Contemplating adultery

Lotte Hamburger and Joseph Hamburger

The sexual behaviour and attitudes of Victorian middle-class women is a subject which attracts great interest but which allows for little certainty. The difficulty, of course, is the paucity of evidence, for bedroom thoughts and deeds, even when recorded, rarely manage to survive family watchdogs. This makes the appearance in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow of a prominent early 19th-century woman’s love letters, often written in week-by-week instalments like a diary, and filled with explicit professions of sexual longing, nothing less than remarkable. Here is an educated, principled English woman with a gift for words, writing freely about her hunger for affection, love, sexual gratification, all of which were not plentiful in her difficult marriage to the austere and often deeply depressed philosopher of law, John Austin. The confidences Sarah Austin unfolds in letter after letter are akin to a disrobing of her personality, even her person, as she reveals and boasts about her sensuality, passionate nature, physical attractions and sexual interests. The circumstances of this outpouring are as unusual as the letters themselves.

That Sarah Austin let herself slip into this ‘wild, mad’ relationship astonished even her. She came from the cream of the English Unitarian middle class, and was intensely proud of being one of the Taylors of Norwich, a family prominent in civic, business and religious life. At the time she embarked on this indiscreet affair in late 1831, she had, after a decade’s struggle, made a name for herself as a talented translator, the financial and emotional prop to a vulnerable husband, and a close friend of men and women of the intellectual calibre of Bentham, the young John Stuart Mill, Francis Jeffrey, until recently editor of the Edinburgh Review, the Grotes, the Romillys, the Carlyles. A more weighty anchor to conventionality was her ten-year-old daughter Lucy.

All this was now put in jeopardy by these dangerous letters. Inadvertent or intentional exposure was a constant threat, especially as the lover to whom she bared her soul was a Byronesque German aristocrat who had turned author and was known as an eccentric, a libertine, a publicity-seeker, and as one who disclosed confidences. Yet Prince Hermann Pückler Muskau was also a clever writer with an understanding and much experience of women. In spite of his reputation, Pückler was an inspired choice as a source of comfort.

They got to know each other while Sarah was translating Pückler’s best-selling book, Tour of a German Prince. For all her cautious suppression of some of Pückler’s ‘spice’, she was captivated by the book, and by its author, from the start. In one of her first letters she adopted his confiding tone, threw down the gauntlet of intimacy, and alluded to her capacity to write letters ‘as I would and as I could when I am un peu folle’. Pückler, alert to such signals, lost no time in seeking out the woman behind the translator. As was his habit in encounters of this type, he sent his portrait, pleaded for hers and asked her to ‘forget all your English tricks and anxious principles’ and to write to him without embarrassment whatever came to mind. Meanwhile he told her of a rapturous dream which pictured them in paradise without the paraphernalia of clothes and conventions, of their sinking together into a ‘sea of bliss’. ‘Don’t fall in love with me,’ she protested: but it was not long before she addressed him as her beloved, and it became evident that she was contemplating adultery.

She left Pückler in no doubt about her husband’s inadequacies. John Austin repeatedly took to his bed physically ill and deeply depressed; sometimes he would lapse into suicidal states and she would sit up all night with him. There were ominous signs that his lectureship in jurisprudence at the new University of London (1829-33) was turning into one more of a series of calamitous failures, and her life as her husband’s ‘vowed helper, servant, nurse, friend’ was under intolerable strain. The brilliant promise of her youth was being ground down on the treadmill of translation; her lot had become one of ‘poverty, care, anxiety, watching, fatigue, sorrow’. But her deprivations did not end there.

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