BOOK REVIEW / Infatuated foreign co-respondents: 'Contemplating Adultery: The Secret Life of a Victorian Woman' - Lotte and Joseph Hamburger: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

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IN THIS tale of infatuation, 'contemplation' is all. The protagonists, the English Sarah Austin and the German Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau, never met until their affair was past; it all took place by post. Their letters, unearthed in Krakow, where they lay unnoticed after being taken from Berlin for safety in the Second World War, form the thread of the Hamburgers' intriguing narrative.

Sarah was born in 1790 into a prestigious Norwich Unitarian family, the Taylors. Like other clever girls from this progressive sect, she was highly educated and taught to consider herself equal, but still to see woman's destiny as that of helpmeet. Energetic, beautiful, almost scandalously flirtatious, she married the severe legal scholar John Austin and pinned her ambitions to his glorious career. Their circle included Bentham, the Carlyles and James Mill (young John Stuart Mill adored Sarah) but Austin was a chronic depressive, unable to give a lecture without agony. It fell to Sarah, as to so many Victorian wives, to support him and their daughter by her pen. She seemed indomitable - translating furiously, rescuing survivors from a shipwreck and guests from a burning hotel - but in 1831, when she translated Puckler's account of his English travels, Letters from a Dead Man, her loneliness became clear.

Puckler's world (here lay its charm) was the polar opposite of British nonconformity. A Byronic womaniser who was five years Sarah's senior, he had run through his rich wife's fortune, divorced her amicably and, with her agreement, come to England dowryhunting (but returned, unable to face a British marriage). When Sarah wrote to him, spontaneously and candidly, he must have been delighted; one of his fetishes, a kind of emotional pornography, was collecting adoring female letters. He urged her on, gobbling up endearments, provoking erotic imaginings, extorting love-tokens (she sent an old shoe, but balked at pubic hair), shocking her by describing the lesbianism of a former mistress and by vengefully seducing a mutual friend.

She remained besotted, kissing his portrait nightly and confessing: 'I would fantasiren with you to the limits of possibility, and beyond.' As his 'little English wife' she even bought chintzes, chairs and cream-jugs for his palace, but in 1834, when a meeting seemed imminent, he swiftly decamped on a cruise, leaving her purchases unopened and her letters unanswered. From the ensuing misery she emerged as a model wife (and then widow), enormously fat and supremely respectable, winning posthumous fame for Austin by editing his lectures. A late novel by Puckler suggests it was he, not she, who carried a scar.

Readers familiar with recent studies of Victorian women will not be unduly surprised at Sarah's sensuality or her conflict between desire and duty. It is the literary hypocrisy that still astonishes, the genuine double-think which enabled Sarah, without any sense of irony, to forswear cant in private yet to censor the mildest impropriety in Puckler's work, or to express deep disgust (like most of her contemporaries) at the mental 'double adultery' in Goethe's Elective Affinities, that brilliant, diamond-cold portrait of the society from which Puckler-Muskau sprang. In Contemplating Adultery, European and British conventions embrace, clash and part; it is a romance of letters, in every sense.

(Photographs omitted)