Greece, of course, is known not only as the birthplace of history and philosophy, but of classic art. Few works of Greek art have inspired as much interest or controversy as the famed "Elgin Marbles" in the British Museum. These magnificent fragments and sculptures from the Parthenon were transported to England (or stolen from Greece, depending on your point of view) in the early 1800s by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, by Susan Nagel, tells the story of Mary Nisbet, Lord Elgin's young wife and one of the wealthiest heiresses in Europe of that era. It was Mary who funded the collection of the marbles and beguiled the Sultan himself into permitting their removal en masse. But even more lasting than Nisbet's diplomatic successes may have been the impact of her tragedies. Shortly after their return home, Lord Elgin stunned both Mary and British society by accusing her of adultery with his best friend. The scandal rocked the British ruling class; Elgin lost his political future, and Mary lost her family. But the sensationalism and injustice of their battle sowed the long, slow seeds of reform, eventually leading to changes in British divorce law and the acknowledgement of property rights for women. Nagel has crafted a fascinating biography of a charming and intelligent woman, who pushed aside the expected boundaries of her sex and influenced the world in many ways.
Howard Shirley is a writer in Nashville.