Perceptive biography of an aristocrat Scottish lady who broke social, political, and diplomatic ground.
With a clarity graced by a trove of surviving letters, ably selected and deciphered, Nagel (Humanities/Marymount Manhattan College) follows her subject’s rise and fall. Born late in the 18th century into the wealthiest family in Scotland, Mary Nisbet did not have unlimited access to her monies. So she married Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, a dashing, intelligent striver perennially short of funds. Though her husband is now better known than she, thanks to the marbles he famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) removed from the Parthenon and transported to Britain, Mary actually had an equally strong—and more positive—impact than Thomas during their lifetimes. In Constantinople, where he was first posted as ambassador, Mary won the hearts of the sultan, Captain Pasha, and the Grand Vizier with her ample supply of brio and dash. In Athens, shocked to see how greatly the Parthenon had suffered from Alaric the Visigoth to the Venetians—it had been used for target practice and as a public toilet; vandalized hunks of the temple had been carted off to every corner of Europe—Ambassador Elgin used the British passion for Hellenistic antiquities to open purse strings back in England and finance the marbles’ relocation. Nagel suggests that Elgin believed “he was rescuing history . . . instead of leaving them to wither and disintegrate,” but his act was not roundly applauded; not only the Greeks but Lord Byron himself thought it scandalous. While her husband was increasingly away from home, involved in one diplomatic imbroglio after another, Mary found herself caught in the affections of Robert Ferguson, a close family friend. When uncovered by Elgin, the affair resulted in Mary losing custody of her children and Elgin losing his bankroll, devastating blows for each.
A unique life related with animation, admiration, and affection, but also faithfully and unfancifully. (16-page b&w photo insert, not seen)