Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, born in Saxony in 1785, was a Teutonic amalgam of Byron, Flashman and Capability Brown, a larger-than-life character who achieved distinction as a writer, adventurer, military officer, practical joker, gardener, dandified bon vivant and, as we have already seen, a dessert innovator.
The prince described himself as “a slave to moods, wilful and quixotic, today amorous, tomorrow withdrawn…I’m made for travelling just like the comet.” And travel he did, traversing North Africa and the Middle East and recording his impressions for a public hungry for tales of perfumed Araby.
But it was as a pioneer in landscape gardening that Pückler-Muskau made his most lasting contribution, his greatest monument Muskauer Park, once famed for its mineral springs, now a UNESCO World Heritage site straddling the German-Polish border. As well as being one of the best examples of the English-style garden which Pückler-Muskau brought to the Continent, it is also an open-air memorial to the prince’s many loves, whose names grace the park’s paths and lakes; Luciesee, Helminenweg, Sophienweg, Sarah’s Walk. “If you want to know me you have to know my garden,” said the prince, “for my garden is my heart.”
Perhaps compensating (or over-compensating) for a loveless upbringing, Pückler-Muskau began his amorous adventures precociously early, claiming to have lost his virginity at the age of 10. A biographer ascribes to him a greater tally of conquests “than Don Juan and Jupiter put together”, but while the prince took lovers from all levels of society like the democrat he professed to be, he treated women with the callousness of the aristocrat he really was. At least one of them is said to have committed suicide when he blithely abandoned her and he divorced another, Lucie von Pappenheim (though not before seducing her step-daughter), because he needed to find a wealthier wife to finance his ambitious landscaping projects.
Pückler-Muskau’s preferred means of courting was the written word, and he was one of the 19th century’s most prodigious writers of love letters. “I hardly know myself what I’m writing, tears interrupt every line, and my only wish is to die at your feet,” reads one typically overwrought missive. While each letter generally offered exclusive and eternal love for the recipient, a draft was always filed away in case it could be re-used.
However the greatest love of Pückler-Muskau’s life was not wooed but bought.
In 1837 the prince visited a slave market in Cairo, there catching sight of a near-naked Abyssinian girl of no more than 13 called Mahbuba, “beloved”. He promptly purchased her (ever the gentleman, he didn’t even haggle). The prince self-righteously pronounced that he was “too conscientious” to treat her as a slave, but his description of how he “civilised” her, much as one might train a puppy, makes for pretty disturbing reading.
But as they travelled together, north through Lebanon and on into Turkey, a genuine warmth developed between them, made easier once Mahbuba learnt Italian so the two could at least converse. Pückler-Muskau was smitten and while never professing romantic love for her guardian, Mahbuba did refer to him as “beloved father”. [At this point, if I were of a romantic nature I might say “he could buy her body but he could never buy her heart” but…y’know, romance schmomance.] The pair travelled on to Vienna, where they appeared before a fascinated imperial court.
However Mahbuba found it difficult to adapt to the climate and a cold she had caught in Lebanon developed into tuberculosis. Hoping the health-giving waters of Muskauer Park might provide a cure, the two travelled there in September 1840. There they had to contend with the prince’s ex-wife, who was still in residence and refused to let Mahbuba stay in the palace.
Mahbuba’s condition worsened but Lucie, who had departed for Berlin and herself fallen ill, summoned the prince there. Caught between love and obligation, Pückler-Muskau – unusually – chose the latter.
Lucie recovered, Mahbuba never did. She died on October 27, 1840, alone; Pückler-Muskau didn’t even make it back in time for the funeral. He claimed, in a letter to a friend, that “I felt more love for her than I thought myself capable of; that was probably my most intense pain…and greatest comfort.” Unlike most of his love letters it bears the hallmark of authentic feeling, though of scant consolation to the woman who still lies in Muskauer Park, surrounded by the names of the Prince’s other flames.
Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau himself died on this day in 1871. While he wanted to be cremated, it was forbidden by the Catholic Church to which he had converted so, unorthodox to the last, he had his corpse dissolved in a chemical solution.