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Transcribed from the 1902 R. Brimley Johnson edition by David Price,
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Lady Duff Gordon's Letters from Egypt

Revised Edition with Memoir by Her Daughter Janet Ross

New Introduction by George Meredith



[Photograph of Lady Duff Gordon from sketch by G. F. Watts, R.A., about
1848: ill1.jpg]


The letters of Lady Duff Gordon are an introduction to her in person. She
wrote as she talked, and that is not always the note of private
correspondence, the pen being such an official instrument. Readers
growing familiar with her voice will soon have assurance that, addressing
the public, she would not have blotted a passage or affected a tone for
the applause of all Europe. Yet she could own to a liking for flattery,
and say of the consequent vanity, that an insensibility to it is inhuman.
Her humour was a mouthpiece of nature. She inherited from her father the
judicial mind, and her fine conscience brought it to bear on herself as
well as on the world, so that she would ask, 'Are we so much better?'
when someone supremely erratic was dangled before the popular eye. She
had not studied her Goethe to no purpose. Nor did the very ridiculous
creature who is commonly the outcast of all compassion miss having the
tolerant word from her, however much she might be of necessity in the
laugh, for Moliere also was of her repertory. Hers was the charity which
is perceptive and embracing: we may feel certain that she was never a
dupe of the poor souls, Christian and Muslim, whose tales of simple
misery or injustice moved her to friendly service. Egyptians, _consule
Junio_, would have met the human interpreter in her, for a picture to set
beside that of the vexed Satirist. She saw clearly into the later Nile
products, though her view of them was affectionate; but had they been
exponents of original sin, her charitableness would have found the
philosophical word on their behalf, for the reason that they were not in
the place of vantage. The service she did to them was a greater service
done to her country, by giving these quivering creatures of the baked
land proof that a Christian Englishwoman could be companionable, tender,
beneficently motherly with them, despite the reputed insurmountable
barriers of alien race and religion. Sympathy was quick in her breast
for all the diverse victims of mischance; a shade of it, that was not
indulgence, but knowledge of the roots of evil, for malefactors and for
the fool. Against the cruelty of despotic rulers and the harshness of
society she was openly at war, at a time when championship of the lowly
or the fallen was not common. Still, in this, as in everything
controversial, it was the [Greek text] with her. That singular union of
the balanced intellect with the lively heart arrested even in advocacy
the floods pressing for pathos. Her aim was at practical measures of
help; she doubted the uses of sentimentality in moving tyrants or
multitudes to do the thing needed. Moreover, she distrusted eloquence,
Parliamentary, forensic, literary; thinking that the plain facts are the
persuasive speakers in a good cause, and that rhetoric is to be suspected
as the flourish over a weak one. Does it soften the obdurate, kindle the
tardily inflammable? Only for a day, and only in cases of extreme
urgency, is an appeal to emotion of value for the gain of a day. Thus it
was that she never forced her voice, though her feelings might be at heat
and she possessed the literary art.

She writes from her home on the Upper Nile: 'In this country one gets to
see how much more beautiful a perfectly natural expression is than any
degree of the mystical expression of the best painters.' It is by her
banishing of literary colouring matter that she brings the Arab and Copt
home to us as none other has done, by her unlaboured pleading that she
touches to the heart. She was not one to 'spread gold-leaf over her
acquaintances and make them shine,' as Horace Walpole says of Madame de
Sevigne; they would have been set shining from within, perhaps with a
mild lustre; sensibly to the observant, more credibly of the golden sort.
Her dislike of superlatives, when the marked effect had to be produced,
and it was not the literary performance she could relish as well as any
of us, renders hard the task of portraying a woman whose character calls
them forth. To him knowing her, they would not fit; her individuality
passes between epithets. The reading of a sentence of panegyric
(commonly a thing of extension) deadened her countenance, if it failed to
quicken the corners of her lips; the distended truth in it exhibited the
comic shadow on the wall behind. That haunting demon of human eulogy is
quashed by the manner she adopted, from instinct and training. Of her it
was known to all intimate with her that she could not speak falsely in
praise, nor unkindly in depreciation, however much the constant play of
her humour might tempt her to exalt or diminish beyond the bounds. But
when, for the dispersion of nonsense about men or things, and daintiness
held up the veil against rational eyesight, the _gros mot_ was demanded,
she could utter it, as from the Bench, with a like authority and

In her youth she was radiantly beautiful, with dark brows on a brilliant
complexion, the head of a Roman man, and features of Grecian line, save
for the classic Greek wall of the nose off the forehead. Women, not
enthusiasts, inclined rather to criticize, and to criticize so
independent a member of their sex particularly, have said that her entry
into a ballroom took the breath. Poetical comparisons run under heavy
weights in prose; but it would seem in truth, from the reports of her,
that wherever she appeared she could be likened to a Selene breaking
through cloud; and, further, the splendid vessel was richly freighted.
Trained by a scholar, much in the society of scholarly men, having an
innate bent to exactitude, and with a ready tongue docile to the curb,
she stepped into the world armed to be a match for it. She cut her way
through the accustomed troops of adorers, like what you will that is
buoyant and swims gallantly. Her quality of the philosophical humour
carried her easily over the shoals or the deeps in the way of a woman
claiming her right to an independent judgement upon the minor rules of
conduct, as well as upon matters of the mind. An illustrious foreigner,
_en tete-a-tete_ with her over some abstract theme, drops abruptly on a
knee to protest, overpowered; and in that posture he is patted on the
head, while the subject of conversation is continued by the benevolent
lady, until the form of ointment she administers for his beseeching
expression and his pain compels him to rise and resume his allotted part
with a mouth of acknowledging laughter. Humour, as a beautiful woman's
defensive weapon, is probably the best that can be called in aid for the
bringing of suppliant men to their senses. And so manageable are they
when the idea of comedy and the chord of chivalry are made to vibrate,
that they (supposing them of the impressionable race which is overpowered
by Aphrodite's favourites) will be withdrawn from their great aims, and
transformed into happy crust-munching devotees - in other words, fast
friends. Lady Duff Gordon had many, and the truest, and of all lands.
She had, on the other hand, her number of detractors, whom she excused.
What woman is without them, if she offends the conventions, is a step in
advance of her day, and, in this instance, never hesitates upon the
needed occasion to dub things with their right names? She could
appreciate their disapproval of her in giving herself the airs of a man,
pronouncing verdicts on affairs in the style of a man, preferring
association with men. So it was; and, besides, she smoked. Her
physician had hinted at the soothing for an irritated throat that might
come of some whiffs of tobacco. She tried a cigar, and liked it, and
smoked from that day, in her library chair and on horseback. Where she
saw no harm in an act, opinion had no greater effect on her than summer
flies to one with a fan. The country people, sorely tried by the
spectacle at first, remembered the gentle deeds and homely chat of an
eccentric lady, and pardoned her, who was often to be seen discoursing
familiarly with the tramp on the road, incapable of denying her house-
door to the lost dog attached by some instinct to her heels. In the
circles named 'upper' there was mention of women unsexing themselves. She
preferred the society of men, on the plain ground that they discuss
matters of weight, and are - the pick of them - of open speech, more
liberal, more genial, better comrades. Was it wonderful to hear them,
knowing her as they did, unite in calling her _coeur d'or_? And women
could say it of her, for the reasons known to women. Her intimate
friendships were with women as with men. The closest friend of this most
manfully-minded of women was one of her sex, little resembling her,
except in downright truthfulness, lovingness, and heroic fortitude.

The hospitable house at Esher gave its welcome not merely to men and
women of distinction; the humble undistinguished were made joyous guests
there, whether commonplace or counting among the hopeful. Their hostess
knew how to shelter the sensitively silent at table, if they were unable
to take encouragement and join the flow. Their faces at least responded
to her bright look on one or the other of them when something worthy of
memory sparkled flying. She had the laugh that rocks the frame, but it
was usually with a triumphant smile that she greeted things good to the
ear; and her own manner of telling was concise, on the lines of the
running subject, to carry it along, not to produce an effect - which is
like the horrid gap in air after a blast of powder. Quotation came when
it sprang to the lips and was native. She was shrewd and cogent,
invariably calm in argument, sitting over it, not making it a duel, as
the argumentative are prone to do; and a strong point scored against her
received the honours due to a noble enemy. No pose as mistress of a
salon shuffling the guests marked her treatment of them; she was their
comrade, one of the pack. This can be the case only when a governing
lady is at all points their equal, more than a player of trump cards. In
England, in her day, while health was with her, there was one house where
men and women conversed. When that house perforce was closed, a light
had gone out in our country.

The fatal brilliancy of skin indicated the fell disease which ultimately
drove her into exile, to die in exile. Lucie Duff Gordon was of the
order of women of whom a man of many years may say that their like is to
be met but once or twice in a lifetime.


Lucie Duff Gordon, born on June 24, 1821, was the only child of John and
Sarah Austin and inherited the beauty and the intellect of her parents.
The wisdom, learning, and vehement eloquence of John Austin, author of
the 'Province of Jurisprudence Determined,' were celebrated, and Lord
Brougham used to say: 'If John Austin had had health, neither Lyndhurst
nor I should have been Chancellor.' He entered the army, and was in
Sicily under Lord William Bentinck; but soon quitted an uncongenial
service, and was called to the Bar. In 1819 he married Sarah, the
youngest daughter of John Taylor of Norwich, {1} when they took a house
in Queen Square, Westminster, close to James Mill, the historian of
British India, and next door to Jeremy Bentham, whose pupil Mr. Austin
was. Here, it may be said, the Utilitarian philosophy of the nineteenth
century was born. Jeremy Bentham's garden became the playground of the
young Mills and of Lucie Austin; his coach-house was converted into a
gymnasium, and his flower-beds were intersected by tapes and threads to
represent the passages of a panopticon prison. The girl grew in vigour
and in sense, with a strong tinge of originality and independence and an
extreme love of animals. About 1826 the Austins went to Germany, Mr.
Austin having been nominated Professor of Civil Law in the new London
University, and wishing to study Roman Law under Niebuhr and Schlegel at
Bonn. 'Our dear child,' writes Mrs. Austin to Mrs. Grote, 'is a great
joy to us. She grows wonderfully, and is the happiest thing in the
world. Her German is very pretty; she interprets for her father with
great joy and naivete. God forbid that I should bring up a daughter
here! But at her present age I am most glad to have her here, and to
send her to a school where she learns - _well_, writing, arithmetic,
geography, and, as a matter of course, German.' Lucie returned to
England transformed into a little German maiden, with long braids of hair
down her back, speaking German like her own language, and well grounded
in Latin. Her mother, writing to Mrs. Reeve, her sister, says: 'John
Mill is ever my dearest child and friend, and he really dotes on Lucie,
and can do anything with her. She is too wild, undisciplined, and
independent, and though she knows a great deal, it is in a strange, wild
way. She reads everything, composes German verses, has imagined and put
together a fairy world, dress, language, music, everything, and talks to
them in the garden; but she is sadly negligent of her own appearance, and
is, as Sterling calls her, Miss Orson. . . . Lucie now goes to a Dr.
Biber, who has five other pupils (boys) and his own little child. She
seems to take to Greek, with which her father is very anxious to have her
thoroughly imbued. As this scheme, even if we stay in England, cannot
last many years, I am quite willing to forego all the feminine parts of
her education for the present. The main thing is to secure her
independence, both with relation to her own mind and outward
circumstances. She is handsome, striking, and full of vigour and

From the very first Lucie Austin possessed a correct and vigorous style,
and a nice sense of language, which were hereditary rather than
implanted, and to these qualities was added a delightful strain of
humour, shedding a current of original thought all through her writings.
That her unusual gifts should have been so early developed is hardly
surprising with one of her sympathetic temperament when we remember the
throng of remarkable men and women who frequented the Austins' house. The
Mills, the Grotes, the Bullers, the Carlyles, the Sterlings, Sydney
Smith, Luttrell, Rogers, Jeremy Bentham, and Lord Jeffrey, were among the
most intimate friends of her parents, and 'Toodie,' as they called her,
was a universal favourite with them. Once, staying at a friend's house,
and hearing their little girl rebuked for asking questions, she said:
'_My_ mamma never says "I don't know" or "Don't ask questions."'

In 1834 Mr. Austin's health, always delicate, broke down, and with his
wife and daughter he went to Boulogne. Mrs. Austin made many friends
among the fishermen and their wives, but 'la belle Anglaise,' as they
called her, became quite a heroine on the occasion of the wreck of the
_Amphitrite_, a ship carrying female convicts to Botany Bay. She stood
the whole night on the beach in the howling storm, saved the lives of
three sailors who were washed up by the breakers, and dashed into the sea
and pulled one woman to shore. Lucie was with her mother, and showed the
same cool courage that distinguished her in after life. It was during
their stay at Boulogne that she first met Heinrich Heine; he sat next her
at the _table d'hote_, and, soon finding out that she spoke German
perfectly, told her when she returned to England she could tell her
friends she had met Heinrich Heine. He was much amused when she said:
'And who is Heinrich Heine?' The poet and the child used to lounge on
the pier together; she sang him old English ballads, and he told her
stories in which fish, mermaids, water-sprites, and a very funny old
French fiddler with a poodle, who was diligently taking three sea-baths a
day, were mixed up in a fanciful manner, sometimes humorous, often very
pathetic, especially when the water-sprites brought him greetings from
the North Sea. He afterwards told her that one of his most charming

'Wenn ich am deinem Hause
Des Morgens voruber geh',
So freut's mich, du liebe Kleine,
Wenn ich dich am Fenster seh',' etc.,

was meant for her whose magnificent eyes he never forgot.

Two years later Mr. Austin was appointed Royal Commissioner to inquire
into the grievances of the Maltese. His wife accompanied him, but so hot
a climate was not considered good for a young girl, and Lucie was sent to
a school at Bromley. She must have been as great a novelty to the school
as the school-life was to her, for with a great deal of desultory
knowledge she was singularly deficient in many rudiments of ordinary
knowledge. She wrote well already at fifteen, and corresponded often
with Mrs. Grote and other friends of her parents. {4} At sixteen she
determined to be baptized and confirmed as a member of the Church of
England (her parents and relations were Unitarians). Lord Monteagle was
her sponsor and it was chiefly owing, I believe, to the influence of
himself and his family, with whom she was very intimate in spite of her
Radical ideas, that she took this step.

[Lucie Austin, aged fifteen, from a sketch by a school friend: ill4.jpg]

When the Austins returned from Malta in 1838, Lucie began to appear in
the world; all the old friends flocked round them, and many new friends
were made, among them Sir Alexander Duff Gordon whom she first met at
Lansdowne House. Left much alone, as her mother was always hard at work
translating, writing for various periodicals and nursing her husband, the
two young people were thrown much together, and often walked out alone.
One day Sir Alexander said to her: 'Miss Austin, do you know people say
we are going to be married?' Annoyed at being talked of, and hurt at his
brusque way of mentioning it, she was just going to give a sharp answer,
when he added: 'Shall we make it true?' With characteristic
straightforwardness she replied by the monosyllable, 'Yes,' and so they
were engaged. Before her marriage she translated Niebuhr's 'Greek
Legends,' which were published under her mother's name.

On the 16th May, 1840, Lucie Austin and Sir Alexander Duff Gordon were
married in Kensington Old Church, and the few eye-witnesses left still
speak with enthusiasm of the beauty of bridegroom and bride. They took a
house in Queen Square, Westminster, (No 8, with a statue of Queen Anne at
one corner), and the talent, beauty, and originality, joined with a
complete absence of affectation of Lady Duff Gordon, soon attracted a
remarkable circle of friends. Lord Lansdowne, Lord Monteagle, Mrs.
Norton, Thackeray, Dickens, Elliot Warburton, Tennyson, Tom Taylor,
Kinglake, Henry Taylor, and many more, were habitues, and every foreigner
of distinction sought an introduction to the Duff Gordons. I remember as
a little child seeing Leopold Ranke walking up and down the drawing-room,
and talking vehemently in an _olla-podrida_ of English, French, German,
Italian, and Spanish, with now and then a Latin quotation in between; I
thought he was a madman. When M. Guizot escaped from France on the
outbreak of the Revolution, his first welcome and dinner was in Queen

The first child was born in 1842, and soon afterwards Lady Duff Gordon
began her translation of 'The Amber Witch'; the 'French in Algiers' by
Lamping, and Feuerbach's 'Remarkable Criminal Trials,' followed in quick
succession; and together my father and mother translated Ranke's 'Memoirs
of the House of Brandenburg' and 'Sketches of German Life.' A remarkable
novel by Leon de Wailly, 'Stella and Vanessa,' had remained absolutely
unnoticed in France until my mother's English version appeared, when it
suddenly had a great success which he always declared he owed entirely to
Lady Duff Gordon.

In a letter written to Mrs. Austin from Lord Lansdowne's beautiful villa
at Richmond, which he lent to the Duff Gordons after a severe illness of
my father's, my mother mentions Hassan el Bakkeet (a black boy): 'He is
an inch taller for our grandeur; _peu s'en faut_, he thinks me a great
lady and himself a great butler.' Hassan was a personage in the
establishment. One night, on returning from a theatrical party at
Dickens', my mother found the little boy crouching on the doorstep. His
master had turned him out of doors because he was threatened with
blindness, and having come now and then with messages to Queen Square, he
found his way, as he explained, 'to die on the threshold of the beautiful
pale lady.' His eyes were cured, and he became my mother's devoted slave
and my playmate, to the horror of Mr. Hilliard, the American author. I
perfectly recollect how angry I was when he asked how Lady Duff Gordon
could let a negro touch her child, whereupon she called us to her, and
kissed me first and Hassan afterwards. Some years ago I asked our dear
friend Kinglake about my mother and Hassan, and received the following
letter: 'Can I, my dear Janet, how can I trust myself to speak of your
dear mother's beauty in the phase it had reached when first I saw her?
The classic form of her features, the noble poise of her head and neck,
her stately height, her uncoloured yet pure complexion, caused some of
the beholders at first to call her beauty statuesque, and others to call
it majestic, some pronouncing it to be even imperious; but she was so
intellectual, so keen, so autocratic, sometimes even so impassioned in
speech, that nobody feeling her powers could go on feebly comparing her
to a statue or a mere Queen or Empress. All this touches only the
beauteous surface; the stories (which were told me by your dear mother
herself) are incidentally illustrative of her kindness to
fellow-creatures in trouble or suffering. Hassan, it is supposed, was a
Nubian, and originally, as his name implies, a Mahometan, he came into
the possession of English missionaries (who had probably delivered him
from slavery), and it resulted that he not only spoke English well and
without foreign accent, but was always ready with phrases in use amongst
pious Christians, and liked, when he could, to apply them as means of
giving honour and glory to his beloved master and mistress; so that if,
for example, it happened that, when they were not at home, a visitor
called on a Sunday, he was sure to be told by Hassan that Sir Alexander
and Lady Duff Gordon were at church, or even - for his diction was equal
to this - that they were "attending Divine service." Your mother had
valour enough to practise true Christian kindness under conditions from
which the bulk of "good people" might too often shrink; when on hearing
that a "Mary" once known to the household had brought herself into
trouble by omitting the precaution of marriage, my lady determined to
secure the girl a good refuge by taking her as a servant. Before taking
this step, however, she assembled the household, declared her resolve to
the servants, and ordered that, on pain of instant dismissal, no one of
them should ever dare say a single unkind word to Mary. Poor Hassan,
small, black as jet, but possessed with an idea of the dignity of his
sex, conceived it his duty to become the spokesman of the household, and
accordingly, advancing a little in front of the neat-aproned, tall,
wholesome maid-servants, he promised in his and their name a full and
careful obedience to the mistress's order, but then, wringing his hands
and raising them over his head, he added these words: "What a lesson to
us all, my lady."' On the birth of a little son Hassan triumphantly
announced to all callers: 'We have got a boy.' Another of his delightful
speeches was made one evening when Prince Louis Napoleon (the late
Emperor of the French) dropt in unexpectedly to dinner. 'Please, my
lady,' said he, on announcing that dinner was ready, 'I ran out and
bought two pen'orth of sprats for the honour of the house.'

Though I was only six I distinctly remember the Chartist riots in 1848.
William Bridges Adams, the engineer, an old friend of my great-uncle,
Philip Taylor, had a workshop at Bow, and my mother helped to start a
library for the men, and sometimes attended meetings and discussed
politics with them. They adored her, and when people talked of possible
danger she would smile and say: 'My men will look after me.' On the
evening of April 9 a large party of stalwart men in fustian jackets

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