The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter II2

My Childhood and Youth

(1831-1849)

As star knows star across the ethereal sea,

So soul feels soul to all eternity.

Blessed be they who invented pens, ink, and paper!

I have heard men speak with infinite contempt of authoresses. As a girl I did not ask my poor little brains whether this mental attitude towards women was generous in the superior animal or not; but I did like to slope off to my own snug little den, away from my numerous family, and scribble down the events of my ordinary, insignificant, uninteresting life, and write about my little sorrows, pleasures, and peccadilloes. I was only one of the “wise virgins,” providing for the day when I should be old, blind, wrinkled, forgetful, and miserable, and might like such a record to refresh my failing memory. So I went back, by way of novelty, beyond my memory, and gleaned details from my father.

For those who like horoscopes, I was born on a Sunday at ten minutes to 9 a.m., March 20, 1831, at 4, Great Cumberland Place, near the Marble Arch. I am not able to give the aspect of the planets on this occasion; but, unlike most babes, I was born with my eyes open, whereupon my father predicted that I should be very “wide awake.” As soon as I could begin to move about and play, I had such a way of pointing my nose at things, and of cocking my ears like a kitten, that I was called “Puss,” and shall probably be called Puss when I am eighty. I was christened Isabel, after my father’s first wife, née Clifford, one of his cousins. She died, after a short spell of happiness, leaving him with one little boy, who at the time I was born was between three and four years old.

It is a curious fact that my mother, Elizabeth Gerard, and Isabel Clifford, my father’s first wife, were bosom friends, school-fellows, and friends out in the world together; and amongst other girlish confidences they used to talk to one another about the sort of man each would marry. Both their men were to be tall, dark, and majestic; one was to be a literary man, and a man of artistic tastes and life; the other was to be a statesman. When Isabel Clifford married my father, Henry Raymond Arundell (of Wardour), her cousin, my mother, seeing he was a small, fair, boyish-looking man, whose chief hobbies were hunting and shooting, said, “I am ashamed of you, Isabel! How can you?” Nevertheless she used to go and help her to make her baby-clothes for the coming boy. After Isabel’s death nobody, except my father, deplored her so much as her dear friend my mother; so that my father only found consolation (for he would not go out nor meet anybody in the intensity of his grief) in talking to my mother of his lost wife. From sympathy came pity, from pity grew love, and three years after Isabel’s death my mother and my father were married. They had eleven children, great and small; I mean that some only lived to be baptized and died, some lived a few years, and some grew up. 3

To continue my own small life, I can remember distinctly everything that has happened to me from the age of three. I do not know whether I was pretty or not; there is a very sweet miniature of me with golden hair and large blue eyes, and clad in a white muslin frock and gathering flowers, painted by one of the best miniature painters of 1836, when miniatures were in vogue and photographs unknown. My mother said I was “lovely,” and my father said I was “all there”; but I am told my uncles and aunts used to put my mother in a rage by telling her how ugly I was. My father adored me, and spoilt me absurdly; he considered me an original, a bit of “perfect nature.” My mother was equally fond of me, but severe — all her spoiling, on principle, went to her step-son, whose name was Theodore.

When my father and mother were first married, James Everard Arundell, my father’s first cousin, and my godfather, was the then Lord Arundell of Wardour. He was reputed to be the handsomest peer of the day, and he was married to a sister of the Duke of Buckingham. He invited my father and mother, as the two wives were friends, to come and occupy one wing of Wardour immediately after their marriage, and they did so. When James Everard died, my parents left Wardour, and took a house in Montagu Place at the top of Bryanston Square, and passed their winters hunting at Leamington.

We children were always our parents’ first care. Great attention was paid to our health, to our walks, to our dress, our baths, and our persons; our food was good, but of the plainest; we had a head nurse and three nursery-maids; and, unlike the present, everything was upstairs — day nurseries and night nurseries and schoolroom. The only times we were allowed downstairs were at two o’clock luncheon (our dinner), and to dessert for about a quarter of an hour if our parents were dining alone or had very intimate friends. On these occasions I was dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons, and Theodore, my step-brother, in green velvet with turn-over lace collar after the fashion of that time. We were not allowed to speak unless spoken to; we were not allowed to ask for anything unless it was given to us. We kissed our father’s and mother’s hands, and asked their blessing before going upstairs, and we stood upright by the side of them all the time we were in the room. In those days there was no lolling about, no Tommy-keep-your-fingers-out-of-the-jam, no Dick-crawling-under-the-table-pinching-people’s-legs as nowadays. We children were little gentlemen and ladies, and people of the world from our birth; it was the old school. The only diversion from this strict rule was an occasional drive in the park with mother, in a dark green chariot with hammer-cloth, and green and gold liveries and powdered wigs for coachman and footman: no one went into the park in those days otherwise. My daily heart-twinges were saying good-night to my mother, always with an impression that I might not see her again, and the other terror was the old-fashioned rushlight shade, like a huge cylinder with holes in it, which made hideous shadows on the bedroom walls, and used to frighten me horribly every time I woke. The most solemn thing to me was the old-fashioned Charley, or watchman, pacing up and down the street, and singing in deep and mournful tone, “Past one o’clock, and a cloudy morning.”

At the age of ten I was sent to the Convent of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, New Hall, Chelmsford, and left there when I was sixteen. In one sense my leaving school so early was a misfortune; I was just at the age when one begins to understand and love one’s studies. I ought to have been kept at the convent, or sent to some foreign school; but both my father and mother wanted to have me at home with them.

I want to describe my home of that period. It was called Furze Hall, near Ingatestone, Essex. Dear place! I can shut my eyes and see it now. It was a white, straggling, old-fashioned, half-cottage, half-farmhouse, built by bits, about a hundred yards from the road, from which it was completely hidden by trees. It was buried in bushes, ivy, and flowers. Creepers covered the walls and the verandahs, and crawled in at the windows, making the house look like a nest; it was surrounded by a pretty flower garden and shrubberies, and the pasture-land had the appearance of a small park. There were stables and kennels. Behind the house a few woods and fields, perhaps fifty acres, and a little bit of water, all enclosed by a ring fence, comprised our domain. Inside the house the hall had the appearance of the main cabin of a man-of-war, and opened all around into rooms by various doors: one into a small library, which led to a pretty, cheerful little drawing-room, with two large windows down to the ground; one opened on to a trim lawn, the other into a conservatory; another door opened into a smoking-room, for the male part of the establishment, and the opposite one into a little chapel; and a dining-room, running off by the back door with glass windows to the ground, led to the garden. There was a pretty honeysuckle and jessamine porch, which rose just under my window, in which wrens and robins built their nests, and birds and bees used to pay me a visit on summer evenings. We had many shady walks, arbours, bowers, a splendid slanting laurel hedge, and a beautiful bed of dahlias, all colours and shades. A beech-walk like the aisle of a church had a favourite summer-house at the end. The pretty lawn was filled, as well as the greenhouse, with the choicest flowers; and we had rich crops of grapes, the best I ever knew. I remember a mulberry tree, under the shade of which was a grave and tombstone and epitaph, the remains and memorial of a faithful old dog; and I remember a pretty pink may tree, a large white rose, and an old oak, with a seat round it. Essex is generally flat; but around us it was undulating and well-wooded, and the lanes and drives and rides were beautiful. We were rather in a valley, and a pretty road wound up a rise, at the top of which our tall white chimneys could be seen smoking through the trees. The place could boast no grandeur; but it was my home, I passed my childhood there, and loved it.

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New Hall, Chelmsford

We used to have great fun on a large bit of water in the park of one of our neighbours, — in the ice days in winter with sledges, skating, and sliding; in the summer-time we used to scamper all over the country with long poles and jump over the hedges. Nevertheless, I had a great deal of solitude, and I passed much time in the woods reading and contemplating. Disraeli’s Tancred and similar occult books were my favourites; but Tancred, with its glamour of the East, was the chief of them, and I used to think out after a fashion my future life, and try to solve great problems. I was forming my character.

And as I was as a child, so I am now. I love solitude. I have met with people who dare not pass a moment alone; many seem to dread themselves. I find no greater happiness than to be alone out of doors, either on the sea-beach or in a wood, and there reflect. With me solitude is a necessary consolation; I can soothe my miseries, enjoy my pleasures, form my mind, reconcile myself to disappointments, and plan my conduct. A person may be sorrowful without being alone, and the mind may be alone in a large assembly, in a crowded city, but not so pleasantly. I have heard that captives can solace themselves by perpetually thinking of what they loved best; but there is a danger in excess of solitude, lest our thoughts run the wrong way and ferment into eccentricity. Every right-minded person must think, and thought comes only in solitude. He must ponder upon what he is, what he has been, what he may become. The energies of the soul rise from the veiled obscurity it is placed in during its contact with the world. It is when alone that we obtain cheerful calmness and content, and prepare for the hour of action. Alone, we acquire a true notion of things, bear the misfortunes of life calmly, look firmly on the pride and insolence of the great, and dare to think for ourselves, which the majority of the great dare not. When can the soul feel that it lives, and is great, free, noble, immortal, if not in thought? Oh! one can learn in solitude what the worldly have no idea of. True it is that some souls capable of reflection plunge themselves into an endless abyss, and know not where to stop. I have never felt one of those wild, joyous moments when we brood over our coming bliss, and create a thousand glorious consequences. But I have known enough of sorrow to appreciate rightly any moment without an immediate care. There are moments of deep feeling, when one must be alone in self-communion, alike to encounter good fortune or danger and despair, even if one draws out the essence of every misery in thought.

I was enthusiastic about gypsies, Bedawin Arabs, and everything Eastern and mystic, and especially about a wild and lawless life. Very often, instead of going to the woods, I used to go down a certain green lane; and if there were any oriental gypsies there, I would go into their camp and sit for an hour or two with them. I was strictly forbidden to associate with them in our lanes, but it was my delight. When they were only travelling tinkers or basket-menders, I was very obedient; but wild horses would not have kept me out of the camps of the oriental, yet English-named, tribes of Burton, Cooper, Stanley, Osbaldiston, and one other tribe whose name I forget. My particular friend was Hagar Burton, a tall, slender, handsome, distinguished, refined woman, who had much influence in her tribe. Many an hour did I pass with her (she used to call me “Daisy”), and many a little service I did them when any of her tribe were sick, or got into a scrape with the squires anent poultry, eggs, or other things. The last day I saw Hagar Burton in her camp she cast my horoscope and wrote it in Romany. The rest of the tribe presented me with a straw fly-catcher of many colours, which I still have. The horoscope was translated to me by Hagar. The most important part of it was this:

“You will cross the sea, and be in the same town with your Destiny and know it not. Every obstacle will rise up against you, and such a combination of circumstances, that it will require all your courage, energy, and intelligence to meet them. Your life will be like one swimming against big waves; but God will be with you, so you will always win. You will fix your eye on your polar star, and you will go for that without looking right or left. You will bear the name of our tribe, and be right proud of it. You will be as we are, but far greater than we. Your life is all wandering, change, and adventure. One soul in two bodies in life or death, never long apart. Show this to the man you take for your husband. — Hagar Burton.”

She also prophesied:

“You shall have plenty to choose from, and wait for years; but you are destined to him from the beginning. The name of our tribe shall cause you many a sorrowful, humiliating hour; but when the rest who sought him in the heyday of his youth and strength fade from his sight, you shall remain bright and purified to him as the morning star, which hangs like a diamond drop over the sea. Remember that your destiny for your constancy will triumph, the name we have given you will be yours, and the day will come when you will pray for it, and be proud of it.”

Much other talk I had with Hagar Burton sitting around the camp-fire, and then she went from me; and I saw her but once again, and that after many years.

This was the ugliest time of my life. Every girl has an ugly age. I was tall, plump, and meant to be fair, but was always tanned and sunburnt. I knew my good points. What girl does not? I had large, dark blue, earnest eyes, and long, black eyelashes and eyebrows, which seemed to grow shorter the older I got. I had very white regular teeth, and very small hands and feet and waist; but I fretted because I was too fat to slip into what is usually called “our stock size,” and my complexion was by no means pale and interesting enough to please me. From my gypsy tastes I preferred a picturesque toilette to a merely smart one. I had beautiful hair, very long, thick and soft, with five shades in it, and of a golden brown. My nose was aquiline. I had all the material for a very good figure, and once a sculptor wanted to sculpt me, but my mother would not allow it, as she thought I should be ashamed of my figure later, when I had fined down. I used to envy maypole, broomstick girls, who could dress much prettier than I could. I was either fresh and wild with spirits, or else melancholy and full of pathos. I wish I could give as faithful a picture of my character; but we are apt to judge ourselves either too favourably or too severely, and so I would rather quote what a phrenologist wrote of me at this time:

“When Isabel Arundell loves, her affection will be something extraordinary, her devotion great — in fact, too great. It will be her leading passion, and influence her whole life. Everything will be sacrificed for one man, and she will be constant, unchangeable, and jealous of his affections. In short, he will be her salvation or perdition! Her temper is good, but she is passionate; not easily roused, but when violently irritated she might be a perfect little demon. She is, however, forgiving. She is full of originality and humour, and her utter naturalness will pass for eccentricity. She loves society, wherein she is wild and gay; when alone, she is thoughtful and melancholy. She is ambitious, sagacious, and intellectual, and will attract attention by a certain simple dignity, by a look in her eye and a peculiar tone of her voice. To sum her up: Her nature is noble, ardent, generous, honourable, and good-hearted. She has courage, both animal and mental. Her faults are the noble and dashing ones, the spicy kind to enlist one’s sympathies, the weeds that spring from a too luxuriant soil.”

Thus wrote a professional phrenologist of me, and a friend who was fond of me at the time endorsed it in every word. With regard to the ambition, I always felt that if I were a man I should like to be a great general or statesman, to have travelled everywhere, to have seen and learnt everything; done everything; in fine, to be the Man of the Day!

When I was between seventeen and eighteen years of age, we left Furze Hall and went to London. The place in which we have passed our youthful days, be it ever so dull, possesses a secret charm.

I performed several pilgrimages of adieu to every spot connected with the bright reminiscences of youth. I fancied no other fireside would be so cosy, that I could sleep in no other room, no fields so green. Those who know what it is to leave their quasi-native place for the first time, never to return; to know every stick and stone in the place for miles round, and take an everlasting farewell of them all; to have one’s pet animals destroyed; to make a bonfire of all the things that one does not want desecrated by stranger hands; to sit on some height and gaze on the general havoc, to reflect on what is, what has been, and what may be in a strange world, amidst strange faces; to shake hands with a crowd of poor old servants, peasants, and humble friends, and not a dry eye to be seen, — those who have tasted something of this will sympathize with my feelings then. “Ah, miss,” the old retainers said, “we shall have no more jolly Christmases; we shall have no beef, bread, and flannels next year; the hall will not be decked with festoons of holly, there will be no more music and dancing!” “No more snapdragons and round games,” quoth the gamekeeper; and his voice trembled, and I saw the tears in his eyes and in the eyes of them all.

So broke up our little home in Essex, and we went our ways.

2 The greater part of Book I. is compiled from Lady Burton’s unfinished autobiography, at which she was working the last few months of her life. The story is therefore told mainly in her own words.

3 Two only now survive: Mrs. Fitzgerald and Mrs. Van Zeller.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burton/isabel/romance/chapter2.html

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