It was fortunate for George Eliot, or Marian Evans as she was in 1852, that the philosopher Herbert Spencer rejected her brave and desperate pleas for him to marry her. If he had accepted, she might well have found herself in something akin to Sarah Austin’s position as emotional and financial prop to a miserable, selfish hypochondriac. As it was, her relationship with the very different G.H. Lewes, fostered by Spencer himself in his eagerness to retreat, blossomed within the year, and by 1854 Marian was ‘Mrs Lewes’ (and soon to be ‘George Eliot’, too). Being Mrs Austin meant for Sarah Taylor a life of toil and sacrifice, though it is probable that she was at least less unhappy than her tortured husband. The story of their marriage is ghastly, comic, and dismaying. It has the interest not only of the particular case but also of the illustrative type: the Austin marriage was a classic mismatch which, appropriately enough, reminds us of fictional pairings, especially that of Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch. Moreover, in its elements of husbandly pride and disappointment constantly self-excused and of wifely activity, compensating yet self-effacing, it was one of many Victorian marriages (one thinks of the Carlyles) which showed the strains of the age, with its changing expectations of and for women in questions of education, employment and opinion.
Flirtatious, pretty, clever, independent Sarah Taylor was the daughter of a rich Norwich wool merchant. The Taylors were a prominent Unitarian family, cousins of the Martineaus, friends of the Opies, Mrs Barbauld and other progressive dissenters in cultured Norwich. Sarah was encouraged by her parents to choose a husband according to her inclinations and on terms of near-equality. Though she had the reputation of loving society, she took a high view of the duties and destiny of a wife. In 1814, at the age of 19, she chose. ‘I assure you,’ she told a cousin, ‘that my heart and my judgment are equally satisfied with the man of my choice.’
The chosen one was John Austin, son of an Ipswich corn merchant of similar wealth and dissenting beliefs to the Taylors. Though John was only three years older than Sarah, his prematurely white hair and grave demeanour made him a surprising choice for her. His letter of proposal, a ‘strange, joyless document’, as the Hamburgers call it, was unpromising. No fictional would-be husband in Jane Austen, George Eliot or Meredith outdoes Austin in epistolary stiffness. Having set before Sarah his prospects – not good – in the legal profession, and the probability that they would have to wait several years before they could marry, he asked her to submit herself to an ‘ordeal of self-examination’ to find whether her soul was ‘really worthy to hold communion’ with his. Romanticising what he knew to be the ‘prominent vice’ of his character – indolence – he asked her to be prepared to ‘prop and sustain the weakness of a spirit that must cling to sympathy for support’. Like Casaubon, he offered nothing in return, and like Dorothea, Sarah was flattered by his appeal to her strength. ‘This tempted me,’ she later admitted. She had chosen a man whose intellect she admired and whom she hoped to help to fame, thus making, indirectly, a worthy profession for herself at a time when married women seldom took up careers of their own except when husbands died or were ill, or, as in the case of Fanny Trollope, incompetent. Ironically, and semi-clandestinely, Sarah soon found herself keeping her husband, their daughter and herself by her literary earnings. ‘I am the man of business in our firm,’ she wrote with a characteristic mixture of candour and wifely loyalty.
Omens for the marriage were mixed. Both partners waited patiently for five years while John set about completing his legal training. He impressed teachers and colleagues with his grave brilliance, and everyone expected great things of him. But radical political views, moral scrupulousness and self-distrust combined to make him disdain the disgraces of the legal system and fear the cut and thrust of the courtroom. Henry Crabb Robinson recalled a revealing incident in Norwich City Court. Austin was offered a brief, to which he reacted as if ‘a thunder bolt had fallen’. Not only could he not utter a word, even when prompted, but he also rejected his fee. ‘And then I said to myself,’ says Robinson, ‘there is no help for him.’
Austin’s perception of the ‘absurdity’ of the legal system made it reasonable that he should not practise as a barrister. On their marriage in 1819, the Austins moved to London and became close friends of Bentham, the Mills, Grote, and other leading philosophic radicals. (Indeed, Austin ‘proposed’ discipleship to Bentham in terms more passionate by far than those he employed in proposing marriage to Sarah. He talked of being ‘inflamed’ with a desire to help diffuse Bentham’s ideas.) As a result of these connections and the awe-inspiring effect he seemed always to have on new acquaintances, Austin was offered the Chair of Jurisprudence in the newly-founded University of London in 1826. As teaching was not to start until 1828, he and Sarah went to Bonn so that he could prepare his lectures in this new subject of ‘scientific’ study.
All ought to have gone well. Yet like the courtroom, the lecture-room proved too nerve-racking for Austin. He had not finished writing his course of lectures by November 1828, and put off starting them for a full year. When he eventually began in November 1829, he lectured ‘in so great terror that the hearers could not attend to the matter of his lectures from anxiety for the lecturer’. The class of thirty or so included, incredibly, no fewer than seven future MPs, among them John Stuart Mill. Many were Benthamites, and all were impressed by Austin’s intellect, though not by his teaching. At the beginning of the next session, Austin experienced the worst nightmare of the academic, worse even than the unfinished lecture or the stuttering delivery – no students turned up to hear him. Austin’s friends at the University organised a subscription to pay him for a further three years, but by 1833, with no students again, Austin had given up. He retired to his study and, for longer periods, his bed, and scarcely came out into the light again. ‘Da is gloomy, I fear ’tis his normal state,’ his daughter Lucy once said. His biographers reckon that ‘during his entire life, and he lived to the age of 69, Austin was gainfully employed for only seven years’ – five at the University and two in Malta.
The Maltese trip was an example, like the Professorship of Jurisprudence, of the good luck which occasionally befell Austin, thus making his psychological predicament worse. Despite his lack of practical legal experience and his recent humiliation as a lecturer, he was chosen in 1836, through his friend James Stephen at the Colonial Office, to lead a commission of inquiry into Maltese affairs. The story of the Austins’ two years in Malta is a complicated one, excellently told. Austin and a colleague, his former student George Cornewall Lewis, proved adept at stepping on local toes – recommending, for example, the abolition of several offices such as that of chief justice, attorney-general, and treasurer – but at little else. The Commissioners’ report was late, due to Austin’s usual dilatoriness in committing his final thoughts to paper. Though not discredited, he won no fame and was offered no other position. He returned to his bed.
The rest of the story, from 1838, belongs to Sarah. She took up the difficult task of encouraging her husband to finish and publish his great work on jurisprudence. Knowing he was incapable of doing so, however, she at the same time found ways of supporting the family which should not seem like a reproach to her impossible husband. She turned to translating, the ideal task for her – taxing yet unsung. From 1832 to 1849 she translated works from French and German, notably memoirs of Goethe and historical works by Raumer, von Ranke, Sismondi and Guizot. Though she never sought fame for herself, she did become well known in literary circles, and in 1848 she was offered a pension of £100 for her translations from German.
Meanwhile, as the Hamburgers note, John Austin ‘lay fallow’. A shadowy figure in his own biography (not many of his letters are extant, and he published very little), he once excused himself from accepting an invitation to visit Guizot, saying he did not wish to interrupt his ‘work’. His wife’s chief object was to supply the conditions under which his ‘great mind’ would ‘leave some worthy record of itself’. She was assiduous in making ‘influential friends and admirers – Mill, Jeffrey, Guizot, Brougham and Gladstone – all, as she told herself, in order to smooth her husband’s path to glory. But there was one friend whom she cultivated for herself alone: Prince Pückler-Muskau, the ‘Count Smorltork’ of Pickwick Papers, whose record of a visit to England she translated in 1832 as Tour by a German Prince. Pückler-Muskau was a self-confessed sexual adventurer who had come to England in search of an heiress. Sarah, whose husband was not always ‘tender’ to her, unbuttoned herself in letters to Pückler-Muskau. She wrote to her ‘beloved Hermann’ of her ‘passionate longing’ for him, and he replied in more worldly-wise terms of ‘rapturous dreams’ and ‘burning kisses’. This relationship was brief and, as far as we know, confined to letters.Sarah soon settled down to ‘rolling up the stone of Sisyphus’, as the forthright Harriet Grote described her self-appointed task of serving John Austin.
Needless to say, Austin achieved nothing in his lifetime. He refused offers from John Murray to republish his London University lectures, not entirely, as the Hamburgers fairly suggest, out of indolence, but also because his ideas on the law and related political questions had changed. From Benthamite radical in favour of democracy, law reform and universal education, he had become by the 1840s, and especially after 1848, a traditionalist who maintained the necessity for keeping the aristocracy as a political force and custom (which he had once derided) as a basis of the law. The one essay he managed to complete was a ‘Plea for the Constitution’, which was rejected by the Quarterly Review in 1859. Sarah’s nephew, Henry Reeve, suggested, not without a touch of malice, that Austin’s views were now ‘too conservative for the modern Tories!’
Thus arose the irony, well observed by the Hamburgers, that John Austin became famous after his death in 1859 as the founder of analytical jurisprudence on a radical basis ‘long after he ceased to believe in it’. For Sarah set about establishing her husband’s reputation by publishing his lectures and fragments and republishing his Province of Jurisprudence (1832). For this, she obtained the help of several great men whose attentions she had so carefully sought – for she was not lacking, as Mill, the Carlyles and others noted, in her own kind of vanity: Brougham, Fitzjames Stephen, Cornewall Lewis, Sir John Romilly, William Whewell. The works went through several editions and became standard law text-books at Oxford. ‘Austinianism’ became an honoured term in legal studies. Sarah Austin had achieved her objective, though at a cost. This excellent biography lets us respond warmly to its unfortunate subjects, while also illuminating their relationship to the age, and in particular to the ‘Order of the Quill’, as their friend James Stephen described the intelligentsia of the mid-19th century.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.