Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency (I include those who were born before 1811 and who died after 1795), today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Sarah Austin (Translator)
1793 – 8 August 1867
Sarah Austin was born in Norwich, England in 1793, she was the youngest child of John Taylor, a yarn maker and hymn writer from a locally well-known Unitarian family. Her education was overseen by her mother, Susannah Taylor. She became conversant in Latin, French, German and Italian. Her six brothers and sisters included Edward Taylor, a singer and music professor, John Taylor, a mining engineer, Richard Taylor, a printer and editor and publisher of scientific works. Family friends included Dr James Alderson and his daughter Amelia Opie, Henry Crabb Robinson, the banking Gurneys and Sir James Mackintosh.
Sarah grew up to be an attractive woman. She caused some surprise by marrying John Austin on 24 August 1819. During the first years of their married life they lived a wide social life in Queen’s Square, Westminster. John Stuart Mill testified the esteem which he felt for her by the title of Mutter, by which he always addressed her. Jeremy Bentham was also in their circle. She travelled widely, for instance to Dresden and Weimar. According to a modern scholar, Austin “tended to be austere, reclusive, and insecure, while she was very determined, ambitious, energetic, gregarious, and warm. Indeed her affections were so starved that in the early 1830s she had a most unusual ‘affair’ with Hermann Pückler-Muskau, a German prince whose work she translated. It was conducted solely by an exchange of letters and she did not meet her correspondent until their passions had cooled.”
The only child of the Austins’ marriage, Lucie was likewise a translator of German works. She married Alexander Duff-Gordon. Her 1843 translation of Stories of the Gods and Heroes of Greece by Barthold Georg Niebuhr was erroneously ascribed to her mother. The family history was recorded in Three Generations of English Women (1893), by Sarah Taylor’s granddaughter, Mrs Janet Ross.
Austin’s literary translations were a principal means of financial support for the couple. She also did much to promote her husband’s works during his life and published a collection of his lectures on jurisprudence after his death. In 1833, she published Selections from the Old Testament, arranged under heads to illustrate the religion, morality, and poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures. “My sole object has been,” she wrote in the preface, “to put together all that presented itself to my own heart and mind as most persuasive, consolatory, or elevating, in such a form and order as to be easy of reference, conveniently arranged and divided, and freed from matter either hard to be understood, unattractive, or unprofitable (to say the least) for young and pure eyes.” In the same year, she published one of the translations by which she is best known: Characteristics of Goethe from the German of Falk, Von Müller, and others, with valuable original notes, illustrative of German literature. Her own criticisms are few, but highly relevant.
In 1834, Austin translated The Story without an End by Friedrich Wilhelm Carové, which was often reprinted. In the same year she translated the famous report on the State of Public Instruction in Prussia, addressed by Victor Cousin to Count Montalivet, minister of public instruction. In the preface she pleads eloquently for the cause of national education. “Society,” she says, “is no longer a calm current, but a tossing sea; reverence for tradition, for authority, is gone. In such a state of things who can deny the absolute necessity of national education?” In 1839 she returned to the same subject in a pamphlet, originally published as an article in the Foreign Quarterly Review, in which she argued from the experience of Prussia and France for the need to establish a national system of education in England.
One of her last publications (1859) consisted of two letters addressed to the Athenæum, on girls’ schools and on the training of working women, which show that she had modified her opinions. Speaking of the old village schools, she admits that the teachers possessed little book lore. They were often widows
better versed in the toils and troubles of life than in chemistry or astronomy…. But the wiser among them taught the great lessons of obedience, reverence for honoured eld, industry, neatness, decent order, and other virtues of their sex and stations, and trained their pupils to be the wives of working men. In 1827 Mrs Austin left with her husband for Germany and settled in Bonn. She collected in her long residence abroad materials for her work, Germany from 1760 to 1814, which was published in 1854 and still holds its place as an interesting and thoughtful survey of German institutions and manners.
In the autumn of 1836 she accompanied her husband to Malta, busying herself while there with investigations into the remains of Maltese art. On their return from that island, she and her husband returned to Germany. Thence they passed to Paris, where they remained until they were driven home by the revolution of 1848. In 1840 she translated Ranke’s History of the Popes, which was warmly praised by Thomas Babington Macaulay and Henry Hart Milman. When this translation was published, her intimate friend Sir George C. Lewis wrote to her saying, “Murray is very desirous that you should undertake some original work. Do you feel a ‘Beruf’ of this sort?” However, she felt no such “Beruf” and most of her subsequent works were translations.
After her husband’s death in 1859 Sarah Austin produced a coherent and near-complete edition of his Lectures on Jurisprudence, an enormous task that required assembling his scattered notes and marginalia. Her modesty regarding her contribution to her husband’s publications was recognized only by later authors She also edited the Memoirs of Sydney Smith (1855) and Lady Duff-Gordon’s Letters from Egypt (1865).
Sarah Austin’s style is clear, unaffected and forcible. She adopted a high standard for the duties of a translator and sought to conform to it rigorously. “It has been my invariable practice,” she said, “as soon as I have engaged to translate a work, to write to the author of it, announcing my intention, and adding that if he has any correction, omission, or addition to make, he might depend on my paying attention to his suggestions.” She did much to make the best minds of Germany familiar to Englishmen and she left a literary reputation due as much to her conversation and wide correspondence with illustrious men of letters as to her works.
The following is a list of her principal works, besides those named already:
- Translation of a Tour in England, Ireland, and France by a German Prince, (London, 1832), after Pückler’s Briefe eines Verstorbenen
- Translation of Raumer’s England in 1835, 1836.
- Fragments from German Prose Writers, 1841.
- History of the Reformation in Germany and History of the Popes (1840), from the German of Leopold von Ranke
- Sketches of Germany from 1760 to 1814 (1854), dealing with political and social circumstances during that period.
- Translation of François Guizot on the Causes of the Success of the English Revolution, 1850.
- Memoirs of the Duchess of Orleans, 1859.
- Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt, edited by Mrs. Austin, 1865.
- Letters of Sydney Smith, 1855 (second volume of Lady Holland’s Life and Letters).
Sarah Austin died at Weybridge, Surrey, on 8 August 1867. She was buried next to her husband in the Weybridge churchyard. Her estate, valued at less than £5000, received probate on 28 August 1867, the executor being her son-in-law, Sir Alexander Cornewall Duff-Gordon.