Thomas Bruce, otherwise known as the Earl of Elgin, was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1798. He was fairly young to receive such an honor, but he had distinguished himself at court and impressed the king. At the time he was also deeply in debt, with little to no income, and a bachelor. Just before he left for Constantinople (not Istanbul), he married Mary Nisbet, the only child of a wealthy man, and heir to a very large fortune. He was very interested in classical art, and Greece (which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) was the perfect place for him to take drawings & models so that England could be cooler & artier than France.
Stealing Athena is the story of Mary, and her experiences as Lady Elgin, the wife of a diplomat and a landed earl. It’s about Elgin’s decision to take the sculptures from the Parthenon, rather than drawings and models (ostenstibly to preserve them, but he was also very acquisitive). It’s about how Mary helped Elgin in every way she could, bearing him children, and paying for everything (technically, her dad did, which he didn’t like). It’s about how Mary was able to charm people in power so that Elgin could get what he wanted.
And what did it get her in the end? Well, Elgin was sick often, and treated with mercury, which may have been the cause of his nose rotting away. He wore a leather nose mask so he wouldn’t scare people. Ick. There are theories that it was syphillis that rotted his nose, but neither Mary nor the children exhibited any symptoms, and Elgin lived to 75, so it probably wasn’t the syph. Mary bore him five children, four of whom survived into adulthood. In the book, each birth was hellish for Mary (makes sense, I tried it without drugs, and it sucked).
Elgin was jealous and possessive, unless Mary was doing something that benefitted him. At one point, when the Elgins were heading back to England, Elgin was arrested by Napoleon. At first the Elgins weren’t allowed to leave Paris (the kids had already gone on ahead); then Elgin was imprisoned. Mary worked to have him freed, all while pregnant with yet another kid. She was helped by Robert Ferguson, a childhood friend of Elgin. Rumors flew. Elgin was freed, and Ferguson went home – but not without telling Mary he loved her.
Elgin was still stuck in France, but Mary was allowed to go home to bury the little boy she had borne in Paris. Elgin forbade her to go, so Ferguson took the baby’s body when he headed back to Scotland. Eventually Mary was allowed to return home as well, and found that she liked the independence. She was still working to bring Elgin home, with (again) Ferguson’s help. While she wrote him letters every day about what the children were doing, he wrote her letters accusing her of slutting around London. Nice, right?
So Elgin finally comes home, and Mary decides she doesn’t want to sleep with him anymore. She says it’s because she doesn’t want to have any more kids, but there was also the whle no-nose thing. He went along with it for a while, until he found a love letter from Ferguson to Mary. So he decided to divorce Mary for adultery, and sue Ferguson for criminal conversion (stealing Mary). It’s funny, because the legal definition of conversion is the taking of property – back then, wives were property, and had no legal status apart from her husband. The children were property too, and Elgin took them from her. He demanded money, and said that he would divorce Mary quietly if he was paid. The Nisbets paid the bribe, but Elgin went ahead with the very public accusation of adultery. Mary could not even speak in court, because it would have been unseemly. Of course, Elgin’s aim was to take Mary’s money, but he got nothing because she was an heiress, and her dad was still alive. So, ha.
Juxtaposed with Mary’s story are snippets of the life of Aspasia, the concubine (as they were called then) of Pericles, the dude who commissioned and pretty much paid for the Acropolis, from which Elgin took his marbles. Aspasia had been raised by a single father, who allowed her to become educated – which was frowned upon bck then (and for most of history, it seems). Pericles fell in love with her, and would have married her, but for a law that he himself enacted. Derp. According to the story, Pheidas used Aspasia’s face as the model for the Athena statue, which got them both into a heap of trouble.
As the bumper sticker says, well behaved women rarely make history. These two ladies were certainly not well behaved, although I had heard of neither until a friend loaned me the book. I’m normally wary of books that have book club notes at the end, but this story was well-researched and well-told to the point that I was compelled to do some research, which means that I must have liked it.