Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau is not a name that trips lightly off the tongue, or, indeed, is widely known at all. This is a great pity. As this handsomely produced and, in all senses, weighty book proves, he was a traveller whose company can only be relished. His observations, here presented in letters home, are critical of what he finds distasteful and admiring of the congenial. He is sharp, witty and has an ear for a good story. What more could be asked of a companion?
In 1826, the prince faced bankruptcy. A self-styled ‘parkomaniac’, he had ruined himself by trying to turn several square miles of sand and pine forest in Muskau in Silesia into English parkland. In the process, he had gone through his own patrimony and his wife’s dowry. Something drastic was called for and a dramatic scheme was decided on. He and his adored wife, his ‘precious and constant one’, would divorce. Once free, the prince would set off for England to find a new, rich wife, who would be brought back to Muskau to live in harmony with the old one. It would be a very original variation on the ménage à trois.
He was to pursue his Dulcinea in England for just over two years. That country was chosen quite simply because it was the richest in Europe, and allegedly awash with heiresses. The prince openly admitted that his journey owed everything ‘to the profound respect we all have … for English money’. The wealth on display in the country, in his view, accounted for ‘the absurd reverence we grant to the very notion of an Englishman’. Even so, he had to accept the facts of economic life. So he dyed his hair, claimed to be a decade younger than he was and set off westwards.
During his quest, his life was a mixture of excitement and martyrdom. To find a wife, he had perforce to go into society, but English society was a desperate business. The English themselves were ‘deeply unsocial’, intent only on a mindless pursuit of fashion. The London Season lacked ‘sprezzatura’. Every foreigner ‘thanks God from the bottom of his heart when he escapes English society’. The capital was a ‘monstrous city … filled with dirt and fog’. Opulence made for comfortable inns and the well-upholstered haven of the Travellers Club, but the general bustle and greed were uncongenial. As the prince put it, ‘self-interest flashes vividly from every eye’.
To relieve his feelings, Pückler-Muskau wrote to his adored ex-wife, and his discerning observations provided her with a wonderful diorama of English life in the late 1820s. He wondered why it was impossible to order soup with a midday meal and why the English had such a propensity for stealing umbrellas. He described seemingly interminable dinner parties, enlivened only by the curious practice of offering each lady, when the women retired halfway through the meal, a different size of chamber pot according to her social rank. Gentlemen simply relieved themselves in the dining room. He had thoughts about the general lawlessness of the Londoner and his delight at cheating at sports; about the amorality of Punch and Judy shows and the pantomime; about the delights of Vauxhall Gardens and the unexpected cleanliness of Newgate; about the intrusive nature of newspapers, mitigated only by the fact that the press was treated with ‘general indifference’.
In sum, here is a whole Vanity Fair. The prince encountered the Bishop of Salisbury, ‘His Loftiness’, who regarded preaching as rather vulgar. There were hugely popular dentists and chefs who earned more than some members of the peerage, and dandies or ‘fashionables’ who needed twenty shirts a week if they were to appear to advantage at every ball, drum, rout and assembly to which they were invited. The prince himself sometimes had over twenty invitations for just one day. Sleep was a luxury that was not to be thought of before three or four in the morning.
He proved to be very perceptive, in particular, about relations between the several classes in England. It was, after all, a topic that obsessed foreign visitors, who endlessly tried to explain why Britain had experienced no revolution. Pückler-Muskau identified two reasons. First, he was impressed by how well the lower orders lived when compared to their equivalents in Europe: ‘I ask every open-minded foreigner traveling in England whether he does not find the general prosperity of the lower classes more remarkable than the often princely luxury of the wealthy few.’ Admittedly, his travels never took him to the industrial north, but he saw Birmingham, Sheffield and the pits of the Midlands. Secondly, the pretensions and arrogance of the aristocracy cut very little ice with the general public: ‘Commoners in England take little note of rank and none at all of foreign rank.’ John Bull was free to satirise and mock his masters while tucking into his beef and ale.
Outside London, the prince naturally felt more at home. Here the ‘parkomaniac’ was in his element, visiting numerous estates and offering his ex-wife detailed accounts of plantings and plantations. Here he could worship Capability Brown, the ‘Garden Shakespeare of England’. Here, too, life was slower, kinder and more relaxed. Only Ireland offered a terrible exception. Pückler-Muskau was savage in his condemnation of English behaviour there: ‘That is Ireland! Neglected or oppressed by the government, degraded by the stupid intolerance of the English priesthood, abandoned by the rich landowners, and stigmatized by poverty and the poison of whiskey.’ The prince predicted trouble. He also paid a visit to O’Connell and found him noble.
At the moment, it is often asserted that Britain is part of Europe. This would have come as a considerable surprise to the English of the 1820s and to the prince who observed them. Nowhere was this more obvious than at Westminster. After hearing Canning and others in debate, he reported, ‘This double senate of the English people, whatever its human failings, is something extraordinarily magnificent; and when you look at its workings from up close, you begin to understand why the English nation is still the first on the planet.’ Time and again, the traveller noted differences between what he knew at home and what he was now witnessing. It was this endless contrast that added spice to his daily recordings.
The prince heard and saw much to his advantage, but, alas, he found no new bride. Society’s efficient rumour mill branded him a fortune-hunter early on and, accordingly, the women of England took evasive action. Ironically, however, he had already sent home something just as valuable as an English dowry. Pückler-Muskau published his letters in 1830 and the book sold in thousands. For the moment, anyway, his financial position was assured. Muskau survived and is now a World Heritage site. Goethe and Heine both hailed the prince’s book as a new classic. They were probably right to do so. This splendid publication is an example of travel-writing at its best.