CONTEMPLATING ADULTERY by Lotte Hamburger

CONTEMPLATING ADULTERY

The Secret Life of a Victorian Woman
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 From scraps of letters rescued from a Polish library, Lotte (a free-lance writer) and Joseph (Political Science/Yale) Hamburger reconstruct a torrid unconsummated epistolary affair (1832-34) between Sarah Austin, wife of a brilliant but sickly English legal theorist, and Byronic German Prince Puckler Muskau, whose book describing his fortune-hunting trip to England Sarah had translated, falling in love with him in the process. Believing that Sarah--a clever, attractive, spirited, and charming woman--was martyred in an unsuitable marriage and inhibited by Victorian morality, the Hamburgers miss the significant historical, psychological, even fictional dimension of her obsessive preoccupation with an idealized but notorious prince. In the explosive year of 1832, the Houses of Parliament burn and the Reform Bill passes, marking the end of a political but also emotional aristocracy (such as Muskau belonged to) and the emergence of the middle classes, along with the utilitarian philosophy that empowered them but left them spiritually impoverished. The impact of this collision of values, especially on women, was often represented in fiction, notably by George Eliot and Flaubert, for whom the Austin family might have served as an example. Like Emma Bovary's, Sarah's illusions of power, beauty, and success, fed by her correspondent (who chides her when he learns she has a mustache), victimize herself and her family. Her ambition to be married to a successful man occasionally drives her husband into positions of power where she excels as hostess, as an object of admiration, later only to suffer the indignities of his failures when she has to work at editing or live in unfashionable places. She remained a loyal but rueful wife and acquired ultimate power in publishing her husband's works after his death. A fascinating and provocative case study--though, unfortunately, the Hamburgers, with their narrow thesis, miss Sarah Austin's genuine social, political, and psychological significance. (Four-page b&w photo insert--not seen.)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-449-90307-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1991