Books: Intrigues in Constantinople ; Everyone Knows about Lord Elgin's Appropriation of the Parthenon Marbles. Sally Emerson Explains Why Her New Novel Focuses on His Wife

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Before I knew I was going to write a novel about them, I kept restlessly visiting the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, going back again and again to look at the exhausted horse pulling the chariot of the moon, its nostrils wide, to stare again at Iris, wind and time flowing through the stone folds of her clothes. These great statues taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin expressed something I couldn't explain to myself about how the past was part of the present.

I realised I had a novel to write, set in the present but about the excitement of the marbles and how they came to be where they are. But there was something or someone missing, and I found her in the British Library, mischievous, funny, kind, outrageous, talking to me from letters written to her mother from Constantinople. My real heroine was Lord Elgin's wife. Her story was extraordinary. Broken Bodies intercuts the imaginary diaries of Mary Elgin with the love story of rival historians racing to discover and decipher the diaries with their startling revelations. My present-day historians would become obsessed by her, as I did myself.

The early pictures of Mary Elgin were adventurous, almost cheerful. Mary Hamilton Nisbet, born in 1778, was a vivacious, clever heiress from a rich Scottish family, with dark eyes, a pointed chin which seemed to match her reputation for wit, soft brown curly hair and the kind of curvaceous figure for which women of her age were admired. Yet by the time that her story, and my characters' interest in it, was ended, she was ruined, bereaved, and, most extraordinary for a woman of her time, divorced in the most scandalous of circumstances, with stories of stained sheets and outraged hotel staff spread over the popular press.

She was not without initial doubts about the wisdom of marrying Lord Elgin, who was her poorer but much more aristocratic neighbour. He was a good catch, but he would have been a better one if he had not himself probably already caught syphilis, maybe during some passionate intercourse with the court ladies of Paris. Even during the wedding ceremony itself, on 11 March 1799, the 21-year-old Mary had an all-too-public fit of hesitation, and the Bishop had to reassure her before business could recommence. But there was plenty to distract her in her new life. The newly-weds quickly departed for Constantinople, where Lord Elgin had been appointed Ambassador to the complex and collapsing Turkish regime.

Ancient Greek marbles were not at the top of Mary's mind, even though her husband had left behind some newly strengthened floors in his extravagant new Scottish mansion, Broomhall, on which classical remains, he hoped, might stand. She was more interested in social observation and, on the way to Constantinople that autumn, during a rough sea voyage while she was already pregnant, she soon found plenty of material. The couple stopped in Palermo in Sicily where Mary recorded her encounter with the then notorious mistress and performance artiste, Emma Hamilton, her long-suffering husband Sir William Hamilton, and Nelson, Emma's lover and the hugely lauded trouncer of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

She wrote to her mother in high spirits of how Emma told her that she was going to the Queen of Naples's ball in a "common morning" dress and how she had dressed accordingly. "Instead when I arrived I found her (Emma) in a fine gold and coloured silk worked gown and diamonds, the Queen and Princesses in fine dresses with pearls and diamonds. It is a constant trick of Lady H to make everybody she can go underdressed." Mary had stomped off crossly to change, outmanoeuvred by Emma, but amused all the same. Mary was intrigued and slightly horrified by Emma's power over Nelson and Hamilton. She wrote that Nelson "seems quite dying and yet as if he had no other thought but her". Lord Elgin, meanwhile, had the opportunity to discuss antiquities with Sir William, who was one of the greatest collectors of the age. …