Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin
A Review By Cheryl Bolen
Do authors feel obligated to provide positive reviews of the work of other authors, or do they feel a stronger obligation to be honest about their opinion of the book they have just read? Find out for yourself as you read Cheryl Bolen’s review of the one and only biography of Mary Nisbet, the woman whose husband "liberated" the famed marbles from the Parthenon in Greece.
Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin
William Morrow, 2004
$24.95, 294 pages
Two centuries after the most famous plunder of architectural antiquities in history, the name Elgin is still recognized in English speaking countries. Lord Elgin’s "marbles" have, after all, been immortalized by famed romantic poets and are currently being seen at the British Museum by five million visitors a year.
During her own lifetime Lord Elgin’s wife was even more well known as an adulteress whose aristocratic husband dragged her name through the newspapers in an extremely well-publicized divorce.
American Susan Nagel in her first biography has now brought the facts of Lady Elgin’s life to light. Through a New York friend, Nagel met the current Earl of Elgin and other descendants who gave her access to the former countess’s letters and diaries.
Unfortunately, few of these letters appear in the book. Only twice does the reader get a glimpse into the personality of Mary: during the short life and wrenching death of her much loved second son and during a separation from her husband when her letters prove that she was in love with him.
The rest of the book reads as if Nagel is trying to please Mary’s descendants by telling the reader how wonderful she was. I, for one, would rather be shown.
We must be grateful, though, to Nagel for finally investigating one of the most well-known women in nineteenth century Britain.
Despite being one of the richest women in the British Isles, Mary Nisbet (her maiden name) led a bittersweet life.
She was born in 1778 as the only child of wealthy Scots, William Hamilton Nisbet (1747 – 1822) and Mary Manners (1756 – 1834), who was the granddaughter of the 2nd Duke of Rutland. Mary Nisbet’s paternal grandmother owned Biel, which at that time was the longest house in Europe.
Many aristocratic young men attempted to woo Mary Nisbet for her fortune, but she chose Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, a fellow Scotsman 12 years her senior. A handsome man, Elgin was gaining increasingly more important posts in the diplomatic corp but knew he needed great wealth to truly distinguish himself.
Nagel tells us almost nothing about their courtship. They married in 1799 and shortly thereafter set off for Turkey, where Lord Elgin had been appointed ambassador extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire.
Despite her youth, Mary proved a capable ambassadress, was admired by all, and was showered with gifts from Turkish leaders, including the sultan.
After two and half years in Constantinople, the Elgins needed R&R. Lord Elgin, who suffered asthma, had — under doctor’s orders — been dousing himself with large quantities of mercury for his frequent lung complaints. It is now believed the mercury (and not the rumored syphilis) caused the abrasions on Elgin’s nose that prompted doctors to cut off its tip, disfiguring him. His recuperative visit to Greece established Elgin’s place in history.
It is unclear from Nagle’s work just why Elgin appointed himself as the person to remove much of the Parthenon from the Acropolis and tote — at considerable expense and trouble — the ancient statuary back to England. He clearly meant to keep the antiquities for his personal use.
What Nagle is at great pains to explain is that if Elgin had not "rescued" them, they would not have had a chance of being preserved because of the looting practices prevalent at the time.
Mary actually executed her husband’s plan for removing the pediment sculptures, metopes, and friezes and shipping them back to England while her husband was traipsing about Greece.
During their three-year assignment at Constantinople, Mary would bear a son and two daughters before setting out to return to England.
The Elgins sent their children by boat while they planned to travel leisurely through the continent, taking advantage of the fact Europe was finally at peace after the Treaty of Amiens.
While they were in France, though, Napoleon declared war again and decided to take Lord Elgin as a prisoner. He would be a French prisoner for more than two years.
When they had arrived in France, the Elgins had been happily married for four years, showed every sign of being devoted to each other, and Mary was pregnant with their fourth child. The two years put a strain upon their marriage that could never be repaired. When Lord Elgin was in captivity, he was cross with his wife for staying in Paris — with his best friend, Robert Ferguson — working for his release instead of staying near her husband in Lourdes. When he was not in captivity but still unable to leave France, his stature was reduced. The only thing that united husband and wife at this trying time was the love of their second son, who was born in France. His death 13 months later nearly destroyed Mary, who suffered from melancholy for many months afterward.
Her fifth and final pregnancy drove a wedge through the once-happy couple. Lord Elgin ordered her to leave France for the child’s birth. The spoiled Mary was angered at being ordered to do something she did not want to do and even more angered over the unwanted pregnancy.
She determined she would never get pregnant again.
And, Nagle alleges (most likely correctly), the cessation of sexual relations is what caused Lord Elgin to seek divorce shortly after his return to England. (Nagle never explains the circumstances surrounding his release.)
But Lord Elgin did have other cause to seek a divorce. Ferguson had fallen in love with Mary, and Elgin mistakenly opened a love letter from Ferguson to his wife.
The reader never gains insight into Mary’s feelings toward Ferguson at that time. Proof of her infidelity apparently does not exist. It is clear Mary did not want divorce. She tried everything she could to keep him from seeking the parliamentary divorce, but the earl was adamant.
He also, mistakenly, believed he would get all his wife’s money.
He got his divorce but not the fortune. He took sole custody of their four children, and Mary would not be able to see them again. He remarried a woman 24 years his junior who bore him eight more children. Eight years after the divorce the cash-strapped Elgin would sell the marbles to the British government. (Nagel does not tell us the price.) Elgin would die in 1844, the year after the death of his first son. None of the Elgin descendants since that time have been blood relatives of Mary.
Mary married Ferguson but never got pregnant again. Nagel "tells" us she had an affectionate marriage, but one has to wonder if she had not determined to shun sexual relations. She did prove to be an affectionate stepmother to Ferguson’s bastard son.
When Mary’s own son reached his majority he wanted to see his mother. She must have known when she went to him the sickly young man would never succeed his father as Lord Elgin. The mercury he had been taking since infancy for his asthmatic complaints had poisoned him. He died at 40.
Her three daughters did not initiate a reunion with their mother until they were in their forties — and likely wishing to benefit from the death of their then-elderly, very wealthy mother. Mary, who did not die until 1855, eagerly welcomed her daughters back into her life.
For the most part Nagle adequately educated herself about the Regency, but a couple of snafus made it into the text, the most rankling her assertion that a gentleman during the Regency could live well on £150 a year.
Readers grateful to Nagel for the labor-intensive primary research that went into this project are also disappointed that she absorbed the information unto herself and did not deem to share examples that would have enriched the text. She may have notched some impressive magazine credits, but she is out of her league in historical biographical research.
© 2008 – 2012 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass, April 2008.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.