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.
Ill-fate pursued her to the matrimonial bed. The passionate love of her five-year engagement, she told Pückler, had ‘been dead for years – he would have it so, or it would have been eternal.’ From early in their marriage, sexual difficulties added to their other woes. Austin, she confessed, was not always ‘a tender husband’. She had some difficulty responding to feelings of ardour, on the occassions when he experienced such feelings: ‘not from any personal disgust, but for want of the preliminary commotion de coeur’, for she required ‘fondness, endearment, love in short, to make me care for it’. Austin was ‘unhappy and unloving’ and she had been subject to ‘inhuman neglect and unkindness’: ‘all the animal part of me mortified more than with weeks of fasting’. She was capable of abundant love, but it had ‘been the work of my life to deaden the capacity for it’. Yet it was a comfort of sorts to talk about her situation. She told Pückler: ‘I have all your tastes, animal, social, intellectual – above all, the taste of loving and being loved au suprême degré, and in that one, the life of my life, and the spring of my whole being, Oh how I have been disappointed!’ Were not ‘neglect, unkindness, indifference as much a violation of the vow as infidelity? Can a man be said to “love and to cherish” a woman for whose comfort, advantage, happiness, he shews not the least solicitude, and whose devoted efforts to please him he receives with sullen apathy, or worse?’ Evidently she was brooding about infidelity, its provocation, its justification. She was in the right mood to translate ‘that wondrous book’, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a tale spun around marital infidelity. She also told Pückler that in the early years of her marriage she had twice been on the verge of separating from Austin.
Her marriage brought her grief and undermined her confidence in her attractiveness, and she now turned to her ‘secret and unknown idol’ for emotional sustenance and for relief from a husband who, according to Pückler, was often ‘neither alive nor dead’. Pückler prided himself on being a conjurer of fantasies of romance and love, and he had an impressive collection of letters from women, as well as summaries of his own compositions in the same style: he judged that these letters were his best genre. Sarah was 38 years old when the correspondence began, and after years of fasting as a consequence of Austin’s morose neglect she was eager to plunge into a feast of intimacies and erotic exchanges. Here was a source of sensual pleasure and a balm to her wounded spirits. ‘I turn myself inside out to you,’ she told him, and it was true enough, for she held little back. ‘I talk to you as you bid me, without reserve, for I think I may. I love you. I wish to have you for a friend. I wish to be yours.’
She fell in love with abandon and innundated him with letters that included pillow talk, often in French, as if to separate this relationship from her routine married life. There were no barriers of conventional reticence, and she was swept along on a tide of passion. Endearments in four languages expressed her love. He was ‘carissimo’, her ‘coeur de mon coeur’, ‘mon âme’, her sweetest and dearest’, her ‘Liebling’. Her letters also carried with them a long passionate kiss, a most loving kiss (accompanied by a drawing of one), a shower of kisses, an Italian kiss, hot kisses, and the statement that ‘a thousand times I kiss your eyes and lips.’ And if Pückler was a mere ‘shadow husband’ now, she could harbour the hope that he might step out of the shadows some time in the future.
Hermann, his affectionate, playful letters, his interests, and her chats with him, and her fantasies about him, became the centre of her mental life. When she did not hear from him, all tranquillity vanished. When she did, it was ‘delicious to hang for hours’ over his letters, to taste the ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn’. At the end of the day she felt compelled to say good night by writing more to him or by soliloquising with his portrait and kissing it. ‘I turn from my griefs to look at you and am comforted that your letters and the consciousness of your love sustains me.’
She sought to demonstrate their emotional kinship and general compatibility. Her letters became a self-presentation that included an account of her opinions and a depiction of her physical attractions, passionate nature, and quality as a sexual partner – all to convince Hermann of her desirability. She assured him that she was the sort of woman he cherished, loving, trusting, understanding, undemanding, eager to serve him – an ideal woman for his roving and demanding heart. She was even willing to shed her suspect nationality: she was more German than English, she emphasised, so much so that she felt vertauscht (‘exchanged’) and ‘would give half my life to pass the other half in your noble country’.
She was determined to disabuse him of his notion that she was a conventional English prude. ‘The parrot morality’ of her countrywomen or the accepted worldly notions of ‘feigned virtue and covered vice’ were not hers. The institution of marriage wanted ‘entire remodelling’. As for chastity, ‘I do not attach any very great value to this ascetic virtue ... and I can quite believe that a man or a woman either who is not at all chaste may be a most noble, honourable, benevolent, intelligent creature.’ She also told him, perhaps having heard the reports of his experimentation with homosexuality:
My moral liberalism goes farther. I never could understand the enormous evil of those strange Greek loves which in this country it is necessary to scream and faint with horror even to think of. I do not exactly imagine the sort of pleasure, but I do not wish to limit the enjoyments du voisin, so they hurt not me or others ... if men thought sanely about good and evil they would let such diversities of taste alone ... But I think dearest Hermann you will see and see with pleasure how much we agree.
As for the eccentricities learned by Byron in Greece, they ‘would never separate me from any man I liked or was bound to’. While she emphasised her own ‘natural tastes’, she took the same liberal view of lesbianism: ‘What you speak of between women is utterly incomprehensible to me. As a trained Utilitarian – looking only at the evil consequences of actions and not regarding the antipathies of bigotry I ought to feel that such amusements are as innocent as any other.’ Pückler, whose varied past made such tolerance necessary, was being assured that he had found a genuinely open-minded woman.
One of Pückler’s love strategies was to stimulate erotic interest by stirring up jealousy with reference to his mistresses, and since one of these had known Sarah and had described her as a ‘masculine woman’, Sarah was goaded into defending her femininity. She had not a tinge of blue, she insisted. Authorship, she explained, was but an hors d’oeuvre to the rest of life. ‘If you saw me only once you would not think that ... there is not any part of me, body or mind, that is not truly woman.’ To make her point, she offered a self-description. Her forehead was very good, as were her dark, arched eyebrows. Her grey eyes were soft and thoughtful; the nose, although irregular, met the brow in a fine way; and the mouth was handsome. Altogether the face was ‘naturally grave and passionate’, but, ‘to tell the truth, that is precisely the part I pique myself on the least.’ She knew
what a beautiful body and limb is and that is my real and true beauty. As to my colossal stature, I am exactly 5 feet 6 inches ... I am as Rosalind says ‘just as high as your heart’ – that is, for my head to be there ... my shoulders are wide and well formed and my waist extremely slender in proportion to the expanse above and below. My bosom is not extremely large and prominent but round and firm ... I have a remarkably fine elastic muscle, ‘clean-limbed’ as jockeys say, knee and ankle sharply turned, and calf and thigh firm, round and accurately formed.
She also assured Hermann that ‘all that is beneath the petticoat is worth one thousand times more than the rest,’ and that he would be pleased by what he found ‘in the dark’. Although she confessed that her hair turned gray when she was 25, and that she was now 37 (thus understating her age by two years), she declared herself ‘not at all less desirable as a woman than I was at 20 – perhaps rather more so, being plumper and more developed’. And to corroborate her claims, she told him about several men, Francis Jeffrey among them, who were in love with her.
Above all, she left him in no doubt about the passion, vivacity, physicality that animated this beautiful body. ‘I ought to have been born the wife of a Norseman, a sea king, or else an Arab chief, for I like riding full gallop almost as well as sailing within an inch of water. Anything wild and adventurous.’ Yet here she was, of all tame things, a learned woman. She had, she felt, a half-Italian nature. ‘Were I a nun, God help me, I can imagine that it would go hard with me in the hours of leisure and contemplation.’ She recalled to Pückler the passage in Faust which always gave her ‘spasms of the heart’, when Gretchen ‘enumerates all the perfections of her beloved, gradually ascending till at last the whole tide of passion bursts forth from the heart of the loving woman’. Led on by Hermann’s questions, she described her good teeth, and warned him that she would make him cry for mercy and that he might carry their imprint on his shoulder for ever.
Sarah was leaving no doubt about what aroused her passion. Unlike those English women who endured caresses as a matter of duty and obedience, she sought ‘the delight of giving and receiving a great rapture – nay rather of enjoying one undivided, indivisible rapture made up of the most intense sensibility both of the physique and the affections’. Passion had to be mutual: ‘... if you knew what rapture it would be to minister in any way to the pleasures of a man who loved me as I desire and deserve. All that you can imagine and more I would do.’ And she added: ‘were I with you, in your embrace in your bed, I should be more glorious if I could invent a new pleasure for you.’ She promised to gratify his ‘wildest vagaries and desires’, and told him: ‘you know not half I could dare, or half I could imagine, for the man I love.’ She offered testimony from John Austin, boasting that, despite his experiences with ‘the warm blood of Spain and Italy’, and ‘amidst all his unkindness and neglect’, he has ‘often protested that Cleopatra herself could not exceed me as a bedfellow.’
For more than a year Sarah wrote confidingly, affectionately, and at times abjectly. He offered some of his well-practised stimuli to romantic fantasy, including the exchange of tokens of love. Thus, in keeping with contemporary taste, they exchanged locks of hair (with mutual confessions that it had begun to turn gray). Sarah also received a ring and sent him, at his request, an old shoe. She did not send, however, something else he had asked for (it is not clear what it was): ‘there was something – I can hardly define what – that wounded me in the manner of asking – something that looked like trying what you could make me do.’
In bestowing herself on Hermann, Sarah did not abandon her belief that love had to accompany a sexual liaison. She was too proud to be ‘the mere mistress of any man. I would not be that to Alexander the Great or Caesar if they regarded me as no more. I would exchange equal love and equal respect but I would be the mere minister of no man’s pleasures.’ Her sexual fantasy stressed a domestic and monogamous setting. While John Austin was distanced by referring to him not by name but by the impersonal ‘he’, she used the German form of her name, ‘Sara’, as if to conceal from herself the reality of Mrs Sarah Austin. Meanwhile she and Hermann identified themselves as husband and wife. He called her ‘dear little wife’ and himself ‘Schattenmann’ (‘shadow husband’) and ‘your true spouse in Germany’. And as his little Weibchen, entirely identified with his interests, she scurried around London making purchases for ‘our castle’, including curtain materials, horse cloths, seeds, curry powder, blotting paper, furniture. Hermann became her ‘époux chéri’, and she called herself ‘your poor Weib’. They even shared a dream in which she was the mother of a ‘Little Hermann’.
Sarah thus acknowledged two husbands and sustained this fantasy by elaborate security measures. Hermann was instructed to write in the difficult old German hand; her publisher served as a letter-drop; and German diplomatic couriers carried some of the letters. She also read harmless passages at home to reduce suspicion. Her elaborate subterfuge imposed its costs. In spite of her boldness, Sarah retained a conscience on which the correspondence often hung ‘like lead’. She complained, ‘My heart grows strange to my house,’ and she felt she was ‘imbibing poison when I suffer my thoughts to dwell thus on impossible events’. Yet she continued to plan for and tempt herself with a rendezvous. After twelve months of letter-writing, towards the end of 1832, such a meeting seemed possible, for John Austin’s precarious position at London University was grinding to a halt, and Sarah now told Hermann that her husband was strongly inclined to live in Berlin, less than a hundred miles from Muskau.
When it appeared that Sarah might actually confront him in Berlin, Hermann, who had presented himself as one turned blasé by conquests, showed signs of retreat. ‘In the physical aspect nothing is any longer enough,’ he wrote, and this was followed by excuses: ‘I am no longer so young, so handsome, nor a big hero in love. And then I have something which you would never imagine – a great shyness of character inspite of all effrontery.’ From this time, his letters, never as frequent as hers, became even rarer. He acknowledged ‘that the first intoxication of our private fantasy is over.’ In response to his sexual defensiveness, Sarah tried to be reassuring by lowering the level of expectations. Youth and beauty were not important (Pückler was now 47). She cared only for a man of refinement and sensitivity. Nor did he need to be a marathon lover:
At no time of my life would any very astonishing achievements sur le champ de bataille have been any recommendation to me. I suppose it is an idiosyncrasy of mine. Vehement, intense, mad as I have sometimes felt this enjoyment, I never could stand a repetition of it ... there may be insatiable natures. Kurz, mine is not one.
Furthermore, he was not to meet with the expectation that he necessarily had to make love to her: they should meet as friends, both of them free until they determined how they felt. Yet in spite of such reassurances, it was evident that she was still seeking an opportunity for a meeting and was hopeful about the outcome.
The opportunity materialised, for John Austin gave up teaching in the summer of 1833. Sarah asked: ‘How, where, when are you and I to meet?’ Soon afterwards she wrote: ‘For the first time in my life it seems to me possible we may meet.’ She was all anticipation, but her hopes were to be cruelly disappointed – this time not by Hermann’s diffidence, but, ironically, by one of her husband’s rare moments of success. Later that summer Austin was appointed to the Criminal Law Commission, and she had to explain to Hermann that they would not be leaving England. This public recognition should have delighted Sarah, but her disappointment was unconcealed. ‘If you think I am very violently happy you are mistaken.’
Sarah and Hermann did meet, but not until eight years later. Their affair effectively ended with this failure to meet in Berlin. It was followed by a period of deep depression – Sarah’s – as both sides of her double life came apart. Having resigned from his new post, John Austin was in such wretched health that she was afraid to leave him for more than a few hours. ‘I begin to give up all hope of his doing anything.’
Her secret life with Pückler withered. It had been obvious to her that Hermann was ‘sliding down from vehement passion to a now sober and waking state’, and that they were ‘more severed than ever’. She told him: I ‘no longer have the power over your imagination and your dreams’. She felt estranged: ‘My imagination hunts about for you in vain ... Tell me where to find you.’ Pückler announced his plans to travel extensively, perhaps in America, North Africa or the Near East, and she felt ‘dread as if you were quitting me’, which indeed he was. Plaintively she asked: ‘Have you forgotten your Weibchen?’
Sarah now suffered a nervous collapse:
I ought to tell you that I have been very ill. It was no acute or severe illness, but a feeling of being utterly and entirely worn out ... All seemed to me a trouble and vanity of vanities ... I felt as if some spring within had snapped and that I was never again to be myself ... [I had] a look of settled depression and exhaustion ... I felt as if old age had suddenly grasped me soul and body, and I said my life is gone like a dream – a dream of care and sorrow and toil – and now what remains? But for my child, my darling, I should have been ready calmly to close my eyes and say, let it end here.
On emerging from this dark episode, she felt transformed. ‘You will not love me any more. I have grown old,’ she wrote (she was now 42). ‘I am much much changed. I have lost my gaiety. I only seek to fulfil my duties and then to die in peace; if that can be.’
This emphasis on duty was to govern her relationship to her husband for the rest of her life, and her sense of guilt intensified her wifely devotion. The letters, the great source of former comfort, now rose ‘like demons’ before her and she was in terror that they ‘would convert all to darkest night’. By mid-1834 she had burned all but a few of Hermann’s and she wrote desperate letters pleading with him to destroy all of hers. Her former bravado collapsed entirely: now when she wrote to him she trembled at doing something secret. When one of Pückler’s occasional letters from his distant travels arrived opened, Sarah became frantic and informed him that his letters, unless worded more guardedly, were unwelcome. When they met some years later, there was barely so much as a flutter of the heart.