Sarah Austin


some amazing women from Noble Endeavours

It's quite a jump from seventeenth-century Elizabeth Stuart (last blog) to nineteenth century Sarah Austin in these brief glimpses of the long friendship between England and Germany. And - I know it - I've sailed straight past the superb Germaine de Stael. And Madame de S does play rather an important role, given that her massively influential book about Germany, De L'Allemagne, was first published in England (a furious Napoleon had an earlier version pulped) and on the very day in 1813 that news reached London of Bonaparte's defeat at Leipzig. 

  Everybody read de Stael. , none more so than the English, whose enlightened government was held up by the author as a model to the world.  When a handsome and penniless German prince came to England in 1826 in search of a rich bride (never mind the fact that he had a devoted wife living back at home in Germany), Puckler-Muskau noted that all the fashionable young had their noses buried in de Stael's De L'Allemagne

  It was not a bride but the prince's wonderfully sharp and irreverent letters about his English travels that saved Puckler Muskau's ailing fortune and enabled him to preserve his beautiful and lovingly anglicised gardens in Saxony. In England, the spirited wife of a rather dry philosopher called John Austin took on the job of translating them.  When John Murray (Byron's publisher) primly declared that the prince's letters were inappropriate for the delicate sensibilities of English readers, Sarah Austin tracked down a braver publisher and appointed herself (to the prince's disgust) as his sole censor.

  Admiring the witty letters, Mrs Austin fell in love with their author, a man she had never seen. Writing to him in faraway Muskau with ever increasing boldness, she offered herself to him in the form of a perfect shopping list of her charms: broad shoulders; tiny waist; firm and round bosom; finely turned ankles and a body of uncommon flexibility. Her hips, so the bemused Prince was advised, were perfect, and so was 'all below them'.  All that was required, as Mrs Austin indicated with no delicacy at all, was the appareciation that had been lacking at home.

  The Prince, from afar, was ready to sound encouraging and intrigued; by 1832, Sarah had formed a plan to speed up the romance. She wrote to Muskau, announcing that she and her husband would shortly be arriving in Berlin and that, following the birth of the child that she confidently expected to present to her noble lover, she would be content to dwell fior evermore (no mention of Mr Austin) in a rose-bowered cottage on the Muskau estate.

  At this point, getting wind of his wife's plans, Mr Austin stepped away from his philosophical studies to place an embargo on all foreign travel. The prince, thankful to take a cue, stopped answering Sarah's letters. The meeting, when it finally took place in 1842, was friendly rather than passionate, but Sarah's affection did not diminish.  Writing about German travellers in 1854, she praised them almost as if she were glancing over one of the charming letters that the younger prince had written to his patient German wife  - and which had first bewitched Sarah, their English translator, : 'They [The Germans] have more knowledge, simpler habits, less arrogant nationality, and less intolerant prejudices, than any other people.'  

                                                             *****

   Sarah Austin is less known today than her philosopher husband. Puckler Muskau, still ridiculed in England as a figure of fun (he appears in Dickens's The Pickwick Papers as Count Smorltork) is admired in Germany, and also in America, as a leading figure in the history of landscape architecture. Known in England only for his hugely entertaining and perceptive Letters, the Prince made his name abroad in 1834, when he published Hints on Landscape Gardening and illustrated it with 50 coloured prints of his beloved Muskau

   Added: Friday 08 November 2013