three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
By: 
Linda Colley
user_rating: 
0

A Woman in World History

A-The Ordeal of Elizabeth MarshAt a time when women’s lives were confined to the roles of wife and mother, Elizabeth Marsh (1735–1785) defied conventions: she traveled to Central America, Africa, India, China, and Australia. At 21 she was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Morocco, where she narrowly escaped the sultan’s harem by posing as the wife of another prisoner, James Crisp. She married Crisp, a British merchant, shortly after their release and wrote a book about the experience, The Female Captive. When Crisp took a job in Bengal, Marsh joined him. Soon tired of marriage and motherhood, she set off on an 18-month tour of the eastern coast of India with a dashing young officer, George Smith. Adventurous and impulsive, Marsh embraced the tumultuous global changes of her day.
Pantheon. 400 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 037542153X

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Throughout, Colley resists the temptation to romanticize her subject, instead portraying Marsh as a fascinating and dynamic individual—though not a particularly appealing or sympathetic one—who was ‘caught up … in the flux of transcontinental events and contacts.’ The result is a nuanced and sensitive portrait of a woman whose life was ‘poised on a cusp between phases in world history’ and whose experiences and observations constitute a unique window into matters familial and political, local and global." Eric Arnesen

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, Linda Colley has written a biography that tests all common notions about the genre. … [It] is a dazzling performance of historical scholarship that reveals just enough of what Colley describes in her acknowledgments as ‘the ordeal of tracking Elizabeth Marsh’ to allow readers the sense that they too are on the trail of this compulsively itinerant woman." Megan Marshall

Sunday Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Part of the fascination of this book lies in seeing how it is possible to piece together the extraordinary life of such a very ordinary person. … Instead of thinking of this as a personal biography, think of it instead as something like an archaeologist’s exploratory trench—a line of enquiry which slices across, and cuts deep into, huge areas of 18th-century life." Noel Malcolm

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"None of [Marsh’s] letters survives, and Colley quotes so sparingly from her written work—The Female Captive and her Indian travel diary—that it is hard to get any sense of what she felt about her parents or her children and the colossal decisions that had to be made about them; or indeed what she felt about Crisp, and about Smith. … But we are kept well entertained." Claire Tomalin

Sunday Times (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Marsh is inevitably offstage or mute for long periods while Colley drives enough megawatts of historical context through the scant facts to galvanise her subject into sporadic motion. … Colley manages these shifts of perspective from close-focus contemporary detail to great historic panorama with agility and they make for exhilarating reading." Rosemary Hill

Independent (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Dramatic though Elizabeth Marsh’s story is, it never quite delivers the emotional impact one would expect. … The most fascinating parts are Colley’s brilliant, eclectic asides: intellectual seasoning on the motivations of migration, or the role of the Navy in the expansion of empire, or the class constraints on women’s travel writing." Andrea Stuart

Washington Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[Marsh] lived in a remarkable period in British history, when that nation developed a rapidly expanding overseas trade together with the largest navy and merchant marine in the world. … The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh is an uncommon tale about a woman, uncommon for her time, who took charge of her life—and succeeded." Martin Rubin

Critical Summary

Linda Colley, a history professor at Princeton, first encountered Elizabeth Marsh while researching her previous book, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600–1850. Using the scant sources available, Colley fleshes out this long-forgotten woman’s extraordinary life, which was frequently shaped by world events: war, commerce, imperialism, and global shifts of power. Unfortunately, the lack of personal papers means that readers never really get to know Marsh. However, Colley’s intention here is "recasting and re-evaluating biography" to deepen our understanding of the "global past," and she brings Marsh’s world and the forces shaping it vividly to life. Instead of portraying a life played out against world history, Colley turns the genre on its head and presents world history as it played out in a single life.

Cited by the Critics

The Return of Martin Guerre | Natalie Zemon Davis (1983): Davis’s highly readable account of impersonation and fraud in Renaissance France provides a fascinating look into the private lives of 16th-century peasants.

A Pickpocket’s Tale The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York | Timothy J. Gilfoyle (2006): The unusual life of petty thief and con man George Appo lifts the veil on the teeming urban landscape and criminal underworld of post–Civil War New York City.