The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter I

Fernando Po

(1861-1863)

I praise thee while my days go on;

I love thee while my days go on;

Through dark and death, through fire and frost,

With emptied arms and treasure lost,

I thank thee while my days go on.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In fiction (though perhaps not now as much as formerly) marriage is often treated as the end of all things in a woman’s life, and the last chapter winds up with the “happy ever after,” like the concluding scene of a melodrama. But in this romance of Isabel Burton, this drama of real life, marriage was but the beginning of the second and more important half of her life. It was the blossoming of love’s flower, the expanding of her womanhood, the fulfilment of her destiny. For such a marriage as hers was a sacrament consecrated by love; it was a knitting together, a oneness, a union of body, soul, and spirit, of thought, feeling, and inclination, such as is not often given to mortals to enjoy. But then Burton was no ordinary man, nor was his wife an ordinary woman. She often said he was "the only man in the world who could manage me,” and to this it may be added that she was the only woman in the world who would have suited him. No other woman could have held him as she did. The very qualities which made her different to the ordinary run of women were those which made her the ideal wife for a man like Richard Burton. The eagle does not mate with the domestic hen, and in Isabel’s unconventional and adventurous temperament Burton saw the reflex of his own. Though holding different views on some things, they had the same basic principles; and though their early environment and education had been widely different, yet Nature, the greatest force of all, had brought them together and blended them into one. It was a union of affinities. Isabel merged her life in her husband’s. She sacrificed everything to him save two things — her rare individuality, and her fervent faith in her religion. The first she could not an she would; the second she would not an she could; and to his honour be it said he never demanded it of her. But in all else she was his absolutely; her passionate ideals, the treasure of her love, her life’s happiness — all were his to cherish or to mar as he might please. She had a high ideal of the married state. “I think,” she writes, “a true woman who is married to her proper mate recognizes the fully performed mission, whether prosperous or not, and no one can ever take his place for her as an interpreter of that which is between her and her Creator, to her the shadow of God’s protection here on earth.” And her conception of a wife’s duty was an equally unselfish one, for she wrote of the beginning of her married life: “I began to feel, what I have always felt since, that he was a glorious, stately ship in full sail, commanding all attention and admiration, and sometimes, if the wind drops, she still sails gallantly, and no one sees the humble little steam-tug hidden on the other side, with her strong heart and faithful arms working forth, and glorying in her proud and stately ship.”

Very soon after her marriage Isabel was reconciled to her mother. It came about in this wise. Mrs. Arundell thought she had gone away on a visit to some friends in the country, and told her friends so; but a week or two after the marriage one of Isabel’s aunts, Monica Lady Gerard, heard of her going into a lodging in St. James’s, and immediately rushed off to tell Mrs. Arundell that Isabel could not be staying in the country, as was supposed, and she feared she had eloped or something of the kind. Mrs. Arundell, in an agony of fear, telegraphed to her husband, who was then staying with some friends, and he wired back to her, “She is married to Dick Burton, and thank God for it.” He also wrote, enclosing a letter Burton had written to him on the day of the marriage, announcing the fact, and he asked his wife to send one of Isabel’s brothers (who knew the Burtons’ address) to them and be reconciled. Mrs. Arundell was so much relieved that a worse thing had not befallen Isabel that she sent for the truant pair at once. She was not a woman to do things by halves; and recognizing that the inevitable had happened, and that for weal or woe the deed was done, she received both Isabel and her husband with the utmost kindness, and expressed her regret, that she should have opposed the marriage. The statement that she never forgave Burton is incorrect. On the contrary, she forgave him at once, and grew to like him greatly, always treating him as a son. She gave a family party to introduce Burton to his wife’s relations, and there was a general reconciliation all round.

For seven months after their marriage Isabel and her husband continued to live, off and on, at their little lodgings in St. James’s, as happy as two birds in a nest. But the problem of ways and means had early to be considered. Now that Burton had taken unto himself a wife, it became imperatively necessary that he should to some extent forego his wandering habits and settle down to earn something to maintain her in the position in which she had been accustomed to live. He had a small patrimony and his pay; in all about £350 a year. With the help Isabel’s friends would have given, this might have sufficed to begin matrimony in India. In the ordinary course of events, Burton, like any other officer in the service, would have returned to India, rejoined his regiment, and taken his wife out with him. The money difficulty alone would not have stood in the way. But there were other difficulties, as Burton knew well; the strong prejudice against him (an unjust one, I believe, but none the less real) made it hopeless for him to expect promotion in the Indian army. So he did what was undoubtedly the best thing under the circumstances. He determined not to return to India, and he applied for a post in the Consular Service, with the result that in March, some three months after his marriage, he was offered the post of Consul at Fernando Po, on the west coast of Africa — a deadly climate, and £700 a year. He cheerfully’ accepted it, as he was only too glad to get his foot on the lowest rung of the official ladder. He was told to hold himself in readiness to leave in August; and as the climate of Fernando Po was almost certain death to a white woman, he would not allow his young wife to accompany him. So the bliss of the first months of their wedded life was overshadowed by the thought of approaching separation.

In accepting the offer of Fernando Po, Burton wrote to the Foreign Office 17: "My connexion with H.M.‘s Indian army has now lasted upwards of nineteen years, and I am unwilling to retire without pension or selling out of my corps. If therefore my name could be retained upon the list of my regiment — as, for instance, is the case with H.M.‘s Consul at Zanzibar — I should feel deeply indebted.” A reasonable request truly. Lord John Russell, who was then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and who had given Burton the Consulship, caused his application to be forwarded to the proper quarter — the Bombay Government. But the authorities in India refused to entertain Burton’s application; they struck his name off the Indian Army List; and in this way the whole of his nineteen years’ service in India was swept away without pay or pension. If the brutal truth must be told, they were only too glad to seize on this excuse to get rid of him. But that does not palliate their conduct; it was well said, “His enemies may be congratulated on their mingled malice and meanness.”

With regard to Fernando Po, I cannot take the view that Burton was ill-treated in not getting a better post; on the contrary, taking all the circumstances into consideration, he was fortunate in obtaining this one. For what were the facts? He had undoubtedly distinguished himself as an explorer, as a linguist, and as a writer; but his Indian career had been a failure. He had managed to give offence in high quarters, and he was viewed with disfavour. On quitting one service under a cloud, he could not at once expect to receive a pick appointment in another. As a Consul he was yet an untried man. There is little doubt that even Fernando Po was given him through the influence of his wife. It was the same throughout his after-career; his wife’s unceasing efforts on his behalf helped him up every step of the official ladder, and shielded him more than once from the full force of the official displeasure. There is nothing like a brilliant and beautiful wife to help a man on; and so Burton found it. He had done many clever and marvellous things during his life, but the best day’s work he ever did for himself was when he married Isabel Arundell. His marriage was in fact, his salvation. It steadied him down and gave him some one to work for and some one to love, and it did more than anything else to give the lie to the rumours against him which were floating about. No longer an Ishmael; he entered an ancient and honoured family. Many who would not have moved a finger to help Burton were willing to do anything in their power for his wife; and as she cared for only one thing, her husband’s interests, he secured their influence in his favour.

When the London season came round, the Burtons, despite their limited means, went a good deal into society. The story of their romantic marriage got abroad, and many friends were ready to take them by the hand. The late Lord Houghton was especially kind. He asked Lord Palmerston, who was then Prime Minister, to give a party in their honour; and Isabel was the bride of the evening, and went down to dinner on the Prime Minister’s arm. Shortly after this she was presented at Court, “on her marriage,” by Lady John Russell.

There had been some little doubt in Isabel’s mind concerning her presentation, as the Queen made it a rule then (and may do so now, for all I know) that she would not receive at Court any bride who had made a runaway marriage. Isabel’s was hardly a runaway marriage, as she married with her father’s knowledge and consent. Still it was not quite a usual one, and she was very glad when her presentation at Court removed any doubt in this respect, especially as she looked forward to living abroad in the future, and difficulties might arise as to her attending a foreign court if she were not received at her own. She wanted to help her husband in every way.

Concerning her presentation Mrs. Fitzgerald has told me the following anecdote. Isabel’s one thought was how to please her husband, and she was always yearning to win his approval. A word of praise from him was the sweetest thing in life. Burton, however, though proud and fond of her, was of anything but an effusive nature, and his praises of any one were few and far between. When she was dressed for her first Drawing-Room — and very handsome she looked, a beautiful woman beautifully dressed — she went to show herself to her husband. He looked at her critically; and though he was evidently delighted with her appearance, said nothing, which was a great disappointment to her. But as she was leaving the room she overheard him say to her mother, “La jeune femme n’a rien à craindre”; and she went down to the carriage radiant and happy.

The Burtons were such an unconventional couple that there was a good deal of curiosity among their acquaintances as to how they would get on, and all sorts of conjectures were made. Many of Burton’s bachelor friends told one another frankly, “It won’t last. She will never be able to hold him.” Shortly after her marriage one of her girl friends took her aside and asked her in confidence, “Well, Isabel, how does it work? Can you manage him? Does he ever come home at night?” “Oh,” said Isabel, “it works very well indeed, and he always comes home with the milk in the morning.” Of course this was only in joke, for Burton was a man of most temperate life, and after his marriage, at any rate, he literally forsook all others and cleaved only to his wife.

About this time a calamity befell them in Grindlay’s fire, in which they lost everything they had in the world, except the few personal belongings in their lodgings. All Burton’s manuscripts were destroyed. He took it philosophically enough, and said, “Well, it is a great bore; but I dare say that the world will be none the worse for some of the manuscripts having been burnt.” His wife notes this as “a prophetic speech”; and so it was, when we remember the fate of The Scented Garden thirty years after.

The London season came to an end sooner in those days than it does now, and the end of June found the Burtons embarked on a round of visits in country houses. One of the houses they visited at the time was Fryston, Lord Houghton’s, and here they met many of the most celebrated people of the day; for wit and beauty, rank and talent, met on common ground around the table of him “whom men call Lord Houghton, but the gods Monckton Milnes.” Isabel always looked back on these first seven months of her marriage as the happiest of her life. They were one long honeymoon, “a great oasis”; and she adds, “Even if I had had no other, it would have been worth living for.” But alas! the evil day of parting came all too soon. In August Burton had to sail for Fernando Po — “the Foreign Office grave,” as it was called — and had perforce to leave his young wife behind him. She went down to Liverpool with him to see him off, and the agony of that first parting is best expressed in her own words:

“I was to go out, not now, but later, and then perhaps not to land, and to return and ply up and down between Madeira and Teneriffe and London; and I, knowing he had Africa at his back, was in a constant agitation for fear of his doing more of these explorations into unknown lands. There were about eighteen men (West African merchants), and everybody took him away from me, and he had made me promise that if I was allowed to go on board and see him off I would not cry and unman him. It was blowing hard and raining. There was one man who was inconsiderate enough to accompany and stick to us the whole time, so that we could not exchange a word. (How I hated him!) I went down below, and unpacked his things, and settled his cabin, and saw to the arrangement of his luggage. My whole life and soul were in that good-bye, and I found myself on board the tug, which flew faster and faster from the steamer. I saw a white handkerchief go up to his face. I then drove to a spot where I could see the steamer till she became a dot." 18

Burton was absent eighteen months, working hard at his duties as Consul on the west coast of Africa. During that time Isabel lived with her parents at 14, Montagu Place, W. It was a hard thing to be exiled from her husband; but she did not waste her time in idle repining. Burton left her plenty of work to do, and she did it thoroughly. In the first place, she fought hard, though unsuccessfully, against the decision of the Bombay Government to remove Burton’s name from the Indian Army List. In the next place, she arranged for the publication of his book on the Mormons. Surely not a very congenial task for a young wife of seven months with an absent husband, for the book was largely a defence of polygamy! But whatever Burton told her to do she did. She also executed his divers commissions which came by every mail. One of them was to go to Paris in January, 1862, on a special mission, to present to the Emperor and Empress of the French some relics of the great Napoleon — a lock of his hair, a sketch of a plaster cast taken after his death — which had come into the possession of the Burton family, also a complete set of Burton’s works, and to ask for an audience of them. She left her letter and presents at the Tuileries, and her audience was not granted. She blamed herself bitterly at the time, and put the failure of her mission of courtesy down to “want of experience and proper friends and protection.” But the truth of the matter is, that she ought never to have been sent on such an unnecessary errand, for it was not one in which she or any one could have been expected to succeed. Nevertheless Burton’s relatives made themselves very unpleasant about it, and worried Isabel most cruelly concerning the loss of their trifling relics. And it may be remarked here that Burton’s near relatives, both his sister and his niece, always disliked Isabel, and never lost an opportunity of girding against her. One of them has even carried this rancorous hostility beyond the grave. These ladies were jealous of Isabel — jealous of her superior social position, of her beauty, her fascinations, and above all jealous of her influence over her husband. Why this should have been so it is impossible to say, for Burton did not get on very well with his relatives, and made a point of seeing as little of them as possible. Perhaps they thought it was Isabel who kept him away; but it was not. Fortunately it is not necessary to enter into the details of a sordid family squabble. To do so would be to weary, and not to edify.

Following the annoyance to which she was subjected by her husband’s relatives came another of a different nature. There were many who heard, and some who repeated, rumours against Burton which had been circulated by Speke and others. One candid friend made it his business to retail some of these to Isabel (one to the effect that her husband was “keeping a seraglio” out at Fernando Po), and gave her a good deal of gratuitous and sympathetic advice as to how she ought to act. But Isabel refused to listen to anything against her husband, and spurned the sympathy and advice, declaring that “any one who could listen to such lying tales was no friend of hers,” and she closed the acquaintance forthwith.

Despite her brave words there is no doubt that she fretted a good deal through the months that followed. Her depression was further aggravated by a sharp attack of diphtheria. One day in October, when she could bear the loneliness and separation from her husband no longer, she went down to the Foreign Office, and cried her heart out to Sir Henry (then Mr.) Layard. Her distress touched the official’s heart, for he asked her to wait while he went upstairs. Presently Mr. Layard came back, saying he had got four months’ leave for Burton, and had ordered the dispatch to be sent off that very afternoon. She says, "I could have thrown my arms around his neck and kissed him, but I did not; he might have been surprised. I had to go and sit out in the Green Park till the excitement wore off; it was more to me than if he had given me a large fortune.”

In December Burton returned home after an absence of eighteen months, and his wife went to Liverpool to meet him. We may imagine her joy. Christmas was spent at Wardour Castle (Lord Arundell’s), a large family gathering; then they went to Garswood to stay with Lord Gerard; he was Isabel’s uncle, and always her staunch friend.

Burton’s leave sped all too soon; and when the time came for his departure, his wife told him that she could not possibly go on living as she had been living. “One’s husband in a place where I am not allowed to go, and I living with my mother like a girl. I am neither maid, nor wife, nor widow.” So he arranged to take her with him as far as Teneriffe at any rate. As they were to leave from Liverpool, they stayed at Garswood, which was hard by, until the day came for them to sail.

17 Letter to Foreign Office, March 27, 1861.

18 Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Isabel his wife, vol. i., pp. 348, 349.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33