In Pursuit of an Heiress
In 1811, at the age of 26, Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau inherited the estate of Muskau (nearly 200 square miles in size, annexed to Saxony in 1806 but allotted to Prussia by the Congress of Vienna and partly absorbed by Poland in the 20th century), together with the smaller estate of Branitz. He was determined not only to carry out improvements but to create a landscape park on the English model. Unfortunately, he also inherited massive debts which frustrated these ambitions. And then his father-in-law bequeathed his fortune to his mistress. So, at the suggestion of his wife, his close collaborator in such enterprises, Pückler divorced her, and set off to Britain in the hope of finding an heiress to marry. The opportunity to inspect the planting and draining and new styles of gardening was an additional draw. He left in September 1826, visiting Goethe en route, and stayed for more than two years.
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Vol. 38 No. 13 · 30 June 2016
When assessing the reliability of Prince Pückler-Muskau I neglected to check my own recollection of The Pickwick Papers (LRB, 16 June). Jingle describes a ‘mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches’, not a man, as the victim of a low arch. Her five children ‘look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in’. He does not mention whether or not the sandwich was in her right hand. Dickens does date Jingle’s meeting with Pickwick to 1827 so it is contemporary with Pückler’s stay in London.
Vol. 38 No. 14 · 14 July 2016
How refreshing to come across Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the ultimate cosmopolitan European, in Nicholas Penny’s piece about his Letters of a Dead Man (LRB, 16 June). As a child I read his limpid pastoral account of early 18th-century Ireland with tears in my eyes. Heiress hunter and conceptual landscape gardener, Pückler-Muskau pops up in the most unlikely places. Recently, while trying to decipher Rilke’s auto-fiction The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I spotted a sly mention of him. Rilke/Malte remembers his governess falling asleep over Bettina von Arnim’s Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child. Bettina in her twenties exchanged letters with the poet, turning sixty, and rewrote his side to make it more interesting. Bettina published the Correspondence after Goethe’s death, and annotated the book with ‘rich pickings from some of his less discreet friends, not least Pückler-Muskau’. It was a succès de scandale. The prince wasn’t best pleased, but honour was satisfied when she arranged that the cash-strapped Pückler-Muskau be made the patron-by-name of a newly created confection, a tutti-frutti ice cream. In a postscript Bettina describes Goethe’s evasive response when she suggested that Beethoven and he get together with Pückler-Muskau to create an open-air spectacle of Germanic genius. She went on to become a social reformer (‘in a small way’). Her pamphlets in support of the sick and poor were backed by practical philanthropy – she always carried smelling salts in her purse and loose coins in her socks.
Still Bettina wasn’t finished with Goethe; she designed and commissioned a giant marble statue of him to outdo the many that had already been erected in the cities of Germany. The Great Man sits like Jupiter on his throne in classical vines, one hand holding a wreath, the other a lyre raised aloft. An infant angel stands on his lap, strumming the strings. Pückler-Muskau knew how miffed Bettina was that Goethe never wrote a sonnet to her. A fragment of the sculpture that survived in the backyard of the Weimar Museum was resurrected for a Faust exhibition in 1909, the year Malte Laurids Brigge was published.
Was Prince Pückler-Muskau as gullible as Nicholas Penny suggests? The story of a girl being decapitated by a falling rock appears in George Young’s History of Whitby (1817). Penny’s reference to Pickwick Papers is apt: the elegance and matter-of-factness of Young’s description of the gruesome event gives an insight into the roots of Dickens’s own style. This is Young’s final sentence: ‘A splinter [of rock], which, by striking against a ledge had acquired a rotatory motion, fell from the cliff, and hitting one of the girls on the hinder part of the neck, severed her head from her body in a moment, and the head rolled to a considerable distance along the scar.’
Snainton, North Yorkshire
On the subject of Jingle’s first meeting Pickwick, Nicholas Penny’s chronology is bad: it cannot have been in 1827. Jingle brags about having ‘banged the fieldpiece and twanged the lyre’ in the July Revolution, which took place in 1830 and replaced Charles X with Louis Philippe.
Nicholas Penny writes: Dickens provided a footnote, obviously realising his error but liking the phrase: ‘A remarkable instance of the prophetic force of Mr Jingle’s imagination; his dialogue occurring in the year 1827, and the Revolution in 1830.’