A straitened Prussian prince fails to secure an heiress from Brighton

Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, London, 1827
Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, London, 1827

Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau sounds like a character in a satirical novel.

Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau sounds like a character in a satirical novel. But he really existed. Described as a “rogue, rover and rake, handsome, dashing and brave”, he came to England in the 1820s looking for a suitable heiress to revive his exhausted finances. He mixed with the highest society, travelled everywhere, nearly married several times (there was always some hitch to his hitch), and wrote home to his beloved ex-wife (it was a divorce of convenience) long, witty accounts of all he saw and did. In the end, it was these letters, published to international acclaim, outselling for a while even Goethe and Byron, that were to make his name and secure the desired fortune.

He made several visits to Brighton, and courted a local girl, one Miss Gibbins, very pretty, accomplished, and in possession of £50,000 - the minimum figure he would settle for. Unfortunately, her parents proved detestable - the mother was stuck-up, the father “a dogmatic old pedant, boring and stingy” - and her insistence they must all live together ended it. The proposal he drafted remained unsent.

He admired the climate of Brighton, which he called a “large, clean and very cheerful town”. On his first day, in February 1827, he walked on Marine Parade, called on acquaintances, and, having brought his own horses, rode out. “Vainly did I look around for a tree,” he says, echoing Dr Johnson’s celebrated lament. “The country is perfectly naked; nothing to be seen but hilly downs covered with short turf.” But he rhapsodised over the marine sunset.

The Royal Pavilion, he thought, resembled something off a chess board; its removal “would be no great subject of lamentation”. Walks by the sea and on the new Chain Pier were more agreeable.

He visited Mahomed’s baths, “where people are shampooed after the Turkish fashion. I found the interior arrangements very European. The treatment is like that of the Russian vapour baths, only I think not so good.” He admired their method of steam-drying linen.

Two days later, he rode again at dusk, until “the moon rose cloudless and brilliant over the waters. I now turned my horse’s head from the hills down to the sea, and rode five or six miles, about the distance to Brighton, hard on the edge of the waves along the sandy shore. The tide was coming in, and my horse sometimes shied when a wave, crowned with snowy foam, rolled under his feet and quickly retreated as if in sport.”

Almack’s ball, at the Ship Hotel that night, was by contrast ill-lighted, miserably furnished, with everyone dressed in black and dancing joylessly. At a private ball a few days later, he found the crush intolerable, with hundreds packed into a tiny space, but as he was “squeezed” against numerous pretty girls (his two passions in life were pretty girls and landscape gardening), he was content. This time, he stayed till four, “to see the whole thing”, unable to take his eyes off “a fat lady of 55, dressed in black velvet with white trimmings, and a turban with floating ostrich feathers, who waltzed like a Bacchante”.

Next day he climbed a windmill to view “the whole panorama of Brighton”, with hundreds of fishing boats contending against a gale, the mill rocking as its wheels turned.  Another time he visited Mrs Fitzherbert, “a very dignified and delightful woman, universally beloved and respected”. And he records the fate of a man who, crossed in love, threw himself off the pier (probably the very first such casualty), even though “only yesterday he was dancing as if stung by a tarantula”.