by Karen Essex
The Elgin Marbles, housed in the British Museum for nearly two hundred years, have always been one of their most controversial collections. Removed from Greece in 1806 by Lord Elgin, a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, appeals are constantly made to return the marbles to their place of origin. These beautiful sculptures, original to the Parthenon in the Acropolis of Athens, were brought to England by Elgin so that they could be protected from the ravages of war and inspire artists from around the world. Perhaps we should be grateful to Elgin; without his dubious actions Karen Essex' entertaining new novel, Stealing Athena would never have been created.
It is primarily the story of two women: Lady Mary Elgin, who financed her husband's expeditions, and Aspasia, the famous concubine of Athens' greatest citizen, Pericles. Lady Elgin is a beautiful girl, newly married to Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, and eager to be the best wife she can. She's crazy about her husband. For his sake she leaves her native home in Scotland and sails the stormy seas (while pregnant!) to be with Elgin in Constantinople. Charming and sweet, she proves to be England's greatest asset; it seems as if no man, Ottoman or European, can help but fall in love with her and shower her with countless gifts. Mary soon finds she is able to open doors firmly closed even to her husband; she is the first European women to visit the Sultan's harems. Whenever Lord Elgin gets himself in trouble, Mary uses all her resources to pull him out, no matter what damage it may have to her reputation.
Aspasia, on the other hand, is a foreign woman living in Athens as the Parthenon is being constructed. A female philosopher, she enjoys wit and conversation in a society where women are expected to be quiet and submissive. Aspasia constantly must fend off slander and bitter rumors from an uncertain position; she cannot marry Pericles because of a law he created forbidding Athenians from marrying foreigners. She will never have the security of being his wife, and everything from her prominent position in society to food and drink every night she enjoys only through him.
In many ways, the two women are opposites. Mary only wants to live a simple domestic life raising her children in the house Elgin has built back home in Scotland. Proud and independent, Aspasia chafes at having to depend on Pericles for everything she owns. But both women face similar opposition in society because they live outside the 'natural law' and don't follow proper women's roles.
This book reads quickly and slips easily into the lives of Mary and Aspasia, rich in historical details and romance. The ambitious men are distant figures, so engrossed in the pursuit of their own immortality that they often neglect the needs of their women. Luckily, the women are strong figures, and when put under pressure they emerge as sparkling diamonds. The book does a wonderful job telling the tale of the creation and removal of Elgin Marbles from their home in Greece while highlighting the fascinating figures behind the scenes.
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