“Letters of a Dead Man” — the gossipy correspondence of a German nobleman in 1820s England and Ireland — might look like a coffee-table book, but don’t be fooled. Even though you will need two hands and a firm grip just to pick it up, this classic of travel literature is worth the effort. Although its author’s name certainly sounds imposingly Teutonic, Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau writes with an engaging intimacy, charm and eye for detail. At times he almost resembles his contemporary Stendhal, vivaciously describing Britain instead of Italy.
Today, Pückler, as he is generally called, may be best known as a pioneering figure in garden and landscape design — which is why this huge tome is published as part of the Ex Horto series from Dumbarton Oaks. After he inherited the family property at Muskau near the Polish border, the young Pückler spent lavishly on redeveloping the estate’s extensive grounds and park lands. As his funds began to diminish, he married the nine-years-older Countess Lucie von Pappenheim, who brought with her a sizable income. The marriage proved quite happy, especially since Lucie shared her husband’s passion for gardening.
But gardening on a grand scale is expensive. By the mid-1820s, the couple knew they needed another influx of cash and quickly decided on a daring plan. They would divorce so that Pückler — handsome, cosmopolitan and, of course, a prince — could travel to London and hook an English heiress. While away, he would write Lucie regularly to keep her updated on his activities and marital prospects. She, in her turn, would continue as usual to oversee the estate at Muskau. Theirs was, unquestionably, a divorce of convenience.
Throughout his leisurely letters, Pückler minutely describes the customs, people and attractions of England, paying special attention to romantic landscapes, Old Master paintings, theatrical performances and the social whirl of evening dinner parties and country-house weekends. Alas, despite some near successes, Pückler fails in his primary mission and, after two years abroad, returns to Muskau without a rich, blushing bride. Now what? Maybe something could be done with all those letters . . .
In short order, they are edited and polished, any allusion to the bride hunt eliminated and the result presented as the experiences abroad of an unnamed, and now deceased, German aristocrat. “Letters of a Dead Man” (1830-1831) became a huge bestseller, and the sums it earned helped keep Muskau going for another few years. In 1834, the prince then produced his pioneering work, “Hints on Landscape Gardening.” Finally, though, he and Lucie had to sell the estate and move to a smaller one, where they again cultivated their gardens, albeit on a much smaller scale. After further travels (North Africa, the Middle East) and a colorful life, Pückler died in 1871 at age 85.
Superbly edited, translated and annotated by Linda B. Parshall, this richly illustrated edition of the “Letters of a Dead Man” is one of those books that bring an era to life. En route to England, Pückler visits the aged Goethe in Weimar; in London, he dines with the great financier Nathan Rothschild; later, he flirts with the Duchess of St. Albans, a foundling raised by gypsies who slept her way to the top. He takes Lucie — and thus the modern reader — through the protocols of a high-society dinner, the proper tenue of an English dandy, the rude and murderous action of a “Punch and Judy” show and the rules of the Travellers Club. One day, he stays in to enjoy the latest bestseller, Jane Webb’s “The Mummy”; on another, a phrenologist reads Pückler’s character by palpating his skull. Fascinated by work on a Thames tunnel, the prince goes underwater in a diving bell to watch its progress. (One of Parshall’s fascinating notes reminds us that, when young, Pückler had already gone up in a balloon.) The adventurous German is naturally among the first to ride in a steam-powered mail carriage.
Pückler also passes along the latest gossip. Recently, he tells us, “a stranger who had heard that Madame Vestris was not always unkind” — a lovely euphemism, that — sent the singer and actress a 50-pound bank note. The young man requested a rendezvous that evening and was granted his wish. To his surprise he arrived to find the lovely lady holding his bank note in her hand. “ ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘this morning, you sent me this note for an entry ticket to my benefit concert, and it is too much for such a ticket. If, however, you have associated other hopes with it, then I must in all honesty assure you that it is by far too little. Therefore allow me to light your way home with it.’ ” At which point Madame Vestris set fire to the 50-pound note and lit the way down the steps for her disappointed suitor.
Pückler’s search for a bride takes him all around Britain. He visits Warwick Castle, the gardens at Blenheim, a library in York and the factories of Birmingham. His “parkomania” leads him from one palatial estate to another. He describes a stuffed dodo in Oxford, the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare and a giraffe with soft, liquid eyes. On a trip to Wales, he pays his respects to the now elderly “Ladies of Llangollen,” the era’s most famous lesbian couple. In Ireland, he calls on the Catholic emancipationist Daniel O’Connell but there also encounters an enchanting African woman, with whom he begins to fall in love.
If only I had more space, I would tell you what happens next. But rest assured: “Letters of a Dead Man,” especially in this gorgeous edition, is a book you can happily live in for weeks.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau
Edited and translated from the German by Linda B. Parshall
Dumbarton Oaks. 751 pp. $75