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Susan Nagel is the author of Mistress of the Elgin Marbles and a critically acclaimed book on the novels of Jean Giraudoux. Nagel has written for the stage, screen, and scholarly journals. She is a professor of humanities at Marymount Manhattan College and lives in New York City.
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The fate of the daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI
 
Markeret
LoisSusan | 8 andre anmeldelser | Dec 10, 2020 |
A little disappointing in that it was somewhat slanted in Mary's favor and didn't discuss the antiquities themselves as much as I had hoped. However, I learned a lot and am overall glad I read the book, so around a 3.5.

To start with, if it hadn’t been for the mention of the Elgin Marbles in the title, I probably wouldn’t have added this to my reading list or sought it out. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly as much about the Elgin Marbles themselves as I had hoped, although an appendix reproducing a letter to Mary Nisbet describing the progress of the Acropolis excavations was included. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book, and it does include some discussion of the Elgin Marbles, but if you’re more interested in art history go elsewhere.

Mary Nisbet started life as one of the richest heiresses in Scotland and married Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin and Eleventh Earl of Kincardine. When Elgin was appointed ambassador extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire, Mary accompanied him to Turkey. Along the way, they began collecting amazing antiquities, including the Gymnasiarch’s Throne (where the judge of the original Olympic games sat). While she was in Constantinople, the sultan became besotted with her, and she was the only Western women invited into Topkapi Palace and the Seraglio. She was also one of the few to meet the Valida Sultana, the sultan’s mother and the power behind the throne.

In addition, Mary helped introduce the smallpox vaccine to the Middle East. She lived at the same time Edward Jenner perfected the smallpox vaccine, and her mother-in-law knew Edward Jenner’s father. Because of this relationship, she was easily able to obtain the vaccine and had her young son and then her entire household vaccinated. This was important because smallpox was epidemic in Constantinople. Because smallpox was epidemic in Constantinople, she saw how many Turkish children in the city suffered and was so moved that she arranged to import large quantities of the vaccine to inoculate them as well. After early successes, she expanded her efforts and ultimately shipped smallpox vaccines to Baghdad, the Persian Gulf, and even Bombay.

On one of their few vacations, they visited Greece, where Elgin had already sent artists to make sketches of the art and plaster casts of the sculptures. On this trip, which took place before the recovery of the Elgin Marbles, he received permission to remove antiquities from Mycenae, Corinth, and Olympus. Using her influence with the sultan, Mary also got permission to remove the Elgin Marbles and even more artifacts for Elgin. Some people have speculated that it wasn’t just Mary’s charms that enabled her to obtain so many artifacts, and that the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Greece at the time) was actually engaging in a form of psychological warfare the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Greece at the time) was giving permission for so many antiquities to be removed as a way of reminding the Greeks who was in power by giving third-party foreigners – the British and the French – carte blanche to destroy their cultural heritage. This was an angle I had not considered before, and I found it interesting to speculate on how much the removal and/or destruction of so many other antiquities was prompted by similar motives (especially the recent demolition campaign by ISIS).

There was some interesting information included about the Elgin Marbles in particular and the Parthenon in general. One thing I didn’t realize was that the Parthenon had been a target for centuries. In the fourth century, the Visigoths sacked Athens before proceeding to Rome, and heavily damaged it. In the fifth century, a group of Christians gutted the east end to convert it into a church, and in the mid-1400’s invading Turks converted the church into a mosque. They used the remainder of the site as a powder magazine, and when a Venetian shell hit the magazine, most of the Acropolis exploded. A year later, the Danes got involved and started removing the heads from some of the metopes, and the structure sustained even more damage well before the Elgins got there. This turbulent history would suggest there might have been something to the arguments from Elgin’s supporters, who said the only way to preserve the marbles was to remove them from the site and send them to Britain.

I also didn’t realize that the Elgins’ activities were controversial almost from the moment they began. Several contemporaries were appalled at the extent of what the Elgins were taking. Nicholas Biddle (an American statesman and financier) was so disgusted that when a ship loaded with Greek marbles went down at sea, he wished Elgin would have gone down with it (the marbles were subsequently recovered by divers soon after the accident). Lord Byron denounced Elgin as a “vandal” and then published “The Curse of Minerva” in further protest. Other opponents not listed in the book included Sir John Newport (the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland) who complained, "The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages,” and Edward Daniel Clarke, who witnessed the removal of some of the metopes, called it a “spoliation.” He added that “the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery." Indeed, the Parthenon was permanently damaged from their removal. On the other hand, Elgin believed he was rescuing the artwork from neglect and any further damage, and was providing a service to the world, especially artists and educators. Some of his contemporaries agreed that the only way to save the marbles was to send them to Britain. Parliament also came down on Elgin’s side, concluding that the marbles were deserving of “asylum” under a “free government.”

The book also gave some interesting insights into both British and Turkish societies, especially the way they treated women. Contrary to popular belief, the Ottoman Empire was in many respects less sexist than its British counterpart. “Turkish women often received quite better treatment than their European counterparts. They were entitled to inherit half of what any man could, and that created significant female-controlled wealth…Contrary to English law at the time, when a woman married her property did not automatically become her husband’s.” (page 109). In divorce cases, a Turkish woman retained custody of any daughters, while any sons went with the husband; under English law, the custody of all children automatically went to the husband I’m not sure how much Mary Nisbet knew about the Ottoman laws, but if she had that knowledge surely would have haunted her later in life.

The trouble began when, after a string of difficult pregnancies (all with surviving children), Mary decided she didn’t want to have any more children. However, Elgin wanted a dynasty, and the only son to survive to adulthood was sickly and suffered from seizures caused by mercury poisoning. All of the other children were daughters. The only forms of birth control at the time were dependent on male initiative, and the impasse led to a sexless marriage. It didn’t help that Mary was also involved in an affair with one of Elgin’s best friends (who had agreed to use birth control), and when Elgin found out he initiated what became an acrimonious high-profile divorce case. Ultimately, the divorce went through, and while Mary managed to keep her fortune (which was unusual for the time), she lost custody of all her children.

Britain did not start changing its laws until 1839, when the Custody of Infants Act was passed. This law gave women who were going to live apart from their husbands the right to apply for custody of their own children, as long as those children were under the age of seven. And it wasn’t until 1882 that the Married Women’s Property Law was passed (in the United States similar laws were enacted much earlier), which gave women legal authority over any property they had brought to the marriage.

Another thing I liked was the detailed “Chronology” section, which helped provide a broader historical context to the events of Mary Nisbet’s life; it includes not only political events but also artistic and literary events (e.g., Jane Austen was a contemporary and wrote and published both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility during Mary’s lifetime, and the first public performance of Beethoven’s Eroica was also in the same time frame).

One final note: "Elgin" is pronounced with a hard "g". Good to know.
… (mere)
 
Markeret
Jennifer708 | 9 andre anmeldelser | Mar 21, 2020 |
A little disappointing in that it was somewhat slanted in Mary's favor and didn't discuss the antiquities themselves as much as I had hoped. However, I learned a lot and am overall glad I read the book, so around a 3.5.

To start with, if it hadn’t been for the mention of the Elgin Marbles in the title, I probably wouldn’t have added this to my reading list or sought it out. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly as much about the Elgin Marbles themselves as I had hoped, although an appendix reproducing a letter to Mary Nisbet describing the progress of the Acropolis excavations was included. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book, and it does include some discussion of the Elgin Marbles, but if you’re more interested in art history go elsewhere.

Mary Nisbet started life as one of the richest heiresses in Scotland and married Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin and Eleventh Earl of Kincardine. When Elgin was appointed ambassador extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire, Mary accompanied him to Turkey. Along the way, they began collecting amazing antiquities, including the Gymnasiarch’s Throne (where the judge of the original Olympic games sat). While she was in Constantinople, the sultan became besotted with her, and she was the only Western women invited into Topkapi Palace and the Seraglio. She was also one of the few to meet the Valida Sultana, the sultan’s mother and the power behind the throne.

In addition, Mary helped introduce the smallpox vaccine to the Middle East. She lived at the same time Edward Jenner perfected the smallpox vaccine, and her mother-in-law knew Edward Jenner’s father. Because of this relationship, she was easily able to obtain the vaccine and had her young son and then her entire household vaccinated. This was important because smallpox was epidemic in Constantinople. Because smallpox was epidemic in Constantinople, she saw how many Turkish children in the city suffered and was so moved that she arranged to import large quantities of the vaccine to inoculate them as well. After early successes, she expanded her efforts and ultimately shipped smallpox vaccines to Baghdad, the Persian Gulf, and even Bombay.

On one of their few vacations, they visited Greece, where Elgin had already sent artists to make sketches of the art and plaster casts of the sculptures. On this trip, which took place before the recovery of the Elgin Marbles, he received permission to remove antiquities from Mycenae, Corinth, and Olympus. Using her influence with the sultan, Mary also got permission to remove the Elgin Marbles and even more artifacts for Elgin. Some people have speculated that it wasn’t just Mary’s charms that enabled her to obtain so many artifacts, and that the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Greece at the time) was actually engaging in a form of psychological warfare the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Greece at the time) was giving permission for so many antiquities to be removed as a way of reminding the Greeks who was in power by giving third-party foreigners – the British and the French – carte blanche to destroy their cultural heritage. This was an angle I had not considered before, and I found it interesting to speculate on how much the removal and/or destruction of so many other antiquities was prompted by similar motives (especially the recent demolition campaign by ISIS).

There was some interesting information included about the Elgin Marbles in particular and the Parthenon in general. One thing I didn’t realize was that the Parthenon had been a target for centuries. In the fourth century, the Visigoths sacked Athens before proceeding to Rome, and heavily damaged it. In the fifth century, a group of Christians gutted the east end to convert it into a church, and in the mid-1400’s invading Turks converted the church into a mosque. They used the remainder of the site as a powder magazine, and when a Venetian shell hit the magazine, most of the Acropolis exploded. A year later, the Danes got involved and started removing the heads from some of the metopes, and the structure sustained even more damage well before the Elgins got there. This turbulent history would suggest there might have been something to the arguments from Elgin’s supporters, who said the only way to preserve the marbles was to remove them from the site and send them to Britain.

I also didn’t realize that the Elgins’ activities were controversial almost from the moment they began. Several contemporaries were appalled at the extent of what the Elgins were taking. Nicholas Biddle (an American statesman and financier) was so disgusted that when a ship loaded with Greek marbles went down at sea, he wished Elgin would have gone down with it (the marbles were subsequently recovered by divers soon after the accident). Lord Byron denounced Elgin as a “vandal” and then published “The Curse of Minerva” in further protest. Other opponents not listed in the book included Sir John Newport (the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland) who complained, "The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages,” and Edward Daniel Clarke, who witnessed the removal of some of the metopes, called it a “spoliation.” He added that “the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery." Indeed, the Parthenon was permanently damaged from their removal. On the other hand, Elgin believed he was rescuing the artwork from neglect and any further damage, and was providing a service to the world, especially artists and educators. Some of his contemporaries agreed that the only way to save the marbles was to send them to Britain. Parliament also came down on Elgin’s side, concluding that the marbles were deserving of “asylum” under a “free government.”

The book also gave some interesting insights into both British and Turkish societies, especially the way they treated women. Contrary to popular belief, the Ottoman Empire was in many respects less sexist than its British counterpart. “Turkish women often received quite better treatment than their European counterparts. They were entitled to inherit half of what any man could, and that created significant female-controlled wealth…Contrary to English law at the time, when a woman married her property did not automatically become her husband’s.” (page 109). In divorce cases, a Turkish woman retained custody of any daughters, while any sons went with the husband; under English law, the custody of all children automatically went to the husband I’m not sure how much Mary Nisbet knew about the Ottoman laws, but if she had that knowledge surely would have haunted her later in life.

The trouble began when, after a string of difficult pregnancies (all with surviving children), Mary decided she didn’t want to have any more children. However, Elgin wanted a dynasty, and the only son to survive to adulthood was sickly and suffered from seizures caused by mercury poisoning. All of the other children were daughters. The only forms of birth control at the time were dependent on male initiative, and the impasse led to a sexless marriage. It didn’t help that Mary was also involved in an affair with one of Elgin’s best friends (who had agreed to use birth control), and when Elgin found out he initiated what became an acrimonious high-profile divorce case. Ultimately, the divorce went through, and while Mary managed to keep her fortune (which was unusual for the time), she lost custody of all her children.

Britain did not start changing its laws until 1839, when the Custody of Infants Act was passed. This law gave women who were going to live apart from their husbands the right to apply for custody of their own children, as long as those children were under the age of seven. And it wasn’t until 1882 that the Married Women’s Property Law was passed (in the United States similar laws were enacted much earlier), which gave women legal authority over any property they had brought to the marriage.

Another thing I liked was the detailed “Chronology” section, which helped provide a broader historical context to the events of Mary Nisbet’s life; it includes not only political events but also artistic and literary events (e.g., Jane Austen was a contemporary and wrote and published both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility during Mary’s lifetime, and the first public performance of Beethoven’s Eroica was also in the same time frame).

One final note: "Elgin" is pronounced with a hard "g". Good to know.
… (mere)
 
Markeret
Jennifer708 | 9 andre anmeldelser | Mar 21, 2020 |
Mary Nesbit was the richest heiress in Scotland when she married Lord Elgin at age 21. He, in turn, had just been posted as ambassador to Istanbul – a highly sensitive diplomatic position during the Napoleonic wars. His beautiful young wife charmed the Ottomans, becoming the first European woman to visit the Sultan’s harem, and the first to actually see the Sultan in audience (although she had to do that disguised as a boy). Her husband, in addition to his diplomatic duties, was an antiquary, and in his spare time sent agents around the area to pick up old stuff that looked interesting. This included the marble frieze decorating the Parthenon. Mary was invaluable here as well, she was the one who actually organized the collection, packing, and shipment of the Elgin Marbles – in the last effort, she charmed a succession of Royal Navy captains who agreed to transport the marbles back to England on their warships, despite a specific prohibition against private cargo by Lord Nelson.


With the Peace of Amiens, Lord and Lady Elgin headed back to England overland, four children in tow, and going by way of France. They were there when war broke out again, and Lord Elgin was interned as a valuable hostage. This is where their life started to fall apart. Lady Elgin stayed in Paris and worked “behind the scenes” to get Elgin released; given her past history of success in areas like this, it was certainly a good idea. Lord Elgin, confined in a series of varyingly hospitable French prisons, wanted his wife by his side – despite her pregnancy. Each began to have suspicions of the other – and in Lord Elgin’s case, those suspicions may have been justified, as Mary was supported in her endeavors by Robert Ferguson, an Englishman who had exiled himself to Paris because of his political views. When the Elgin’s finally got back to England, Mary’s final pregnancy was so difficult that she demanded a separate accommodation from Lord Elgin; Elgin, in turn, began opening Mary’s letters and found an exchange of incriminating correspondence between her and Ferguson (also now back in England, and a Member of Parliament). The divorce proceedings were the scandal of the day, with the prosecution at one point calling a former servant who said he had once seen Lady Elgin and Robert Ferguson sitting together and Lady Elgin’s petticoats were around her waist. Thankfully, modern politicians are never guilty of such offenses to morality.


At any rate, the divorce went through, Mary lost custody of her children but married Robert, and Lord Elgin found a more complaisant second wife and sired eight more children. Author Susan Nagle, although more sympathetic to Mary, is relatively even-handed; it was obviously not fun for Elgin to be in a French prison, especially with the French continuously trying to plant evidence incriminating him as a spy, and while Mary did work with various French diplomats for her husband’s release, she also obviously enjoyed the social life of Paris; thus this is not a feminist diatribe against the inequalities of 19th century English divorce laws. Although everybody’s heard of the Elgin Marbles, I never realized that Lady Elgin was a lot more involved in their acquisition than Lord Elgin, so it was informative. I was also amused to find that the mineral fergusonite, a well-known constituent of several rare-earth ores, is named after Robert Ferguson, who was apparently an accomplished amateur geologist when not attending parliament or Mary. The book does taper off a little abruptly; Mary Nisbet Ferguson lived to her seventies, but her post-Elgin life only occupies one short chapter; I suppose it wasn’t as interesting as her first thirty years, at least in the Chinese sense of “interesting”,br>

There's an interesting connection to modern pseudoscience. Mary kept a copious diary in which she detailed, among other things, the various medical ailments and remedies of her family. The Elgins dosed themselves, and were dosed by doctors, with so much mercury that Lord Elgin’s nose fell off. (One of the suggestions made at the divorce trial was that this was due to syphilis and not mercury poisoning, but neither Lord Elgin, Mary, or any of the children displayed any other evidence of syphilis, and chronic heavy mercury use does apparently cause various kinds of skin ulcers. Elgin’s nose was amputated to prevent a particularly unpleasant ulcer from spreading). Mary’s letters to home from Paris are full of admonitions to her nannies to make sure her children took their mercury – mixed with honey or sugar to make it more palatable. And as a result, did the Elgin family develop all the horrible things that happen to you when you look at a fluorescent lamp sideways or get vaccinated? Not as far as I can tell, other than the Lord’s unfortunate nose; none of the family seems to be any more mentally deranged than the rest of the British nobility of the time.


An interesting book about an interesting person and an interesting time. Let’s say four stars.
… (mere)
½
 
Markeret
setnahkt | 9 andre anmeldelser | Dec 15, 2017 |

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