The Egyptian Letters of Lucie Duff Gordon

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Egyptian Letters of Lucie Duff Gordon


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


LUCIE Duff Gordon was a very good letter writer. She was intelligent, well educated - at a time when education meant more than mastery of curriculum - open minded and advanced in her views. She was also consumptive. Her illness separated her in middle age from family and friends and condemned her to an early and painful death at the age of forty-nine. She bore her illness stoically and wrote vividly about the circumstances of her daily life in exile.

She was born in London in June 1821 to the academic lawyer, John Austin, and his wife, Sarah. George IV was king. The Napoleonic Wars had brought prosperity to some - bankers chiefly - but ruined many and others, including Sarah Austin's parents, were to be ruined by the peace. Internationally Britain was at the height of its influence and power. Domestically there was economic hardship, widespread unrest and steadily growing pressures for reform, the reduction of aristocratic privilege and extension of popular franchise. The threat of public violence, of contamination spreading from the Continent, was the major preoccupation of government. They were turbulent times and the Austins were in the thick of them.

John Austin had once been an army officer. It is difficult to think of a more unlikely one but like many before and since he dreamed of glory at the cannon's mouth, inspired by the Peninsular campaign. His brief career took him instead to Malta and Sicily. A meticulous, indeed obsessive self-improver, his life became a war of attrition between his nobler and baser selves, interrupted by frequent skirmishes with the military authorities. His character was an unusual combination of arrogance and diffidence, born, not of self-doubt, but of a search for perfection. Ruthless self-analysis and honesty were to prove his guiding principles throughout life. Thus he began his diary for 1812, the year he left the army, with the following lines of Voltaire:

Nous tromper dans nos entreprises
C'est a quoi nous sommes sujets;
Le matin je fais ties projets
Et le long du jour des sollises.

In the satirical world of his near contemporary, the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, John Austin would have been a Perfectibilian, believing in a beneficient and flawless world with his own and humankind's weaknesses ironed out.

On resigning his commission John Austin returned to England to read for the Bar. His subsequent career as a lawyer never prospered because his intellectual gifts were paralysed by exactly those conflicts which had made Army life so difficult. 'John is always knocking his head against principles', said his elder brother, Charles, himself a supremely successful barrister whose only point in common with his younger brother was that they were both formidable talkers - Charles Austin once engaged Macaulay in seven hours of uninterrupted conversation. John Austin's excess of scruple combined with chronic ill-health to make it impossible for him to earn a living. He resigned from the Bar because stuffy courtrooms gave him a headache. He resigned again later, as the first Professor of Jurisprudence at London University School of Law, because he did not think his lectures were worth the salary he was being paid. Almost penniless in consequence he was compelled to take the family to live in Boulogne, 'the city of debts, peopled by men who have never understood arithmetic', as Sydney Smith described it, from which they returned on Austin's appointment to the Malta Commission in 1847. He worked hard and made a substantial contribution to the report which highlighted a number of serious abuses in the administration of the Island. He proved however unequal to the task of persuading the government to pay him, and was left once again almost destitute, forcing his wife to take up the cudgels on his behalf. Austin's abiding legacy is his work on jurisprudence, his notes for which, accumulated during almost a lifetime of study, were collected, transcribed and published by his wife after his death.

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