Duff-Gordon, Lucie (1821–1869)

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Duff-Gordon, Lucie (1821–1869)

English translator and travel writer whose published letters chronicled her years spent in South Africa and Egypt, presenting those cultures with keen insight and a rare understanding. Name variations: Lady Lucy Duff or Duff Gordon. Born on June 24, 1821, in Queen Square, London, England; died on July 14,1869, of consumption in Cairo, Egypt; only child of John Austin (a jurist and author of Providence of Jurisprudence Determined) and Sarah Taylor Austin (a translator and woman of letters); had little formal education; spent a few years at a school in Hampstead and at Miss Shepherd's School in Bromley; married Sir Alexander Duff-Gordon, on May 16, 1840; children: Janet Anne Duff-Gordon Ross (1842–1927, a writer); Maurice (b. March 1849); Urania Duff-Gordon (b. 1858, called Rainie).

Spent early childhood in England; traveled to Germany with her parents, where she became fluent in the language (1826); as a teenager, attended boarding school in Bromley; made her debut in London society (1838); married at age 19 (1840); lived in London and translated many important literary and historical works (1840–50); moved with family to Weybridge, where she established a library for working men (1850); moved to Paris (1857); left England for South Africa (1861); moved on to Egypt (1862), where she lived until her death (1869).

Translations of German and French works: Barthold Niebuhr's Studies of Ancient Greek Mythology (1839); Wilhelm Meinhold's Mary Schweidler: The Amber Witch (1844); The French in Algiers, from the German and French of C. Lamping (1845); P.J.A. von Feuerbach's Narrative of Remarkable Criminal Trials (1846); (with her husband) Leopold von Ranke's Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg (1847); A.F.L. de Wailly's Stella and Vanessa (1850); von Ranke's Ferdinand I and Maximilian II of Austria (1853); S. D'Arbouville's The Village Doctor (1853); Baron von Moltke's The Russians in Bulgaria and Roumelia, 1828–1929 (1854); (edited) H.C.L. von Sybel's The History and Literature of the Crusades (1861). Published letters: Letters from the Cape (published as part of Francis Galton's Vacation Tourist in 1862–1863, 1864); Letters from Egypt, 1863–1865 (1865); Last Letters from Egypt (1875).

In her many letters from South Africa and Egypt, British "travel writer" Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon painted a vivid, compelling, and sympathetic portrait of societies and cultures at an extraordinary moment in history. In the 1860s, these societies were increasingly under the influence of European ideas and were rapidly becoming the object of European imperial ambitions. In her Letters from the Cape and Letters from Egypt, Duff-Gordon provided her readers with a sense of the rich, cultural heritage of her adopted home, and her descriptions and anecdotes convey the spirit of a woman known in her day for her independence of mind and her deeply sympathetic nature. This combination of traits also encouraged Duff-Gordon to make insightful and needed criticisms of the prejudicial and cruel elements of European imperialism. In all her work and throughout her life, Duff-Gordon was a keen student of human nature. She consistently demonstrated an abiding respect for all women and men regardless of nationality, skin color, religion, or culture.

Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon was born into a family known for its intellectual abilities and its progressive sympathies. Her parents, John Austin and Sarah Austin , were eager political reformers and active participants in the most exciting intellectual circles of the day. John Austin was well-known for his brilliant and vigorous mind, but he was also a sickly and humorless man whose rigid principles and perfectionism limited his ability to earn a living. John did, however, produce a book, Providence of Jurisprudence Determined, that established his place in legal history. He was also an important influence on the young philosopher and theorist John Stuart Mill.

Lucie Duff-Gordon's mother Sarah was a prominent translator and woman of letters. Known for her forceful personality, her devotion to reform, and her avid reading habits, Sarah carried on a voluminous correspondence with the greatest minds and political reformers of the day, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Auguste Comte, Lord Brougham, and W.E. Gladstone. Sarah Austin also had a strong sense of family. Lucie Duff-Gordon's extended family included the well-known Martineaus, who had an important influence on her as a child. One of Duff-Gordon's biographers suggested that "there was a strong sense of unity" in the clan, particularly on Lucie's mother's side of the family, and it was not uncommon for more than 60 members of the family to gather for meetings or celebrations.

Lucie was a precocious child. She displayed self-confidence and a sharp mind at an early age. The luminaries who frequented her parent's drawing room rarely brought children with them, hence Lucie's playmates were men like John Stuart Mill. At a young age, Lucie was exposed to some of the most prominent intellectuals and political leaders of her parent's generation, including James and John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Mary Louisa Molesworth , and Daniel O'Connell.

Lucie had little formal education as a child, though for a short time she attended a co-educational school at Hampstead, where she probably learned Greek and possibly Latin. She also attended a German school during the year her family spent in Bonn when she was six years old. From the time she was young, Lucie received informal but valuable instruction from her mother, most likely in foreign languages. This instruction probably contributed to the close relationship Lucie maintained throughout her life with Sarah. When Lucie was older and living abroad, it was in letters to her mother that Duff-Gordon spoke the most openly about the behavior of the English in foreign countries.

The life of the Austins, though rich in intellectual stimulation, was often a financial challenge, and the family moved with some frequency in order to manage their expenses. When Lucie was 13, they relocated to the French fishing village of Boulogne. Despite their move away from London, the Austins were always active in the intellectual community, and through them young Lucie struck up a friendship with the German poet Heinrich Heine. Heine was a masterful political satirist and revolutionary poet who had fled Germany under pressure from the government. He was impressed with young Lucie's keen intellect and candor, and near the end of his life, when Heine and Duff-Gordon met again, he remembered their time in Boulogne together fondly. As a teenager, Lucie was described as curious and interesting, independent and self-possessed. Her appearance was, according to one observer, "handsome and very striking."

In 1836, the Austin family moved to Malta. This time Lucie, now 15 years old, did not relocate with her parents but instead boarded at Miss Shepherd's School at Bromley. According to most accounts, Duff-Gordon's experience at Miss Shepherd's was difficult, since she had grown used to the eclectic character of her earlier education. Her dissatisfaction with life at Bromley did not, however, dampen her independence of mind. At age 16, Lucie, a Unitarian, decided to undergo baptism and confirmation in the Church of England. She made this decision after a prolonged religious debate with one of her classmates, who was Anglican, but without consulting her parents or relations. Lucie's conversion horrified her relatives, since most of them were members of the Unitarian Church. Despite pressure from relatives, Lucie remained unswerving in her decision to convert. Duff-Gordon's years at Bromley were marked by another more disturbing legacy, for it was there that she first developed consumption, the illness that would in the years to come rob her of her health and eventually her life.

Austin, Sarah (1793–1867)

English author. Born Sarah Taylor in Norwich, England, in 1793; died at Weybridge, England, on August 8, 1867; daughter of John Taylor (a wool-stapler, who died in 1826) and Susannah Cook Taylor; married John Austin (a London barrister), in 1820 (died 1859); children: Lucie Duff-Gordon (1821–1869).

Sarah Austin was born into the celebrated Taylor family of Norwich, England. Her great grandfather, Dr. John Taylor (1694–1761), was the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Norwich and writer of a once famous polemical work on The Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin (1738), which elicited celebrated treatises by Jonathan Edwards on Original Sin. Her mother Susannah Cook Taylor was an extremely intelligent woman who contributed both beauty and talent to her daughter. The friends of Susannah and John Taylor included Henry Crabbe Robinson, Sir James Mackintosh, and Dr. Alderson and his daughter Amelia Opie . After Sarah Taylor married John Austin in 1820, they lived in Queen Square, Westminster, and their daughter and only child Lucie Duff-Gordon was born in 1821. Sarah, whose tastes, unlike her husband's, were decidedly social, cultivated a large circle of friends, including Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and historians George and Harriet Grote (1792–1878); she also befriended many Italian exiles. Austin attempted few original works, involving herself mainly with translations, of which the most important are the Characteristics of Goëthe (3 vols., 1833), Leopold von Ranke's History of the Reformation in Germany and History of the Popes (1840), and Report on the State of Public Instruction in Prussia (1834); from the French, she translated V. Cousin and F.W. Carove's The Story without an End (1864).

Of History of the Popes, her contemporary Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote: "Of this translation we need only say that it is such as might be expected from the skill, the taste, and the scrupulous integrity of the accomplished lady who, as an interpreter between the mind of Germany and the mind of Britain, has already deserved so well of both countries." Following her husband's death in 1859, Austin edited his Lectures on Jurisprudence. She also edited the Memoirs of Sydney Smith (1855) and her daughter Lucie Duff-Gordon's Letters from Egypt (1865). See Three Generations of Englishwomen (1888), by her granddaughter, Janet Anne Duff-Gordon Ross (1842–1927).

When Lucie's parents returned to England in 1838 after two years in Malta, she left Bromley to rejoin them and to make her formal en-trance into London society. At her first ball at Lansdowne House, she met Sir Alexander Duff-Gordon, a clerk in the Treasury, and the two fell in love. Alexander's mother, the Dowager Lady Duff-Gordon, at first opposed the union because Lucie did not have a dowry, but Alexander was determined to marry Lucie. Despite the misgivings of the dowager, they were married on May 16, 1840, and settled in London, near the residence where Lucie Duff-Gordon had spent several years as a child.

Like her parents, Lucie Duff-Gordon and her husband had many friends, and their house at No. 8 Queen Square, Westminster, became a gathering place for men and women of letters, eminent foreign visitors, and politicians. They entertained Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Macaulay, Charles Austin, Tom Taylor, and Alfred Tennyson, among others. In 1842, Lucie gave birth to a daughter, Janet, who would grow up among the intellectual giants that peopled the Duff-Gordons' salon.

I am fully convinced that custom and education are the only real difference between one set of men and another; their inner nature is the same the world over.

—Lucie Duff-Gordon

Despite her apparently conventional life, Duff-Gordon was well-known among her acquaintances for her rejection of many Victorian mores. She smoked cigars when she went riding because they suppressed the racking coughs caused by consumption. In 1845, she defied conventions by taking in a homeless 12-year-old Nubian boy named Hassan el Bakkeet, whom she affectionately called Hatty. Hatty performed household chores, but he was less a servant than a cherished member of the family. A number of Duff-Gordon's friends expressed horror that she allowed Hatty to interact freely with their young child, but Duff-Gordon trusted Hatty completely, and he remained with the family until he died of lung congestion in 1850. In her memoirs, Duff-Gordon's daughter Janet described Hatty as her "beloved playfellow." As with her religious conversion, Duff-Gordon's forceful personality eventually either won over or silenced her critics.

Like her mother, Lucie Duff-Gordon devoted a great deal of her time and intellectual energy to translation work. She had learned German in the 1820s when she traveled with her parents to Bonn, and she was also fluent in French. Her first translation was Barthold Niebuhr's 1839 book on Greek mythology, and she produced a substantial body of translations over the next 20 years. Duff-Gordon's translations were nearly all works of history; she rarely chose to translate fiction. In 1927, J.W. Mackail, writing of Duff-Gordon's translation of Wilhelm Meinhold's Mary Schweidler: The Amber Witch, said that "it is of its kind a masterpiece." Duff-Gordon "achieved a rarity, a translation equal, and in some respects superior, to the original."

Those who knew Duff-Gordon were impressed not only with her intellectual abilities but also with her sympathetic nature and the natural empathy she extended to those outside her own social class. Through her friend William Bridges Adams, she met working men from London. At this time the Chartists, a British working-class movement, were demanding reforms such as universal male suffrage and the abolition of property requirements for membership in the House of Commons. In the tense atmosphere of 1848, with revolution spreading across Europe, militant Chartists threatened insurrection. Legend has it that when the Chartists marched on London in 1848, throwing much of the citizenry into a panic, nearly 40 men from the workshops came to Lady Duff-Gordon's house to ensure the safety of "their lady." The Duff-Gordon household also served for a brief time as an asylum for French Prime Minster François Guizot, a fugitive from France after the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in 1848. In 1850, when the family was living in Weybridge, Duff-Gordon established and superintended a library and reading room for workers.

In 1849, Lucie Duff-Gordon gave birth to son Maurice and soon after endured a debilitating battle with consumption. Her health was so poor that the family left the damp climate of London to stay with Lucie's parents in their cottage at Weybridge, where Lucie nearly died of bronchitis and fever. In a letter to a friend, she warned that "I fear you would think me very much altered since my illness; I have lost much of my hair, all my complexion and all my flesh look thin and old and my hair is growing grey." At the time, Duff-Gordon was just 30 years old. During the next few years, her symptoms became worse, and she found it increasingly difficult to recover from her attacks. In 1858, she gave birth to another daughter, Urania, who was called Rainie. In 1859, after the death of her father, Duff-Gordon suffered another severe attack of bronchitis. Two harsh winters passed with little improvement in her health, and, on the advice of her physician, in July 1861 Duff-Gordon set sail for the healthier climate of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. She stayed just over a year. The many letters documenting her experiences at the Cape would be published as part of a larger work called Vacation Tourist in 1864.

In 1862, Duff-Gordon moved on from the Cape to Egypt in search of even warmer temperatures and the dry air that relieved her racking cough. She settled in Luxor, described by one visitor as a "ramshackle village," where she lived in a house built over an ancient Egyptian temple. As when she lived in South Africa, Duff-Gordon maintained a prolific correspondence with her family and friends. In her letters, she described the plight of the Egyptian peasants at the time of the Khedive Ismail government, prior to the occupation of Egypt by the British.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Egypt was still formally a part of the Ottoman Empire. It was, however, virtually independent politically and becoming increasingly Western economically. Indeed, these decades saw rapid changes in Egypt as the khedive (the Ottoman word for viceroy) pursued Western-style reforms. Although Egypt would not officially become part of the British Empire until 1882, the transition to that state was well underway by the time Duff-Gordon moved there in 1862.

Egypt in the 1860s was a ripe target for imperial ambitions in Europe due to both its agricultural wealth and its strategic location. Economically, Egypt's wheat and cotton exports ushered the country into the British system of international trade. During the American Civil War, cotton export earnings in Egypt skyrocketed. The result was a surge of foreign businessmen and adventurers eager to extend credit to the Khedive Ismail and his government. The khedive eagerly accepted credit from the Europeans, pursuing ambitious projects intended to make Egypt into a modern imperial power. The government quickly built up an enormous debt, which by the 1870s would overcome the khedive's government. By 1882, the British ruled Egypt.

Lucie Duff-Gordon settled in Egypt in the midst of this great transition. She was known there as Sitt el Kebeer, the Great Lady, by the Egyptian peasants, who were called the fellaheen. From the beginning, she was highly critical of Khedive Ismail's government. According to speculation, Duff-Gordon's critical assessments of the Ismail government were threatening enough to cause her to be watched by Ismail's spies, and many of her letters were probably tampered with or deliberately "lost" in the mails. In letters to her husband, Duff-Gordon frequently encouraged him to make public the information she was sending him, even though it did at times contradict the official pronouncements of the British Consulate. A letter from Duff-Gordon dated May 21, 1863, revealed her loyalties:

You know that I don't see things quite as our countrymen generally do, for mine is another standpunkt, and my heart is with the Arabs. I care less about opening up trade with the Sudan, or about all the new railways, and I should like to see person and property safe, which no one's is here—Europeans, of course, excepted.

Two years later, in 1865, Duff-Gordon decried the "system of wholesale extortion and spoilation" that had turned Egypt into "one vast plantation where the master works his slaves without even feeding them."

Although Duff-Gordon gave considerable attention to the political activities of Europeans in Egypt, her letters also contain extensive discussions of the region's culture. She wrote knowledgeably about a broad array of subjects, including Arab architecture and Arab art, bringing to all of her descriptions the enthusiasm of a student and the acute insights of a foreigner with a deep appreciation for other cultures. One of her biographers noted that she "countered a widely held belief that Middle Eastern government was especially despotic with arguments that 'social equality' existed to a greater degree in the Levant than elsewhere." Duff-Gordon's insight was especially interesting on the subject of religion. She commented on more than one occasion that she found her Arab acquaintances more tolerant on religious questions than her "enlightened" Protestant and Roman Catholic friends in Britain. "Why do the English talk of the beautiful sentiment of the Bible," she asked in 1865, "and when they come and see the same life before them, they ridicule it?" Duff-Gordon had a rare sense of Egypt's rich and complex culture.

Tragically, Duff-Gordon's life was cut short by the consumption that had plagued her since her teenage years. In her recollections of her mother, Janet Duff-Gordon Ross noted that four of Duff-Gordon's schoolmates at Bromley Common also died of consumption at a young age. On July 14, 1869, Duff-Gordon died and was buried in Cairo at the city's English cemetery. Shortly after her death, Duff-Gordon's friend Caroline Norton described her in an article in Macmillan's Magazine as "a great reader, a great thinker, very original in her conclusions, very eager in impressing her opinions." Norton concluded that "perhaps no other woman of our time … combined so much erudition with so much natural ability."

Duff-Gordon's literary reputation rests on the Letters from Egypt and Last Letters From Egypt, which had a wide circulation in Europe. Most critics consider the two compilations her most interesting work. Although she is usually called a travel writer, this label is misleading. Her contributions went far beyond simply the description of her exotic surroundings. Through her eyes, the reader of her letters comes to know and respect the people of Egypt for their art, their architecture, and their political and cultural systems. Duff-Gordon, the Sitt el Kebeer, became a part of Egypt. She knew that "to most Europeans, the people are not real people but part of the scenery" and in her work she tried to dispel this attitude. Her enthusiasm for Middle Eastern life comes through in her work as clearly as does her disapproval of the European prejudice against other races.

Through her letters, Duff-Gordon was an insightful student of human nature and a sympathetic chronicler of people and places that most of her readers would never see. In all of her encounters with foreign peoples, Duff-Gordon was open-minded and generous, and this approach, more than anything else, made her both a discerning travel writer and, in this era of imperialism, an anomaly. Her biographer Gordon Waterfield suggested that Duff-Gordon had a quality, "an attitude of life, which makes her a member of the twentieth rather than of the nineteenth century." Surely this is one of the highest compliments a progressive and intelligent woman like Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon would wish to receive.


"Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon" in The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Edited by Joanne Shattock, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

"Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon," in British Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide. Edited by Janet Todd. NY: Frederick Ungar,

Waterfield, Gordon. Lucie Duff-Gordon in England, South Africa and Egypt. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1937.

suggested reading:

Duff-Gordon, Lucie. Last Letters From Egypt. London: Macmillan, 1875.

Ross, Janet. Three Generations of English Women: Memoirs and Correspondence of Susannah Taylor, Sarah Austin, and Lady Duff-Gordon. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893.

Christine Stolba , Ph.D. candidate in American history, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia