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Puckler’s Progress: The Adventures of Prince Puckler-Muskau in England, Wales & Ireland

By Cheryl Bolen

Puckler’s Progress: The adventures of Prince Puckler-Muskau in England, Wales & Ireland as told in letters to his former wife, 1826-1929
Translated by Flora Brennan
London: Collins, 1987, 254 pages

Impoverished German Prince Herman Puckler of Muskau (1785-1871) hit on a plan to recoup the family fortune: He would travel to the richest nation in the world and use his title to capture a wealthy bride. But before he could go to England, he had to divorce the wife (nine years his senior) of whom he was very fond.

During the 17 months he was absent from his homeland, he wrote faithfully to his former wife to describe every facet of English life. The thoroughness of his descriptions, the act of being the eyes and ears of one not acquainted with late Georgian England, are the very qualities that make this book so valuable a resource.

Because of his lofty rank, he was admitted into the Beau Monde and paints a vivid picture of the idle rich. He received vouchers to Almack’s and records his observations on that highest form of social elitism. He had intercourse with George IV and several of his brothers. He attended the races at Newmarket and Ascot and describes these with acumen. Acerbic details about routs at London’s grandest townhouses are recollected, and he describes the rituals which required an English gentleman to change clothing four times a day.

An enthusiast of the theatre, his letters dwell on descriptions of various plays that were being performed in London, and he delineates between high-brow and low-brow entertainment, while displaying shock over prostitute’s solicitations at the theatres: "In the theatre one can hardly ward off these repellent priestesses of Venus, especially when they are drunk, which is not infrequently the case, at which time they also beg in the most shameless fashion."

He describe’s gentlemen’s clubs (nothing as lofty at White’s or Brook’s) and country inns.

Well educated and possessed of a curious nature, he does not confine his interests merely to the haute ton. He visits Bedlam, Newgate, and King’s Bench debtor’s prison. He describes Newgate as clean, with seven or eight prisoners to a cell. Every prisoner, he wrote, gets a half a can of thick barley soup and a pound of good bread every day at midday and on alternate days half a pound of meat or meat soup.

Puckler-Maskau sat in the galleries at the House of Commons and House of Lords. In Leeds, he visited factories.

Much of his own vanity, homesickness, and loneliness is revealed in the letters, too. We learn that the 42-year-old prince who fancies he looks no more than 30, dyes his hair. We learn that he looks upon his former wife as a son looks upon a beloved mother.

Was his mission to England successful? No. He did not find a bride. He returned to the former wife, and their scheme to publish his letters from England proved to be financially successful.

While the letters were widely read in German, they were not translated into English for 150 years. For this, we can be grateful to Flora Brennan. – Reviewed by Cheryl Bolen

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in August 2007

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