Wolverhampton BTW

Sarah Austin

Austin, Sarah née Taylor, 1793—1867

by Benjamin Colbert

Sarah Taylor Austin was born in Colegate, Norwich on 1 April 1793, the daughter of John Taylor (1750-1826; ODNB), wool manufacturer, and Susana Taylor, née Cook (1755-1823). The Taylors were a prominent Unitarian family who held learning and achievement in high regard. Sarah Taylor was educated at home, read widely, and learned the Latin, German, French, and Italian that would propel her success as a translator and international salonnière.

On 24 August 1819 she married John Austin (1790-1859; ODNB), a legal scholar prone to debilitating depression who moved in utilitarian and reformist circles that included Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill, all of whom became close friends of Sarah Austin. In 1827, John Austin was appointed professor of law at the newly formed University of London and they travelled to Bonn so that he could prepare a lecture series. By this time, Sarah Austin was already writing and translating to supplement their income, and the trip abroad established international contacts and provided new material for projects. In a letter of 8 February 1829, Sarah Austin, now back in London, reminded John Murray of one such project, a miscellany collection of articles by women on Swiss literature, history, and politics, though like many of Austin’s proposals to Murray, this was declined.

It was Murray who suggested that Sarah Austin prepare a report on the commercial feasibility of translating a new travel book on Britain by the German Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pueckler-Muskau (1785-1871). In her response of 25 December 1830, Austin concluded that not only would the work prove popular but that she would commence translating it even if Murray did not publish it, certain that it would find a publisher and that its topicality would not brook delays. True to her word, Austin took her translation to Effingham Wilson when Murray dithered, and she found a printer in her brother, Richard Taylor (1781-1858; ODNB). When it did appear in 1832, the Tour in England, Ireland, and France, in the Years 1828 & 1829 established Austin as a leading translator from the German, and she went on to translate other works including Friederich von Raumer’s England in 1835 (1836), this time with Murray.

The Pueckler-Muskau translation had another unforeseen result; in corresponding with the author whom she was translating, Austin fell in love, confessing intimate details of her unhappy marriage and longings. John Austin had proved unsuccessful in his attempts to make a mark as professor or in jurisprudence, and repeated bouts of illness brought on by stress put added pressure on Sarah Austin to provide for her family (including her only daughter, Lucie Duff-Gordon, born in 1821). However, Pueckler-Muskau’s ardour cooled the closer an actual rendezvous came and the episode was over by 1836 (see Contemplating Adultery), the year in which the Austins voyaged to Malta, where John Austin was appointed as a legal consultant on Maltese constitutional changes.

John Austin’s intervention in Malta was by all accounts a failure and they returned to England in 1838. Sarah Austin continued her literary work and the family removed to the continent for economy, first to Dresden (1841-43) and then to Paris (1843-48), where Sarah Austin hosted a salon frequented by leading artists, writers, and intellectuals of many nations. In 1848 they returned to England, taking up a final residence at Weybridge. Sarah Austin continued her literary labours ‘like a galley slave’ (as she told John Murray III in 1850), while encouraging her husband to publish his much belaboured work on jurisprudence.

After John Austin’s death in 1859, Sarah Austin edited and published his writings, establishing his reputation as a philosopher of law. She edited, too, her daughter’s Letters on Egypt (1865), a work composed as Lucie Duff-Gordon futilely sought relief from the tuberculosis that killed her four years later. Sarah Austin died of heart and kidney disease on 8 August 1867.


Austin, Sarah. Letters to John Murray, 1825-1867. MS.40031. John Murray Archive. Natl. Lib. Scotland, Edinburgh.

Hamburger, Joseph. ‘Austin [née Taylor], Sarah (1793–1867), translator and writer’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Web. 3 Oct. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/916

Hamburger, Lotte, and Joseph Hamburger. Troubled lives: John and Sarah Austin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. Print.

–––. Contemplating Adultery: The Secret Life of a Victorian Woman. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991. Print.


Title Published
Tour in England, Ireland, and France 1832 Translator
Tour in Germany, Holland and England 1832 Translator
England in 1835 1836 Translator

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