Saturday, June 28, 2008

What a statue and two women shared

Karen Essex is a well-known writer of historical fiction whose hallmark is the delightful liberty that she takes with the lives of historical figures, recasting them in her own light. So it was with Cleopatra in Kleopatra and Pharaoh, and so it is with Essex's latest novel, Stealing Athena.

At the heart of this novel are the famed Elgin marbles, a collection of sculptures that were originally part of the Parthenon in Athens. Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803, had a grand ambition of removing these sculptures and taking them to Britain.

Accompanied by his beautiful wife, Mary Nesbit, Elgin obtained permission from the Pasha to transport the sculptures. While little is known about the historical Elgin, in Essex's book he is a villain who leaves no stone unturned in catering to his megalomaniac streak. This includes nudging his wife to employ her charms on the Ottoman authorities.

Running parallel to Elgin and Mary's story is the tale of Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, original builder of the Parthenon. In traditional Greek society (this part of the novel is set in 400 B.C.) concubines were looked down on; Aspasia, though an intelligent woman, struggles for legitimacy for her relationship.

Having secured for her husband his dream of owning the Elgin marbles, Mary endures his interminable neglect. She finally falls for Robert Ferguson, a fellow Scotsman who gives her stability and love. Elgin launches a vituperative divorce trial, fully aware of the repercussions.

Parallel to this run the woes of Aspasia, who faces a trial for sexual impropriety in Athens. Essex uses the trials, separated in time and place, to make a comment on the inferior position to which women have historically been relegated.

Rich in description and inspirationally political at its heart, Stealing Athena is historical fiction at its finest.


This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

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