Dervla Murphy, Lady Duff Gordon, Daniel Macklin, Slightly Foxed Issue 38

Cape-bound

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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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About the contributor

Dervla Murphy was born in Co. Waterford in 1931 where she still lives. Since 1963 she has been travelling by bicycle or on foot (usually beyond Europe) and returning to Lismore to write about her experiences. Her latest book, A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza, was published by Eland in February.

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