Mistress of the
A Biography of Mary Nisbet,
Countess of Elgin
By Cheryl Bolen
Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of
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
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
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
She determined she would never get pregnant
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.
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in