again, Karen Essex takes her readers back to a time in history rich
in controversy with bold characters who cry out for attention. In
STEALING ATHENA, she intertwines the lives of an ancient Greek and
an 18th century British earl, two men with opposing
Over 2,000 years ago, the famous Greek Pericles labored tirelessly
to build the Parthenon, driven by his desire to erect a shrine to
the powerful goddess Athena, namesake of his city. In doing so, he
risked much: money, scorn, treachery. But to him, it was worth it.
His lover, Aspasia, used her influence over the people of Athens to
help him whenever possible. She could not deny her nature as a
philosopher and a woman of strong opinions. Aspasia watched
Pericles give himself over to this project, gently and subtly
guiding him as much as she dared.
Once, seeing that Aspasia was perplexed by her lover’s
obsession with the Parthenon, a wise woman told her, “Think
about it. For the sake of fame, men will risk great
dangers…Pericles’ sons and their sons, like all
progeny, will die within a few generations. His building projects,
however, are a more perfect bid for eternal fame than his children
because they will last through the centuries…” Aspasia
patted her pregnant belly and smiled at the truth of these
Over a thousand years later, as the 18th century turned into the
19th, the Scottish Lord Elgin had an obsession of his own: Save the
Parthenon from looters and tourists by shipping it piece by piece
back to England. But he needed help, a lot of it. He began by
wooing the very desirable --- and very wealthy --- Mary Nisbet. Her
heart was easily won. Following a short courtship, they were
married, she was pregnant and, soon after, his bid to become
British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire came through. The
newlyweds felt their lives were charmed. Lord and Lady Elgin were
on their way to Athens, where Elgin could begin his dream of
deconstructing the Parthenon.
As her husband went about his work, Mary played the
diplomat’s wife with style and grace, making friends with
some unlikely people. A headstrong female in a land where the rules
that govern the behavior of women are restrictive in the extreme,
she also caused tongues to wag. Elgin seemed proud of his wife, but
his mood swings made Mary wonder at times. Nonetheless, she
flourished as a hostess --- and as a mother.
Meanwhile, back when the Parthenon was in its infancy, Aspasia was
building her own reputation as a hostess, since a man as
influential as Pericles needed a strong presence in Athenian social
circles. Some of her enemies, though, kept a jealous eye on her
every move, keen for her to slip up. Society didn’t afford
courtesans much in the way of personal rights, nor did it wish to
see them pretending to be on an equal tier with respectable ladies.
There were people who wanted Aspasia brought down.
But if Pericles and Aspasia had troubles, they didn’t compare
to those of Lord and Lady Elgin. Could it be that the ancient gods
were angered by the British earl and his quest to dismantle their
shrine? Lord Elgin scoffed at the idea that anything mystical had a
hand in it, but there is no denying that his fortunes took a
precipitous downturn. Whether you’re a believer or not, you
must admit there is some force at work guiding every person’s
fate in this world.
These two women did not deserve the fates they were dealt. Strong,
intelligent, with fierce fighting spirits, they lived in a world
where men ruled, forced to find ways to make their lives tolerable
and meaningful. Aspasia and Mary Nisbet Elgin, as Essex imagines
them, embody all that’s honorable, worthy and admirable, if
not a little rebellious. They would be vastly uninteresting women
if that were not so.
STEALING ATHENA firmly entrenches Karen Essex among the top
historical novel writers of our day. Where will she go next? It
most assuredly will involve a new slant on a woman with great
passion from deep in the past.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011