Rosemary Ashton

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.

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[*] The biographers, who have made excellent use of manuscript materials, particularly for the Maltese episode, are unfortunately unaware that the Varnhagen von Ense collection of which Sarah’s letters to Pückler-Muskau are a part – long thought to have been lost during the Second World War – is now in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow. It may therefore be that there is more to find out about the Pückler-Muskau affair than is given here.