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.
Lord Elgin may be famous for bringing the Parthenon's sculptural masterpieces to England during the Napoleonic wars, but for Essex (Leonardo's Swans), it's Lady Elgin who pays for it, in fortune and in reputation. More about money than sex, and more about art than either, Essex's latest alternates the story of Scottish heiress Mary Hamilton Nisbet Bruce, countess of Elgin, with that of Aspasia, courtesan lover of the great Pericles and the inspiration for the Parthenon's Athena. Essex begins with 21-year-old Mary, newly wed and pregnant, en route to Constantinople with her diplomat husband. She soon discovers his obsession with dismantling the Ottoman-controlled Parthenon and his plan to reconstruct it in his Greek revival home. Over years, Mary endures his neglect and gives him five children before turning to fellow Scot Robert Ferguson, a powerful Englishman who stands by her during a racy divorce trial. That trial, in which English society spurns Mary, is mirrored by Aspasia's run-in with an Athenian court for sexual impropriety. Both of their stories are overshadowed by the marbles themselves; their creation, recovery, transport and restoration provide the most vivid passages of the novel. Essex shines light on the women who inspired and protected some of the greatest art ever created, and the men who exploited them.