Soon after my Dublin grandfather’s death in 1946 several heavy teachests were delivered by rail to our Lismore home. My father gleefully pored over the numerous bulky tomes: the Works of Samuel Richardson in seven volumes (1785), a History of Free Masonry in five volumes, a rare numbered edition (No. 775) of the works of Henry Fielding in ten volumes with an introductory essay by Leslie Stephen, etc. etc. Being then aged 14 I was unexcited until I came upon a slim volume (foolscap octavo) by a mid-Victorian Englishwoman identifiable on p.1 as a kindred spirit. Ever since, Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from the Cape, written to a devoted husband and a worried mother, has been among my favourite accounts of travel.
Lucie Austin had enjoyed an unconventional education, including a few terms at a Hampstead co-ed where she added Latin to her collection of languages. As an 18-year-old she translated Niebuhr’s Studies of Ancient Greek Mythology, the first of many acclaimed translations. A year later she married Sir Alexander Duff Gordon, one of Queen Victoria’s assistant gentleman ushers who was to become a senior civil servant. Until 1860 this happy couple’s London home attracted literary lions (and a few lionesses) from near and far. Then Lucie developed an ominous cough and was advised to spend a year or so in the Cape Colony, a ‘cure’ often recommended to consumptives.
Characteristically, Lady Duff Gordon was averse to the newfangled steamers (‘you breathe coal-dust for the first ten days’). She therefore embarked for Cape Town on a tall-masted ship and had a ‘very enjoyable’ two-month voyage despite an uncommon share of ‘contrary winds and foul weather’. She shared a cabin with her maid Sally who neither grumbled nor gossiped and was always, like her mistress, amused and curious – ‘a better companion than many more educated people’. The third member of the party was a white goat who yielded
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