A Dynasty of Sorts
On February 24, 1847, at 8 Queen Square in Bloomsbury, London, there took place a party whose guests included the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, the controversial author and feminist Caroline Norton, the illustrator Richard “Dicky” Doyle, the playwright Tom Taylor, and the Whig statesman Lord Lansdowne. Everyone in the group already being acquainted, there was nothing odd about their assembly. Somewhat unusual, however, was the occasion itself, for they’d come to celebrate the birthday of a five-year-old girl, who, allowed to draw up the guest list, had invited only adults—she was the only child present. Thackeray, she would later recall, mischievously gave her an oyster, expecting her to find it vile. “But I turned the tables on him, for I liked it, and insisted, as queen of the day, on having two more of his.”
Spirited, brassy, imperious: Janet Duff Gordon at age five was already on course to become the queenly Janet Ross. But even the most precocious child doesn’t cultivate her own highbrow coterie, and what this little scene also hints at is the nature of the family that produced her, especially on the distaff side. Thackeray and the rest were friends of her parents, Alexander and Lucie, who in fostering a rapport between their daughter and their friends were extending a tradition established by Lucie’s grandmother. Later in life Janet would develop a keen interest in this tradition, and in the women behind it. Her fascination amounted in part to mere genealogical pride, but it was driven by a sense of affinity and even destiny, of her own cornucopian life as the outcome of theirs. The child who so regally took three oysters from Thackeray would grow up to make, or at least insinuate, almost dynastic claims for the three generations behind her.
* * *
It all began in Norwich, an East Anglian town that by the mid-eighteenth century had become, in Janet’s phrase, “a provincial Athens,” distinguished for its intellectual liveliness, as well as its political radicalism and religious nonconformity. Among those nurtured by this ferment was a feisty bluestocking named Susannah Cook, who in 1777 married John Taylor, a wool merchant. As Unitarians, the couple placed a premium on reason and learning, and strove to provide a rigorous education to all seven of their children, including their two girls—“A well-educated young woman may always provide for herself,” Susannah declared. They also made sure to include their daughters in the erudite talk that flourished in their parlor, where Susannah held a salon.
The youngest of the Taylor children was Sarah, born in 1793. Like the others, she was schooled from an early age, with an emphasis on languages. She was also vivacious and attractive, her coquettish manner and dark-browed good looks making her a favorite with the local beaux. In 1812 she met John Austin, a law student three years her elder from nearby Ipswich. Though devoid of charm and humor, he was handsome and hailed from a well-to-do Unitarian family. And he had one outstanding quality: a crystalline brilliance of mind that, if one caught him at the right moment, blazed forth in an eloquence so virtuosic as to amaze even those jaded by such displays. This, along with his zeal for the philosophy of law, convinced Sarah that he was marked for greatness.
After two years of courtship, John proposed to Sarah in what is surely one of the least romantic letters of its kind ever written. Among other stipulations, he insisted that they both conduct a sort of premarital due diligence by confessing their worst faults, “a self-examination which may perhaps wound your vanity, but which you must triumphantly encounter before I can dare to hang the fate of my feelings upon the chance of your consistency.” Once Sarah presented him with the necessary evidence, he would be able to judge whether she was “in truth that volatile, vain and flirting thing … submitting its light and worthless affections to the tampering of every specious coxcomb;—or have really nerve enough for the deep-toned, steady, and consistent enthusiasm, upon which both my pride and my tenderness might securely rely.”
Astonishingly, Sarah not only passed John’s test but accepted his pompous proposal. It was her mission, she’d decided, to help him achieve his destined eminence. Not that she meant only to bask in reflected glory. Inspired by the model of her parents, she expected to be treated as a near equal, one who would scale the heights of knowledge alongside her husband. In this assumption she wasn’t entirely deluded, for John valued her brains and craved her cerebral companionship—“I shall desire to talk with you,” he informed her, “on subjects which engage my attention.” To improve herself as a sounding board, she eagerly tackled the arduous reading list—Hume, Malthus, Adam Smith—that John assigned her. Apparently she did have the “nerve” he demanded of her.
At first John himself seemed to have nerve of a kind. In 1818, after being called to the bar, he was introduced to his hero, Jeremy Bentham, by that point age seventy. Following up, he wrote Bentham to offer himself as a disciple. Bentham, intent on seeing his doctrines promulgated, encouraged John to come join him in London. Together with his chief protégé, James Mill, Bentham had recently moved to Queen Square, which automatically became the central shrine of Utilitarianism. When a flat at 1 Queen Square opened up, John swooped down and rented it.* Soon after, in August 1819, he finally married Sarah and took her to London.
Immediately made welcome by Bentham, John spent long hours listening to the old sage expound on his “Panopticon” prison design and other ideas while doing gymnastic exercises in his specially adapted coach house; we are to picture the two men discriminating fine points of law, politics, and philosophy as they balance on bars and swing on a trapeze, Bentham’s long white hair sailing out behind him. (In portraits, he bears a resemblance to Benjamin Franklin.) Often joining them were James Mill and his wildly precocious son John, then thirteen. In his education, John Stuart Mill was force-fed by his father like a foie gras goose, and John Austin was soon enlisted to help fatten him up; as John Stuart Mill recalls in his autobiography, “Mr. John Austin … kindly allowed me to read Roman law with him.” For her part, Sarah taught German to the teenage genius, who, unhappy at home, took to her with affection and began referring to her as “Mütterlein” (Little Mother).
This tight little band of Utilitarians was supplemented by visiting acolytes, such as the banker and classical historian George Grote, who, along with his wife, often went to Queen Square to drink from the source. The Grotes and the Austins became fast friends, and Sarah, who’d also won the fondness and admiration of Bentham, was inspired by so much intelligent company to start a salon of her own. In addition to Bentham, the Mills, and the Grotes, regular attendees included the poet Samuel Rogers, the cleric and celebrated wit Sydney Smith, the art historian Anna Jameson, and the future historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, then barely twenty. As Janet puts it, with only minor hyperbole, “Though the Austins were poor, the learning and glowing eloquence of Mr. Austin, and the talents and beauty of his wife, made their house a resort of the most remarkable and cultivated people of that time.”
Established in the heart of intellectual London, the Austins seemed to be off to a smashing start, and in the summer of 1821 their luck was crowned by the birth of a daughter, Lucie, by common consent a radiant child; on the surface, all prospects glowed. Underneath, however, ran darker currents, for John was turning out to be a deeply troubled man. Depressive by nature, he was increasingly irascible, solitary, and, most worrisome of all, incapable of sustained work. To become a barrister was out of the question, but even the incandescent legal writing expected of him failed to materialize. Endlessly vacillating and hair-splitting, he lost himself in pointless perfectionism, and by 1824 he’d completed only one essay, on the law of primogeniture.
In 1827 there arose a golden opportunity for him to redeem himself. Motivated by Benthamite ideals, James Mill and others had founded London University (later renamed University College London), and John was invited to be its first Professor of Jurisprudence. Since the school wasn’t slated to open till the following year, he decided to spend the interval studying German and Roman law in Bonn, where he and Sarah consorted with the likes of August von Schlegel. After their return John dithered and postponed but finally made his professorial debut in 1829. It was not a success. According to the diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, who sat in on the class, the students “could not attend to the matter of his lecture from anxiety for the lecturer.” John’s lectures had all the wooden prolixity of his marriage proposal, and most of his thirty-odd students (though not the loyal John Stuart Mill) quickly fled. The fiasco dragged on till 1832, when he at last resigned.
Their savings depleted, the Austins had by that point moved to a cheaper flat near Regent’s Park. While John felt the move as a wrenching Edenic expulsion, it did no harm to Sarah’s social connections, which in fact multiplied, Thomas and Jane Carlyle being among those added to her circle. But John’s gloomy fecklessness greatly distressed her. Taking action, she somehow persuaded John Murray to publish a book of her husband’s university lectures. Graced with the scintillating title The Province of Jurisprudence Determined, it went precisely nowhere. (Lord Melbourne declared it the dullest book he’d ever read.) Then John managed to squander another opportunity: appointed to the prestigious Criminal Law Commission, he quarreled with his fellow commissioners and soon resigned. With virtually no income coming in, the Austins were forced to move again, to even cheaper lodgings in unfashionable Bayswater. The following year they were priced out of England altogether, taking refuge across the Channel in Boulogne,* where they’d spent part of the previous two summers.
Facing up to John’s inadequacy, Sarah resigned herself to becoming, as she phrased it, “the man of business in our firm.” Her mother’s insistence on female education as a safety net, and especially her stress on languages, proved to be farsighted. Sarah had already begun trying her own hand at writing—her first essay was on the mathematician and explorer Carsten Niebuhr—and now she started to translate as well. Her initial renderings were from the French, including a series of Stendhal’s letters for London Magazine. (Not knowing her identity, Stendhal sent a thank-you note addressed to “Mister Translator.”) Her forte, however, was German, from shorter pieces by Goethe—“I hear the fine silver music of Goethe sound through your voice, through your heart,” Carlyle effused—to Leopold von Ranke’s multivolume History of the Reformation in Germany and other doorstoppers.
It was, ironically, through her monkish work as a translator that Sarah came to have an affair of sorts. In 1832 she translated a book under the title Tour in England, Ireland and France. Its author, Prince Hermann Pückler-Muskau, was one of the gaudiest erotic swordsmen of his day, a kind of Prussian Casanova. Having run up massive debts, he proposed to his wife that they divorce so he could marry a richer woman and bail out their estate in Silesia. She agreed, and for two years the prince stalked heiresses—mostly in England, which he considered prime hunting ground—before returning home brideless. He salvaged a victory, however, by publishing a book of letters to his ex-wife detailing his futile quest. Boosted by a rave review from Goethe, the book became a bestseller and put the prince in the black. Nor was he, despite his matrimonial failures, at all unpopular with women; smooth, flamboyant, and studiously Byronic, he could (and did) boast of a string of conquests across Europe.
Now he set out to add Sarah Austin to the list. A master of the billet-doux, he enticed his English translator—whom he’d never met—into a heavy-breathing correspondence, and before long he had Sarah writing frenzied declarations like this: “I lay entire claim to you, swear I will tear out the eyes of any man or woman who disputes my claim, and will cause you to disavow, disclaim, and ‘utterly abjure and renounce’ all translators but myself.” Over the next few years she and the prince traded hundreds of torrid letters proclaiming their passion, many of them carried, for secrecy, in the diplomatic pouch of the Prussian ambassador. At one point the prince even asked Sarah to mail him some of her pubic hair, just as, he told her, Byron’s lover Teresa Guiccioli had once done. (She refused.)
Even though the lovers never once laid eyes on each other during their long postal liaison—it was only years later, in Berlin, that an anticlimactic meeting took place—Sarah’s romance with Pückler-Muskau, which John seems never to have suspected, brought to the surface an emotional strain in her nature, one that she saw as fundamentally un-English. “In vivacity, passion and energy I am very little like an Englishwoman,” she told the prince. “I ought to have been the wife of a Norseman, a sea king—or else of an Arab chief … Anything wild and adventurous, and here I am, ye Gods, a Professorin!!! of all tame animals.” While she would never get to act on her more exotic yearnings, the next phase of her life was largely played out against a shifting foreign backdrop. Throughout this period, she showed herself to be a woman of great resourcefulness, making the most of every place she went and knitting together a Continental network of friends that would embrace her daughter and granddaughter in turn.
First came Malta. The island had been simmering with discontent, and in 1836 John, along with one of his former students, was sent as a royal commissioner to investigate native grievances. For once he didn’t make a hash of things, drawing up a set of policy proposals that showed sympathy for the Maltese without ceding too much British control. Sarah, meanwhile, got to test out some of the educational theories that had come to obsess her—she’d been corresponding with William Gladstone and others about them—by opening ten new village schools, which flourished.
After John was recalled to London in 1838, he found himself widely praised for his work as a commissioner. But when certain of his recommendations were attacked in Parliament, he relapsed into morose lethargy, and the Austins, their meager income coming almost entirely from Sarah’s translations, were forced back to the Continent. This time they stayed for almost seven years. The first two were spent mostly in Dresden, then known as “Florence on the Elbe,” which Sarah found beautiful and civilized. Ultimately, though, the city was too small for her, while Berlin, where she and John spent the following winter, she found abrasive. So in 1843 the Austins moved to Paris. Here Sarah came into her own, accumulating a large circle of friends that included Alexis de Tocqueville, the sociologist Auguste Comte, the poets Alfred de Vigny and Alphonse de Lamartine, and the hostess Madame Récamier. With two others she became particularly close: the philosopher-statesman Jules Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, rumored to be an illegitimate son of Napoleon, and François Guizot, whom she’d met in London when he was the French ambassador and who’d since become foreign minister. At the weekly salon she instituted, these French luminaries mingled with foreign residents and visitors; as Saint-Hilaire put it, “The salon of Mrs. Austin was a centre where France, England, Germany, and Italy met, and learned to know and appreciate each other.” He was also impressed by Sarah’s skill at turning away interlopers, who were “eliminated without harshness … I have seen executions of this kind done with perfect tact.”
The Austins’ sojourn in Paris abruptly ended with the revolution of 1848. Once fairly radical in their politics, they’d become, in the usual way, more conservative, and they were appalled at the triumph of—as they saw it—anarchy. They also had a personal reason to deplore the change of regime, for Guizot, who’d become prime minister the previous year, was forced into exile in England. The Austins followed. This time they prudently avoided ruinous London, instead buying a cottage in Weybridge, Surrey. Tucked into their sleepy native countryside, they finally came to rest. For her distinguished work as a translator, Sarah was granted a civil-list pension of £100 per year, which allowed her and John to breathe more easily. And they found a new peace with each other, enjoying one of those late halcyon periods that couples are sometimes granted after decades of strain and strife.
In 1859 John died of a respiratory infection, and Sarah assumed the full panoply of Victorian mourning. Like Victoria herself after Albert’s demise, she had John’s study frozen in time—not a book was to be shifted, not a pen used. She also took on the role of flame-keeping literary widow, even though there wasn’t much of a flame to keep. The great disappointment of her life, as she told Guizot, had been John’s “resolute neglect or suppression of the talents committed to his care.” But with John no longer around to sabotage himself, she could ripen the fruits of those talents and bring them to market. In 1863 she added to The Province of Jurisprudence Determined a selection of John’s notes and later essays to form the three-volume Lectures on Jurisprudence. Her preface to the book concludes by expressing the hope that “the benefits which [John] would have conferred on his country and on mankind” would be posthumously recognized. It seemed a pathetic last illusion, but that, remarkably, is just what happened. Where Province had sunk like a stone, Lectures on Jurisprudence was well received, in part because John Stuart Mill wrote a long, appreciative review of it. Eventually John Austin came to be regarded as a seminal figure in the history of jurisprudence—the “Austinian theory of law” is studied to this day.
Throughout her remaining years—she died in 1867—Sarah continued to revere John and his genius. “The rise of my husband’s reputation and authority,” she wrote to a friend, “is the one bright spot of my dark life.” She seemed to put little stock in her own achievements. Yet she was surely the better writer of the two (not that John’s excruciatingly costive style posed much competition) and probably broader in her learning. Under different circumstances she might have become an English Madame de Staël, a lionized woman of letters. Mill, Saint-Hilaire, and others felt she had unplumbed potential, and she herself once referred to “voluntary abnegations of what I might have attained.” Hers was, perhaps, a life of thwarted possibilities. But it was also one rich in books, languages, international experience, and the love and admiration of many friends. And however unfortunate in marriage, in motherhood Sarah struck lucky. Though she had only one child to her own mother’s seven, that one was exceptional. Absorbing the best lessons Sarah had to offer, Lucie would also avoid her worst mistakes, and would find for herself both the public happiness her mother had known and the domestic variety she hadn’t. Then she was forced to renounce it all and find a wholly different, death-haunted fulfillment in exile.
* * *
Her life was unusual from the start. Many children grow up playing in gardens, but not normally in Jeremy Bentham’s, where, according to Janet, “[the] flower-beds were intersected by threads and tapes to represent the passages of a panopticon prison.” The image might stand for Lucie’s entire childhood, which was in certain ways enviable but also sharply circumscribed—all those threads and tapes—and blighted by solitude. Like Sarah’s, it was enhanced from an early age by unrestricted contact with intelligent adults. Yet the closest thing she had to a peer was John Stuart Mill, fifteen years her senior. (Nowhere does the serious Mill appear more attractive than in his gay, spontaneous romping with the Austins’ small daughter—as a teenager, he wasn’t just a babysitter but a playmate to Lucie.)
Whatever the detrimental effects of her upbringing, ignorance and provincialism were not among them. By the time the Austins returned from Germany in 1828, Lucie, now seven, spoke the language fluently and had been, in Janet’s words, “transformed into a little German maiden with long braids down her back.” This Teutonicism was reinforced by her mother’s romance with Pückler-Muskau, into which she was drawn as a sort of innocent conspirator; Lucie herself exchanged letters with the prince, and Sarah boasted to him that Lucie was “more Deutsch than English.” But Sarah was also intent on broadening her daughter. While Sarah expressed herself “quite willing to forego all the feminine parts of her education” (Lucie never learned to draw, sew, or play an instrument), she felt as strongly as her own mother about languages, and personally taught the girl French and Latin. When even this seemed insufficient, she enrolled Lucie, age ten, at a Hampstead boys’ school. Despite being the only girl there, she flourished, learning math, philosophy, ancient history, and Greek; soon she was reading the Odyssey in the original.
That Lucie was not only an intelligent child but one of rare maturity is clear from the company she kept during her two summer stays in Boulogne. During the first, when she was twelve, she managed to strike up a friendship with one of the great poets of the age, Heinrich Heine, whom she and Sarah met at their table d’hôte. “He heard me speak German to my mother,” Lucie later recalled, “and soon began to talk to me, and then said, ‘When you go back to England, you can tell your friends that you have seen Heinrich Heine.’ I replied, ‘And who is Heinrich Heine?’ He laughed heartily, and took no offence at my ignorance.” She and Heine often lingered together on the pier, where he told her “stories in which fishes, mermaids, water-sprites, and a very funny old French fiddler with a poodle … were all mixed up in the most fanciful manner.”
The following summer Lucie was befriended by several fishermen’s families, whom she described to her friend Alice Spring-Rice (by then she’d had the chance to make a few friends her own age) with a sophistication and dry wit far beyond her years. “The men are null except at sea,” she wrote in one letter. “They bring home their fish, the wives go down to the boat, each takes her husband’s share on her back in a basket, trots off to market and sells it, never giving her husband any account of the money: the wife furnishes the house, clothes her husband, children and self, so the husband has nothing to spend at the alehouse and is entirely under the dominion of his … wife, and a very excellent thing for him too.” When the Austins moved to Boulogne in 1835, Lucie resumed and then deepened her intimacy with these families. On her departure, they gathered on the pier to bid her farewell—her parting image was of a red hat slowly waved by a tearful fisherman. Back in London, she reminisced—this time to another friend, Janet Shuttleworth—about going to “the matelot [sailor] balls and to their houses, mending their nets, playing with their children, learning their songs and their manner of fishing and navigating, and speaking their patois to perfection.” Her gift for being accepted into rustic traditional cultures would later stand her in good stead when she found herself in places more alien than Boulogne.
Lucie’s adaptive skills might have come in handy at her parents’ next destination, Malta, but they considered the island too hot and insalubrious to risk bringing her along. Instead, she was sent to a London boarding school, spending her vacations in Hastings with Janet Shuttleworth’s family, which was to be intertwined with her own down the generations. Janet Shuttleworth’s younger stepsister, Marianne North, was especially in awe of Lucie, and later wrote of her mesmerizing “grand eyes and deep-toned voice.” Other accounts from the period testify to her poise, presence, and ripening beauty. Where Sarah had only a standard-issue, rosy-cheeked prettiness, Lucie’s features bewitchingly combined classical elegance with romantic volatility—her almost translucent skin, set off by her dark hair and eyes, would flush dramatically when her feelings were inflamed.
In short, she’d become eminently marriageable, and on returning from Malta her parents wasted no time in launching her. That summer, after being presented to Queen Victoria—who, only two years older than Lucie, had just been crowned—she came out for her first London “season.” The following winter, at the behest of her cousin Henry Reeve,* she was invited to a ball thrown by Lord Lansdowne. It was a pivotal evening, for she met two people who would play leading roles in her life. One was Caroline Norton, whose poems had earned her the sobriquet “the female Byron” and whose private life was no less stormy or gossip-generating than his. Three years earlier, her jealous husband, convinced that her friendship with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, had crossed over into adultery, had sued Melbourne for “alienating her affections.” Even though Melbourne won the case, Norton had been blackballed, and was only now making her first forays back into society, where she was still mostly persona non grata. Under these punitive circumstances, Lucie’s youth, open-mindedness, and unconventionality held a strong appeal for the thirty-year-old Norton, and the two quickly became best friends.
Lucie’s other encounter was with a young baronet, Sir Alexander Cornewall Duff Gordon, with whom she danced repeatedly. Ten years her senior, he came from a modestly aristocratic background. His mother, Caroline, was the daughter of Sir George Cornewall, an MP for Herefordshire. On the paternal side, his family, largely Scottish, had grown prosperous in the eighteenth century as wine merchants in southern Spain, where they owned a sherry bodega. More recently, however, their fortunes had declined. Alexander’s father, Sir William Duff Gordon, had also been an MP but had died young and left heavy debts. His widow had struggled to maintain her four children at the proper level, and to help out Alexander had taken a job at the Treasury immediately after Eton. Unlike many down-at-heel aristocrats, he was unresentful at actually having to work for a living. This good humor was, in fact, perhaps his outstanding quality; despite being tall, handsome, and clever, he had no young-buck arrogance about him, and was instead, by common consent, kind, humble, and affable to a fault. He even shared the Austin fondness for all things German, and had already produced several translations.
Lucie and Alexander fell for each other at once and were engaged the following summer. In May 1840, a month before Lucie turned nineteen, they were married. After a honeymoon in Germany, they set up home at 8 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, and there, some twenty months later, their first child, Janet Anne, was born.
Copyright © 2013 by Ben Downing
In addition to The Calligraphy Shop, a book of poems, Ben Downing has published essays, articles, and reviews in The Paris Review, The New Criterion, and elsewhere. He is the coeditor of Parnassus.