A Victorian Life: Read the Book, Don’t Wait for Masterpiece Theater
By Ron Fritze
Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt by Katherine Frank is the next book on the literary itinerary of the day-time book discussion group. Who is Lucie Duff Gordon, you ask? In a nutshell, she was a woman author and translator who lived (1821-1869) during the first half of the Victorian era in London. I am sure most people have never heard of her. Certainly I hadn’t until I started doing research on Victorian travelers in Egypt. But once I started reading about her life, I found out what a truly fascinating person she was, as was her family.
Lucie was the only child of John Austin (1790-1859) and Sarah Austin née Taylor (1793-1867). Her parents’ marriage was an odd one. Born in a Unitarian family, young Sarah was given the type of education that was generally reserved for the male children of Victorian families. She would provide her daughter Lucie with the same sort of education. Besides being highly intelligent, Sarah was also a notably attractive woman. These qualities attracted the attention and interest of John Austin who was viewed as a young man destined for great things. Such did not turn out to be the case. Austin was obsessive about details which proved paralytic to his getting much done. He was also either a hypochondriac or subject to psychosomatic illnesses related to his nervous condition. The end result was that he could not hold a job and mostly stayed at home in his sick bed. This situation forced Sarah to make a living for the family as a writer and translator and she became successful. Austin, although now recognized as a great legal scholar, only gained fame posthumous, based on a book that was initially not well received and only gained respect over time.
The Austins were deeply immersed in the intellectual community of London. They were friends with Jeremy Bentham and James Mill with the result that they helped to raise the young John Stuart Mill (a crowning mercy for someone with James Mill for a father). As a result, Lucie grew up in a house with lots of intellectual stimulation and culture although most of it came from her mother or the family friends. Like her mother, Lucie was a very pretty and vivacious young woman and highly intelligent. At nineteenth she married Sir Alexander Duff-Gordon, much to the chagrin of his mother, who considered the Austins beneath the Duff-Gordons socially.
Lucie and Alexander were a golden couple in the social scene of London’s intellectual set. Their circle of friends included Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Alfred Tennyson. Lucie became a writer in her own right and also gave birth to several children. Although for a number of years, the family struggled financially due to the poorly paid positions held by Alexander in the Treasury Office, as he rose in the hierarchy, they became more comfortable. Tragically, in the late 1850s, Lucie contracted tuberculosis. The cold and damp climate of England aggravated that condition. In 1860, she tried living in South Africa which turned out to not be much better. At that point she turned to the popular nineteenth century of remedy of living in the Mediterranean, particularly Egypt. She visited Egypt in 1862 and except for two brief visits to England, stayed there until the end of her life. This life-style made her a celebrity and her letters from Egypt were published and became bestsellers. If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating woman, you can join us at noon on 14 January in the Chapel of Athens State University for the book discussion.