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‘Ordeal’ opens window to past

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THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH: A WOMAN IN WORLD HISTORY, by Linda Colley, Pantheon, 363 pages, $27.50

Linda Colley holds a distinguished chair in history at Princeton University, where she is known as a careful, prolific and thorough scholar. "The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh" is most unusual, referred to by the author as "a book about a world in a life," meaning specifically the title character, who was born in England and lived from 1735-85.

Although Marsh's life was relatively short, she traveled a great deal and was the first woman to publish in English about Morocco, and the first to carry out extensive exploration of eastern and southern India. Yet Marsh was a shipwright's daughter with little formal education.

Marsh spent time in London, Menorca, Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Africa. She also speculated in land in Florida, was involved in the French and Indian War, was linked to voyages to the Pacific, and was both owner and victim in three different slavery systems.

She died, unfortunately, of breast cancer, after having endured a mastectomy in Calcutta without anaesthetic. Most 18th-century women who underwent such risky and painful operations died either immediately or several months later — and Marsh died seven months after her surgery at the age of 49.

This makes her, according to the author, a global character, and the book is a global biography.

Colley appraises Marsh as "courageous and enterprising, and often ignorant; intensely curious, shrewd and enquiring, and simultaneously prejudiced; socially insecure and avid for approval but willing to disregard the bonds of polite womanhood when it suited her ... selfless and ruthless, and possessed always of a capacity to pick herself up in the wake of crisis and disaster, and to try something new."

She also had a certain "force of personality" and a "capacity to inspire attachment" — especially among males. Her male relatives took tremendous risks to help her succeed with her various enterprises.

Marsh's first book, "The Female Captive," was written by subscription, meaning that friends and relatives, 83 in all, signed up to buy single or multiple copies before it was published. That practice diminished the risk of publication.

The book was written in the style of a sentimental novel, including letters written by people who effusively praised her. In it, she describes Sidi Muhammad, the acting Sultan of Morocco, acting in a romantic way with her. Yet she never described her husband, James Crisp, who was always referred to as "a friend."

Marsh, therefore, was a mysterious women, who mingled with many different people in different cultures — a woman of the world.

The author succeeds to an extraordinary degree in making this 18th-century world appear diverse and interesting.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com