
Chapter 19 At Seap. 182
Chapter 20 Drowning in Debtp. 192
Chapter 21 Breakwaterp. 203
Chapter 22 Shipwreckedp. 215
Chapter 23 Rescuedp. 228
Chapter 24 A Beaconp. 238
Chapter 25 Starboard Homep. 251
Epiloguep. 255
Appendixp. 261
Notesp. 275
Bibliographyp. 281