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  • Written by Karen Essex
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Written by Karen EssexAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karen Essex



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On Sale: June 17, 2008
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-385-52670-8
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Stealing Athena is the story of two women, separated by centuries but united by their association with some of the world's greatest and most controversial works of art. Aspasia, a philosopher and courtesan to visionary politician Pericles during Athens's Golden Age, defies societal restrictions to become fiercely influential in Athens' power circle. Mary, the Countess of Elgin and a beautiful Scottish heiress, charms the fearsome men of the Ottoman Empire to make possible her husband's costly acquisitions, all the while brazenly defying the social conventions of her time. Both women prevail yet pay a heavy price for their rebellion. A tale of romance, intrigue, greed, and glory, Stealing Athena interweaves the lives of two of history's most beguiling heroines.

Excerpt

Aboard the Phaeton, 1799


Mary hit the floor of the ship's squalid cabin with a dull thud, jolting her awake and sending a pain so sharp up her spine that Zeus might as well have hurtled a thunderbolt into her backside. She tried to breathe, but the fetid odors—dank wood; stale, trapped air; foul clothing; and the urine and excrement of humans and animals—were unbearable partners with the sickness that went along with the early stages of pregnancy. The stench she'd briefly escaped during her nap came rushing back in to claim space in her nostrils, and she gagged. Her head spun like scum swirling under a bridge, but that was nothing compared to the sick feeling in her stomach. On this voyage, sleep--when one could come by it through a good dose of laudanum mixed with iron salts, all dissolved with strong liquor in a syrupy elixir—was her only respite from the miseries of sea travel.

She reached up for the glass in which the good doctor had mixed the medicine, drained it, then stuck her tongue in deep enough that her face formed a suction as she licked up the last of the -metallic—tasting liquid.

Her illness had been so relentless that Dr. MacLean—sober when on call during the day--had insisted that the captain dock at ports along the way to Constantinople. But the few times they had gone ashore, Mary had to walk through the cities with -ammonia—soaked rags covering her nose and mouth, her only protection from the plague that raged through Europe's ports. The disease had been carried into the towns, the radical doctors of the day now professed (and Dr. MacLean concurred), on little rat feet. Apparently, as human passengers disembarked, so did the rodents, whose fur housed the fleas that transmitted the pestilence. These risky shore excursions were not even worth the temporary relief from the discomforts of the ship. The flea-and-lice-infested inns, replete with greasy, rancid food and the most inhospitable hosts, in which Mary and her party slept made conditions on board seem almost luxurious. Mary told herself daily (hourly, truth be known) that retaining her good cheer despite the horrible conditions boded well for her ability to meet the challenges she would undoubtedly face as a diplomat's wife in the strange and exotic land of the Turks.

These inconveniences were a small price to pay for the glorious life that awaited her. She was married to Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, the handsomest aristocrat ever to emerge from Scotland, who at the early age of two and thirty had been appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey. At this crucial juncture of history, when England's alliance with the Ottomans against Napoleon and the French was in its infancy, her Elgin had been charged with nurturing the delicate relationship with the Sultan. Elgin's mission was to reassure the Sultan that the alliance with England would hasten Napoleon's defeat in the Ottoman territories, particularly Egypt. Everyone knew that Napoleon had invaded Egypt to gain a stronghold from which to take India away from the English. And that, His Majesty King George III had told Elgin, simply would not do.

Oh yes, Mary reiterated to herself for the hundredth time, it was the king himself who had suggested to Elgin that he apply for the ambassadorship to Constantinople. Which was why Mary now found herself—pregnant, dizzy, and nauseous—lying on the hard floor of the malodorous compartment of the Phaeton. She was there by the express and direct wish of the king. Surely the rewards would be worth the temporary agony.

Mary was leaning over on her elbow so that she could massage the pain shooting through her backside, when she heard Masterman approach. It could only be Masterman, her lady's maid, for the footsteps were not heavy like Mary's husband's or those of any of the members of his staff or of the ship's crew. Mary stared up at the horrid green curtain—her only means of privacy these many weeks—waiting for her maid to push it aside. "If it isn't the color of vomit!" Mary had exclaimed the first time she saw the curtain, for she had just performed that very act, riding out the first of many vio-lent storms she was to face at sea. Now, the putrid green thing was swept aside, and Masterman peeked in, her eyes quickly moving from the empty cot to Mary struggling on the floor.

"I was thrown quite out of my cot," Mary said, answering the older woman's unspoken question. "Is there a storm?"

"The captain is taking advantage of a brisk gale to give chase. The earl wishes you to remain below."

"Give chase?" Mary bolted upright, shaking off the dizziness. "To French gunboats?"

"It appears thus," Masterman said dryly, standing aside and making way for her mistress. Masterman had been with her since Mary's girlhood and had long ceased to argue for practical measures. Why shouldn't the young, newly married, pregnant countess put herself and her fetus—firstborn heir to all manner of money, land, and titles—at risk of being struck by one of Napoleon's cannons? To mention the obvious would do no good. Masterman picked up Mary's robe and followed the younger woman out of the hole. When Mary recovered from her moment of excitement, she was sure to notice that she was wearing only a nightgown.

On deck, Mary felt none of the queasiness that had troubled her every moment during the voyage. It was as if the sea air, cooler than it had been for days as it moved across her face, blew away all her ailments—the asthmatic choking disease that she shared with her husband (which was how they knew that they were inalienably meant for each other); the morning sickness, which despite its moniker knew no time of day in her body; the unrelieved seasickness; and, most incurable of all, the loneliness she'd felt for her home and for her parents since the day she told them goodbye.

But all that be dashed at the moment as she balanced herself against a taut rope, making her way along the undulating deck as the Phaeton raced through choppy waters. She tried to ignore that the wind was hardening her nipples into uncomfortable little cones. She looked down to see them making a tent in the linen sheath and realized that she was rushing toward her husband and the ship's crew in a state of undress. She turned around to ask Masterman to fetch an appropriate garment when she saw the woman, not two paces behind, holding her dressing gown at the ready. Slipping into it, Mary turned toward the helm and nearly collided with two sailors, their arms full of shot brought from below, who were rushing toward the cannons.

On deck, the crew manned ten of the frigate's thirty–eight guns. Mary could see the American vessel that sailed with them for protection taking the lead. Nothing annoyed Captain Morris more than the fact that the American ship was faster than the Phaeton, but Mary was grateful that the swifter vessel could buffer their ship against the early rounds of fire.

They'd been fired upon before. Napoleon's gunboats dogged any English vessel on the Mediterranean, civilian or otherwise. Some weeks ago, off the sunburnt coast of Africa, a gunboat had taken them by surprise, its cannon fire rocking the sea. Mary had begged to stay on deck to observe, but Elgin virtually carried her below and held her on the cot while the explosions created chaos in the waters around them. The Phaeton was not hit directly, but Mary could feel the impact as the shot exploded just yards away, tilting the boat so far to one side that she ended up on the floor on top of her husband. Shaken, the two turned away from each other and regurgitated their barely digested lunches.

This time, she would not miss the action. She had just written to her mother that though the voyage was spent in sickness and fear, she was developing quite a new and wonderful character, a mature one that would serve her well in her future as ambassadress and beyond. She was unafraid; the excitement completely obfuscated the queasiness and dizziness, she could not help but notice. She was determined to witness firsthand whatever exchange of fire was about to happen. The sky was gray and foreboding, but the fresh air cleared her lungs, and she ran up behind her husband, threw her arms around him, and hugged him. He turned abruptly.

She loved looking at her husband. She had fallen in love with him the first time she saw him, what with his tall figure; his thick blond hair; his deep, intimidating brow; and his fine, aristocratic nose--not one of those thin little parcels that sat so unceremoniously upon the face, but a feature that bespoke of elegance and nobility. Not to mention his stately carriage that belied the more passionate elements of his character with which he'd been acquainting his young bride--his sexual appetites and expertise.

"What the devil, Mary? Get below before you're knocked into something."

"Not a chance, Your Lordship," she replied. She could tell by the look on his face that he loved, but wrestled with, the fact that his wife was the disobedient sort. She imagined that admiration and indignity were waging a battle behind those gorgeous blue eyes. She knew that he did not want to be seen by his staff, the crew, or the officers in their blue and white—all of whom were staring at the disheveled countess in her dressing gown—as a husband whose authority could be questioned. But he also adored having a wife who had courage.

The ship lunged forward, throwing her into his chest. "Oh, all right," he said. "But if fire is returned, you will go below. That is an order from your lord and commander."

"Yes, Your Lordship and Commandership," she said, with a touch of the saucy inflection she knew aroused him. "But if the gunboat is a danger, then why is it running from us and not attacking us as the last one did so unabashedly?"

"Because Captain Morris has taken this one by surprise and has gone on the offensive."

"But we are so far away!"

"That is the point of the American vessel, Mary. Protection. They will fire first, and take the first rounds. At least that is the present strategy."

"Are we to remain passive?"

"May I remind you that there are on board an ambassador on an urgent mission, his entire staff, and his beautiful wife, all of whom must be protected? May I remind you that you are a civilian? And a pregnant one? Will you please behave as the latter, and not as a boatswain or a gunnery officer?"

"What I should like to be at sea is my own master at arms, for then I would never confine myself below when there is action to be seen above."

Elgin shook his head, suppressing a smile before the ship lurched forward, sending the two of them into a pile of rope on the deck floor. Except for the guns, the ammunition, and basic supplies, the deck had been cleared in anticipation of attacks. Elgin grabbed the rope and held on to Mary so that she would not crash against the wet planks. He was opening his mouth to command her to return below, Mary was sure, when one of the officers lowered his lookstick.

"Messenger approaching the ship," the officer called out. Elgin rose, balancing himself with one hand on the rocking deck as he helped Mary to her feet. A gust of air hit her face as she stood, and she worked hard to regain steady breathing. If one of her choking fits took hold, Elgin would surely send her back to the miserable hole of a cabin, even if he had to carry her himself. For one brief moment she fantasized that that might not be so objectionable, given what usually happened whenever Elgin carried her into a bedroom, but she did not think that she could suppress her disgust at the cabin—or guarantee their privacy behind the flimsy curtain—long enough to make love. At any rate, Elgin's attention had already returned to the sea, where he directed Mary's gaze to a rower in a dinghy carrying what appeared to be an American officer toward them.

The crew waited impatiently as the officer made his way up the ladder and onto the boat; the men were certain that he carried with him orders for firing the guns. He conferred briefly with Captain Morris and his officers, and then approached Elgin. "Sorry for the alarm, Lord Elgin," he said. "The vessel we've been chasing is not a French gunboat at all but one belonging to the American navy. We shall have a peaceful afternoon after all." He bowed to Mary. "So sorry for the fright, Lady Elgin."

"Oh no, sir," Lord Elgin said. "No need to apologize to Lady Elgin. She adores a good round of cannon fire, do you not, my dear?"

"Yes, quite," Mary said. "I shall try to recover from the disappointment."

When the officer left them, Elgin turned to his wife. "Are you so disappointed to have averted danger? You did not like being fired upon the last time."

"That was the young Mary Nisbet," she said. "The one who grew up on solid and secure Scottish soil. Now that I am grown and a woman and a wife and the Countess of Elgin, I wished to try out my new bold character. I could face Napoleon himself if need be."

Elgin's face suddenly turned serious. "Then I shall enlist you in helping me to face my staff. They are very unhappy with the conditions on the ship—as are we all—and each, in his own insinuating way, has begun to ask that certain luxuries be afforded him once we are ensconced at the Porte. I must sit them down and make it clear that except for the salaries negotiated before we set sail, they are entirely on their own."


As the winds began to pick up and the skies darkened in anticipation of a storm, Elgin called his staff to a meeting on the deck, announcing that he wished to elucidate certain facts about the terms of their employment. "It must be stated clearly. Each of you is responsible for his own expenses while in my employ," Elgin said. "Which are to be paid either from your salaries or from your private funds, whichever is more agreeable to you."

Mary looked at the men's faces; each man seemed to be fighting to repress his shock at this news.

"But Lord Elgin—" began Mr. Joseph Dacre Carlyle, an earnest man somewhere in his thirties or early forties, Mary guessed. Carlyle was an orientalist from Cambridge who spoke and read Arabic. Elgin had hired the scholar as a linguist and communicator, and as a decipherer of the rare and ancient texts Elgin hoped to collect while in the East. But Carlyle had made it known that his true purpose was to distribute Arabic versions of the Bible to convert the Muslim heathens to Christianity. His idealism would now be tested, Mary thought as she watched him absorb Elgin's news.


From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Essex|Author Q&A

About Karen Essex

Karen Essex - Stealing Athena

Photo © Lisa Rutledge/www.lisarutledge.com

KAREN ESSEX is the author of Kleopatra, Pharaoh, and the international bestseller Leonardo’s Swans, which won Italy’s prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction. An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in Los Angeles, California.

Author Q&A

Q. How did you decide to write about the Elgin Marbles?

I first saw the Elgin Marbles in 2001 at the British Museum when I went to see an exhibit about Cleopatra. I was researching my novel Kleopatra and I wandered into the Duveen Gallery where the marbles are housed. I listened to the story behind the marbles on the audio guide and had an intuition that it would be good fodder for a novel. When Susan Nagel's biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin came out in 2004, I eagerly read it and was blown away by Mary's contribution to the acquisition of the treasures, and also by the absence of references to her in the sources. I thought, hmmm, another woman who defied society's idea of how a woman should behave and paid a steep price for it–and was forgotten. I got very excited about writing about her.

Q. What did your research for Stealing Athena entail?

I am definitely a research freak. I'm the sort of writer who thinks that if she doesn't know everything, she doesn't know anything.

Stealing Athena was difficult to write simply because of the enormity of the research. It was crucial for me to understand the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, Napoleon, the French Revolution, the Golden Age of Pericles, and all the ensuing cultural studies that would have impacted the people in those civilizations and time periods. I have posted a selected bibliography on my website, but it doesn’t begin to encompass all my sources. And of course, I also visit the pertinent locations in all of my novels to do as much onsite research as possible, in addition to soaking in the atmosphere and breathing the air. That’s the really fun part. I like to literally share molecules with my characters.

Q. How long did it take you to research and write Stealing Athena?

As I said, I started thinking about it in 2001, with interest heating up in 2004. Once I get an idea for a book, it’s never far from my mind, even if I am writing something else. Luckily, I studied ancient Greece both in graduate school and on my own for other projects, so I already had a solid base of knowledge for both the Golden Age of Pericles and for his mistress, my other heroine, Aspasia.

Q. You must become engrossed in the period of history and lives of the historical figures given your investment of time, research and writing. Is it difficult for you when you have finished to leave your characters behind?

Oh yes! I have often thought that I should do what other historical novelists do–specialize in only one time period. With my interests sort of sweeping all of history, it’s as if I have to earn a PhD every time I write a book. I put enormous–and I do mean enormous–time and energy into studying these cultures and constructing these characters, and then I have to forsake them for the next! It is indeed quite sad. I suppose that on the bright side, I am fortunate to be able to spend time with so many of history’s most fascinating people. I mean, I feel as if I’ve dated Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Pericles, and made good friends with Aspasia, the Este princesses, Socrates, and Leonardo da Vinci. Kleopatra, well, let’s just say that we’re on very close terms.

Q. Do you think that history and fiction compliment each other in the writing process?

I do think that scholarship and fiction work together often in the way that I was inspired by Susan Nagel’s biography. A scholar brings new understanding to something from the past, and the fiction writer or dramatist is inspired to try to popularize it. It's common knowledge that Shakespeare wrote with a copy of Plutarch open on his desk (so do I!).

Q. The story of Lord Elgin and Mary Nisbet Elgin was rich enough to hold the plot of an historical novel. What made you decide to incorporate Aspasia and her story into Stealing Athena?

I guess I just wanted to make my life a lot harder! I have long held an interest in Aspasia. She was such a rarified creature–a respected philosopher in an era when women were almost unilaterally illiterate and denied even basic civil rights. One day while I was lying on the floor of my office looking at the ceiling, the idea to have Aspasia watch the Parthenon go up and have Mary watch it come down just descended upon me. I suppose that I love the classical Greek world above all time periods and feel very comfortable writing in that space.

Q. The jacket is so beautiful and splendidly illuminates what the reader will find inside the pages. Did you have a role in the cover art design?

Just as our first impressions of people often prove to be accurate, I do believe that we can frequently judge a book by its cover, which is why I try to be as pro-active as possible in the design of my book covers. I am a very deliberate writer in that I know exactly what story I am trying to tell and what themes I wish to convey to a reader. It's crucial that a book cover reflect those things, and who would know better than me? With both Leonardo's Swans and Stealing Athena, I knew which art should grace the covers before I had written the books. My undergraduate work was in theatrical design. I'm a very visual person, and my books are often inspired by works of art. The cover is the "face" of the book, if you will. A reader may not judge the book by its cover, but the reader cannot get inside the book without seeing and regarding the cover. Like faces, a cover is either alluring–or not.

Q. Can you tell me more about the painting and other elements on the jacket?

The painting on the cover of Stealing Athena is a self-portrait by the French painter Marie-Geneviève Bouliard in which she envisioned herself as Aspasia. I selected it because it is an imagined portrait of one of my two heroines done by a female artist who was painting in the time period of my other heroine, Mary Nisbet (circa 1794). Considering the dual narratives of my book, you can't get more perfect than that! The insertion of a small portion of the Parthenon frieze at the bottom was genius, as far as I am concerned. And I also love the gilded Turkish trim that the designer uses at the top of the cover because it brings in another element of the book, which is its setting in Ottoman-ruled Turkey and Greece. I think the result is stunning. I think it's amazing that we were able to convey so many elements of the book in the cover design with visual clues alone.

Q. Is there a continuing theme for your novels?

My novels are about women and power. Throughout every historical era, dynamic women have influenced world events but history has rarely recorded their accomplishments. In fact, when my daughter was in grade school, she and her friends could not name any powerful women except…Madonna! Whether you are the mother or the father of a young girl, I’m sure that you find that as alarming as I did. At that point, I made it my goal to revive the stories of extraordinary women, highlighting the ways that they transformed the times in which they lived and the world beyond.

It’s important for women–and men–to have a better sense of the contributions that women have made to our world.

Q. How are the stories of Aspasia and Mary Nisbet Elgin relevant to women today?

Aspasia lived some 2500 years ago, and Mary lived 200 years ago. You’d think they had little in common, but women’s issues and concerns remain constant through the millennia–relationships, birth control, pregnancy, child-rearing, the place of women in society, and women’s fundamental rights. I wrote about these two women because, firstly, their experiences resonate quite hauntingly, and secondly, because while women generally have more rights and status today, at least in much of the world, our concerns are the same as those women. Both Mary and Aspasia defied social convention, which also makes them extremely identifiable to women today who have lived through so much social change. I am absolutely passionate about illuminating the truth of the female experience, and for many reasons, that truth remains quite static, I’m afraid.

Q. What are you working on now?

My next book will incorporate lore, mythology, and metaphysics, reflecting my interests in all those things. It will again be historical fiction told from a female point of view, but it will also be quite a departure, though one that I believe my readers are pre-disposed to like. That’s all I can say at the moment.

Q. Do you think the Elgin Marbles should be returned to the Greek government? Is there an argument to be made for the Marbles to stay in the British Museum?

Prior to the opening in Athens of the stunning new Acropolis Museum with a spectacular gallery that faces the Parthenon, I think the British had a pretty good case. After all, Parliament put Lord Elgin through grueling hearings to determine if he acquired the marbles legally. (Whether he did remains a subject of fierce debate, but at least Parliament tried to do the right thing.) The British have been the marbles’ steward for two hundred years, and the British Museum is not only a fantastic and free museum where people come from around the world to visit, but it’s also a center for scholarly study. The British have made these treasures easily accessible to the world in a very democratic way for a very long time. That said, it is inescapable that these treasures should be reunited with the building for which they were created. I agree that returning the marbles does open a can of worms as far as setting a precedent for who owns what in the world of art. If this idea of returning everything to its place of origin is carried out to its logical conclusion, the Louvre and other museums like it will soon be virtually empty. No one wants that. But the marbles, because they were taken from a structure that is still standing, represent a special case. Plus, it’s an emotional thing. One simply senses that they must go home!

Q. The themes of ownership and possession are felt throughout STEALING ATHENA, both in an artistic sense (with the marbles) and in relationships (Aspasia being a courtesan; Mary being an heiress). Do you feel that both Mary and Aspasia reject or accept the conventional notions of ownership at the end of the novel?

Well, Mary was certainly passionate about retaining ownership of her fortune and retaining control over her body–both of which were at odds with the conventions of her day. In the early days of the 19th century, a woman was literally and legally chattel–the property of her husband. In Aspasia’s time, the same was true. I believe that both of these women embodied a sense of self-determination that was radical in their respective societies. That’s why they fascinate us, and frankly, why they fascinated people in their own epochs. Both attained notoriety, for sure. Both were wildly criticized and persecuted, but both received respect from very illustrious persons. These were women who wanted to transcend ownership and own themselves. And let’s face it, there are women in multiple cultures in the 21st century who are still struggling with the very fundamentals of human rights and freedoms. Women–even privileged women–are still struggling to find their comfort zone in society.

*****
Portions of this interview with Karen Essex were taken from a conversation with Lynn Rosen on holdencalling.blogspot.com.
*****


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Historical fiction at its finest."
St. Petersburg Times

"A great adventure story. . . . Essex delves deeply into the lives and times of her characters in settings as diverse as ancient Greece and 18th-century Constantinople, France and Great Britain, and her women characters are spirited and memorable.”
The Times-Picayune

"Stealing Athena expounds on the weight of the past, the power of art, and the strength of women who exercised free will even when they had the fewest rights…. Uniquely relevant."
Los Angeles Times

  • Stealing Athena by Karen Essex
  • April 28, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $15.00
  • 9780767926188

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