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A Woman in World History

by Linda Colley

Pub Date: Aug. 14th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-375-42153-2
Publisher: Pantheon

A life whose tumultuous historical backdrop included the Seven Years War, the slave trade and globalization becomes a lens through which to view a world in motion.

Colley (History/Princeton; Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 2003, etc.) mingles history and biography in this account of the adventures of Elizabeth Marsh (1735–85). Born to a seafaring family in Portsmouth, England, Marsh moved to Menorca at age 19 with her parents and siblings. This was the beginning of a lifetime of audacious global exploration; she subsequently ventured out on transcontinental journeys to Morocco, Gibraltar, Rio de Janeiro, London, southern and eastern India and the Cape of Africa. In these places, Marsh bore witness to cultures and belief systems that were unfamiliar to most European women at the time. She bravely withstood months of captivity in Morocco, where she nearly became Sultan Sidi Muhammad’s slave. She wrote about these experiences from a female perspective in the first known English-language text about Morocco, despite the fact that publishing it, even privately, was potentially harmful to her reputation. Marsh’s story is unusual and inspiring, and Colley’s thorough descriptions of her travels, as well as the meticulous research and references to her journals, are compelling. However, while the book’s strength lies in its details, this is at times also its weakness. Striving to create an intersection of the public and private, the personal and the historical, the author too often shifts the focus from Marsh to write at length about other members of her family. As a result, it becomes difficult to get a sense of how Marsh feels during many of the changes and journeys in her life.

Interesting reading, but Elizabeth Marsh remains in many ways an enigma.