Mistress of the Elgin Marbles

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, by Susan Nagel

An interesting account of the life of a woman I didn’t know much about. Mary Nisbet was a young Scottish heiress (the family owned most of East Lothian) who married Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin in 1799. Elgin was already well on his way to being a dissolute rake, running up gambling debts left, right and centre and rogering his way around the noble houses of Europe, but was still making enough name for himself in diplomatic circles to be appointed HM Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Hence he badly needed to marry a wealthy heiress because a position of this prestige required a man of far more means than he possessed. Despite the pragmatic element, they do seem to have been genuinely in love, and once in Constantinople they were a diplomatic power couple. The Sultan was besotted with her and as a result Elgin could pull off diplomatic coups that made the other European envoys grind their teeth with envy. Amongst these was permission to send teams of artists and architects to the ruins of Athens, then occupied by the Turks, to survey, record and, as it turns out, remove many of the classical sculptures that were literally just lying around the Acropolis, slowly eroding. Hence the Elgin Marbles. Whether or not they should now be returned to Greece is another matter but it is pretty clear that without Elgin removing them to England in the first place, there would be no marbles left to talk about.

But it did not end happily, due mostly to Elgin being a dick. The first strains of their marriage resulted from the Treaty of Amiens. Peace broke out between England and France as they were returning home at the end of their tour, and Elgin felt emboldened enough to come home through mainland Europe rather than by sea. Thus they were in France when hostilities broke out again, and the strains of internment caused the first cracks to appear. Beyond that, though, Mary found each pregnancy harder than the one before and declared a No Nookie rule (though to be fair she also gave him the option of using birth control), whereas Elgin wanted her to keep knocking out Elginlings until he had a good reserve of male heirs on standby. His general gittishness drove her into the arms of another man and he divorced her for adultery – though it is almost certain she and the other man did absolutely nothing beyond exchanging passionate letters until she was officially unwed. She got the last laugh. Even though it would be another twenty years before she saw her children by Elgin again, they were reconciled; meanwhile she was a good stepmother to husband no. 2’s kids and they lived long, happy and fulfilling lives. Elgin on the other hand assumed he would get a handsome settlement out of his ex-wife’s estate, that being how the aristocracy generally worked, but he had forgotten he had married a Scot; he didn’t get a penny, he could no longer work diplomatic miracles without Mary by his side, and he died broke, exiled abroad by debt. Hah.