"Stealing Athena" by Karen Essex (Audiobook Version with Susan Denaker)
Losing ones marbles
Using the Parthenon marbles as a backdrop/plot device, Karen Essex's Stealing Athena dramatizes its grand beginnings as a series of sculptures created by Pheidias (an undertaking overseen by Athenian leader Perikles), its taking by Lord Elgin, and the journey to its (as of now) final place in the British Museum. However, this story does not revolve around the three men.
Instead, this story focuses on the women in their lives. Mainly Lady Elgin (For this review, I'll occasionally use her original name Mary Nisbet) and Aspasia of Miletus. Essex writes of the two women navigating through (and surviving) the dangerous waters of their worlds.
On the marbles, they represent only one aspect of Essex's story. She delves into themes of glory seekers, what makes a "proper" woman, and cultural differences between the East and the West.
For this review, I'll just focus on the characters and the Marbles.
Aspasia versus Nisbet
Let's look at the two main women and their personalities. When it came to likeability, I kind of preferred Aspasia to Mary Nisbet. At the beginning, Essex depicts Lady Elgin as a shallow woman wrapped up in self-righteous piety, a quality displayed when she casts judgment on a mistress living with a military officer. In all fairness, I think Nisbet stops after someone tells her about the good things the mistress did for people.
However, unlike Shapiro's Claire Roth, I have this feeling that Essex never expected me to like Nisbet. Especially when she acts shallow towards Elgin as he loses his looks to a disease. As the story continues, Essex does allow Nisbet to grow and evolve. By the time the book reaches its conclusion, Nisbet's judgmental personality leaves as her crumbling marriage and subsequent divorce pushes her hard into reality. In fact, she wonders at the person she's turned into in contrast to the woman who married Lord Elgin.
In contrast to Nisbet, Aspasia stays the same kind person with good intentions throughout the book, which ends up making the people who spread rumors and scheme to destroy her look all the more awful. Then again, Aspasia never had the same kind of privileged life Nisbet lived in. If she had to deal with risks, Essex still shows Nisbet living a life of complete financial stability. Even if she went up against obstacles, Nisbet had people helping her through them. Aspasia, a foreign woman living in Athens who relied on other people's money, stayed forever vulnerable to the machinations of Athenians.
One act of good intent ends up placing Aspasia in trouble. In his quest to render Athena's face for the Parthenon, sculptor Pheidias persuades Aspasia to model for him. She complies, people discover this (plus another event she took part of that Athenians frowned upon) and put her on trial for crimes most modern people would find unworthy of a court case.
Over in Nisbet's time, she finds her marriage to Lord Elgin damaged beyond repair. While this happens, she finds herself in love with Robert Ferguson. Despite this attraction, she does not do anything beyond give Ferguson a passionate kiss. Afterwards, Elgin develops suspicions of Nisbet and her companion, and takes her to court for adultery. As a modern person reading this story, Nisbet's and Aspasia's actions come off at worst, foolish, but still not worthy of public humiliation, ire, and trials.
Elgin versus Perikles
Similar in my feelings about the two women, I preferred Perikles to Lord Elgin. I enjoyed the scenes between the leader and Aspasia, for I felt real affection and love between the two. Especially when he defended Aspasia at her trial. Elgin, on the other hand...
Essex spares nothing in her depiction of him as a calculating gold digger who constantly badgers Nisbet into getting more money from her rich father. From what I can remember, Elgin rarely asks his father-in-law in a direct manner. He does not trust his wife and constantly shows irritation at her for talking to other men. Given that before he married Nisbet, he had a reputation for sleeping around, so he obviously projects his own personality onto the men they meet. Although, I will mention that one French man did offer himself to Nisbet, but she rebuffs him. As a result of Elgin's jealousy, he files for divorce, succeeds, and takes the children away from Nisbet. This turns into a Pyrrhic victory, for Elgin ends up a pariah by the world around him for his taking of the Marbles.
However, Essex does not depict Elgin as a completely evil person. He's unlikeable, a complete weasel, and does horrible things to Nisbet. Despite his issues, Essex frames his actions in such a way that he doesn't come off as this monster from a cartoon. In fact, he committed these actions because they made sense at the time. On his acquiring of the Marbles, not only did he want them to prop up the British Empire, he wanted to preserve them, since Essex depicts the Ottomans as having no interest in them whatsoever. One can only speculate what would have happened to Pheidias' marbles had Elgin not taken them. In her text, Essex did imply that the French would have attempted it themselves (I think). While the text writes of Elgin's reviled reputation (which I'm sure still holds up today), I think the blame also goes to the Ottomans.
They did grant Elgin the ability to plunder the Parthenon.
Furthermore, since the reader sees this through Nisbet's eyes, we also feel her emotions. By the end of the book, she does not like him, but she has a peace of mind and married a person who actually respects her, does not demand her money, or force her to have multiple children. I felt the same in the aftermath of the drama that unfolded between Nisbet and Elgin.
The Passive Aggressive Wrath of Athena
Let's not forget the main woman who dominates the conversations and lives of these characters. Whether people want to capture her artistic likeness or desire her approval, Athena casts a shadow over the Greek world.
Religion figures heavily in the people Essex features in her book. Nisbet wears her Christian piety proudly, Athenians take possible reprisals of gods and priestess's words seriously, and the Ottoman citizens speak of their Muslim faith openly. While followers of each faith in the book do not openly quarrel with each other over who follows the true religion, everyone seems to acknowledge that deities of different faiths exist and still hold some power.
On that note, the book does veer into the realm of fantasy. The kind of fantasies usually found in Neil Gaiman stories involving. pantheons of deities from different eras and cultures coexisting with each otherAnother reviewer noticed this too. In Athens, after people celebrate the newly revamped Parthenon, Aspasia has an ominous dream of Athena swearing vengeance on her. Worried, she consults the priestess Diotima. The priestess comforts her in saying she will not suffer the goddess's wrath. In real life, Aspasia lived well despite her trial and losing loved ones. The dream appears again as Nisbet sleeps while her husband oversees the chipping away of the Parthenon marbles. Nisbet deduces this dream as a warning that Elgin will suffer greatly. Of course, during his time in Constantinople, he contracts a disease that destroys his face and he does not receive the financial glory he sought for bringing the marbles to England.
The inclusion of this dream has Essex implying that Athena does exist in this universe. I'm not really sure how I feel about this. When I first started reading this story, I expected a straight dramatization of real life events, but Essex somewhat blindsides me with the implication of real gods who interfere in the lives of humans. Essex also implies that Athena had the same powers as Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan, since the goddess can see the future as well as the present time, and still exert power in the process. While Athena "punishes" Elgin (who seems not religious at all), the Abrahamic God curiously does not save him.
The Marbles themselves
In the book, characters have varied reactions to the Parthenon Marbles. They either saw them as a triumph of human creativity (the Elgins), felt indifferent (the Ottomans), or saw them as too extravagant (Perikles' enemies). The artist Pheidias takes center stage as Aspasia's Gay Friend archetype with his support and dry humor. Furthermore, the sculptor does have his own subplot involving some intrigue that could have stood as its own story. Despite changing times, the Greek temple acted as a symbol of high civilization, something sought by Perikles to represent Athens, and desired by Lord Elgin to represent England as the new Athens.
For those curious, I think the marbles should go back to Greece.
The Final Verdict
I love this book. The characters, story, and cameo appearances (J.M.W. Turner, Socrates, and Antonio Canova, oh my!), and just plain wonderful descriptions of fraught, dangerous, and ever-changing environments everyone lived in left me riveted and satisfied.
Karen Essex created thoroughly realized worlds of ancient Athens and the Napoleonic era verging on Victorian era and unforgettable characters to boot.
I do admit, I found myself wanting to stay in ancient Greece with Aspasia and Perikles more than I did Nisbet and Elgin.
This review took a year (and then some) for me to write. While I read this out loud and listened to advice and criticism, I rewrote this ad infinitum.
ETA 3-16-2015: Corrected a sentence
ETA 2-10-2016: Rewrote a sentence.
ETA 7-19-2016: Rewrote a sentence.
ETA 10-1-2016: Regarding the opinions on Elgin's handling of the Marbles, even Mary Nisbet came to her ex-husband's defense.
Purchase this book here.
Karen Essex's Official Website
The Writings of Lady Elgin, courtesy of Karen Essex
A review of "Mistress of the Marbles", the book that Essex used as a source.
- Cheryl Bolen
This review also helped me remember names.
Learn about the Parthenon here
The Parthenon. History, importance, and aesthetics, from ancient-greece.org
Learn about the Elgin Marbles here
- Elgin Marbles | Greek sculpture | Britannica.com
Collection of ancient Greek sculptures and architectural details in the British Museum, London, where they are now called the Parthenon Sculptures. The objects were removed from...
- Stealing Athena, Karen Essex « Medieval Bookworm
Book reviews and bookish discussion by a lover of medieval history