Author Karen Essex has tackled an impressive topic in her latest novel, at its heart the ďElgin marbles,Ē a collection of Greek artifacts taken from their original sites and transported to Britain during the era of the Napoleonic wars.
In 1799, Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin of Scotland, marries twenty-one-year-old heiress Mary Hamilton Nesbit, a young lady due to inherit her fatherís vast fortune. Immediately after the marriage, the couple sails for Constantinople, where Elgin will serve as King Charles IIIís ambassador, cementing relations between England and the Ottoman Empire as Napoleon continues to threaten the country with his French troops.
But Elgin harbors large ambitions as well. He hires a bevy of artisans and craftsmen to make drawings and plaster casts, all to be returned to England as an artistic inspiration for his countryman.
That Mary, Lady Elgin, is able to enchant exotic captains and even the Sultan and his mother and favorite concubine, serves to enhance Elginís grand ambitions. He is able to actually transport, at prohibitive expense, the very statues and friezes of the Acropolis, at the same time fending off Napoleonís quest to do the same.
Elgin devotes himself feverishly and tirelessly to his true mission, the Athena project, using his wifeís charms to his advantage while later turning on her in envy. His good looks ruined by a series of illnesses (possibly syphilis), Elgin grows ever more demanding, oblivious to Maryís difficult pregnancies and the loss of one child while the couple is in exile in Paris. Ultimately Mary finds her voice, strengthened by her personal battles to support her husband only to be derided for her endeavors on his behalf.
A second track follows the life of a woman who lived centuries earlier: Aspasia, concubine of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens, when the Acropolis was created, defining that century. Like Mary, Aspasia is a footnote to history, but the two women live parallel existences, breaking away from convention to defy social expectations.
Essex supports historical documentation with a poignant interpretation of Maryís difficult life as an ambassadorís wife, delivering her children in foreign lands, organizing her vast household and supporting an embassy staff with her own fortune.
The most moving struggle is of a more personal nature. Mary finally rebels against a callous husband enslaved to his own ambition. Her choices never easy, Mary is forced to reassess the direction of her life, ever hoping to marry happiness to the events that drive her destiny.