The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter X

22nd January 1861-to August 1861

Mormons and Marriage

Bibliography:

17. The City of the Saints, 1861.

39. We rushed into each other’s arms. 22nd May, 1860.

During Burton’s absence Isabel Arundell tortured herself with apprehensions and fears. Now and again a message from him reached her, but there were huge deserts of silence. Then came the news of Speke’s return and lionization in London. She thus tells the story of her re-union with Burton. “On May 22nd (1860), I chanced to call upon a friend. I was told she had gone out, but would be in to tea, and was asked to wait. In a few minutes another ring came to the door, and another visitor was also asked to wait. A voice that thrilled me through and through came up the stairs, saying, ‘I want Miss Arundell’s address.’ The door opened, I turned round, and judge of my feelings when I beheld Richard!. . . . . We rushed into each other’s arms. . . . . We went down-stairs and Richard called a cab, and he put me in and told the man to drive about anywhere. He put his arm round my waist, and I put my head on his shoulder.”177 Burton had come back more like a mummy than a man, with cadaverous face, brown-yellow skin hanging in bags, his eyes protruding and his lips drawn away from this teeth — the legacy of twenty-one attacks of fever.

When the question of their marriage was brought before her parents, Mr. Arundell not only offered no impediment, but remarked: “I do not know what it is about that man, I cannot get him out of my head. I dream of him every night,” but Mrs. Arundell still refused consent. She reiterated her statement that whereas the Arundells were staunch old English Catholics, Burton professed no religion at all, and declared that his conversation and his books proclaimed him an Agnostic. Nor is it surprising that she remained obdurate, seeing that the popular imagination still continued to run riot over his supposed enormities. The midnight hallucinations of De Quincey seemed to be repeating themselves in a whole nation. He had committed crimes worthy of the Borgias. He had done a deed which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. Miss Arundell boldly defended him against her mother, though she admitted afterwards that, circumstances considered, Mrs. Arundell’s opposition was certainly logical.

“As we cannot get your mother’s consent,” said Burton, “we had better marry without it.”

“No,” replied Miss Arundell, “that will not do,” nor could any argument turn her.

“You and your mother have certainly one characteristic in common,” was the comment. “You are as obstinate as mules.”

Burton was not without means, for on the death of his father he inherited some £16,000, but he threw his money about with the recklessness of an Aladdin, and 16 million would have gone the same way. It was all, however, or nearly all spent in the service of the public. Every expedition he made, and every book he published left him considerably the poorer. So eager for exploration was he that before the public had the opportunity to read about one expedition, he had started on another. So swiftly did he write, that before one book had left the binders, another was on its way to the printers. Systole, diastole, never ceasing — never even pausing. Miss Arundell being inflexible, Burton resolved to let the matter remain nine months in abeyance, and, inactivity being death to him, he then shot off like a rocket to America. One day in April (1860) Miss Arundell received a brief letter the tenor of which was as follows:— “I am off to Salt Lake City, and shall be back in December. Think well over our affair, and if your mind is then made up we will marry.”

Being the first intimation of his departure — for as usual there had been no good-bye — the message gave her a terrible shock. Hope fled, and a prostrating illness followed. The belief that he would be killed pressed itself upon her and returned with inexplicable insistence. She picked up a newspaper, and the first thing that met her eye was a paragraph headed “Murder of Captain Burton.” The shock was terrible, but anxious enquiry revealed the murdered man to be another Captain Burton, not her Richard.

177 The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, i., 149.

40. Brigham Young. April 1860 to November 1860.

It was natural that, after seeing the Mecca of the Mohammedans, Burton should turn to the Mecca of the Mormons, for he was always attracted by the centres of the various faiths, moreover he wished to learn the truth about a city and a religion that had previously been described only by the biassed. One writer, for instance — a lady — had vilified Mormonism because “some rude men in Salt Lake City had walked over a bridge before her.” It was scarcely the most propitious moment to start on such a journey. The country was torn with intestine contentions. The United States Government were fighting the Indians, and the Mormons were busy stalking one another with revolvers. Trifles of this kind, however, did not weigh with Burton. After an uneventful voyage across the Atlantic, and a conventional journey overland, he arrived at St. Joseph, popularly St. Jo, on the Missouri. Here he clothed himself like a backwoodsman, taking care, however, to put among this luggage a silk hat and a frock coat in order to make an impression among the saints. He left St. Jo on August 7th and at Alcali Lake saw the curious spectacle of an Indian remove. The men were ill-looking, and used vermilion where they ought to have put soap; the squaws and papooses comported with them; but there was one pretty girl who had “large, languishing eyes, and sleek black hair like the ears of a King Charles Spaniel.” The Indians followed Burton’s waggon for miles, now and then peering into it and crying “How! How!” the normal salutation. His way then lay by darkling canons, rushing streams and stupendous beetling cliffs fringed with pines. Arrived at his destination, he had no difficulty, thanks to the good offices of a fellow traveller, in mixing in the best Mormon Society. He found himself in a Garden City. Every householder had from five to ten acres in the suburbs, and one and a half close at home; and the people seemed happy. He looked in vain, however, for the spires of the Mormon temple which a previous writer had described prettily as glittering in the sunlight. All he could find was “a great hole in the ground,” said to be the beginning of a baptismal font, with a plain brick building, the Tabernacle, at a little distance. After a service at the “Tabernacle” he was introduced to Brigham Young, a farmer-like man of 45, who evinced much interest in the Tanganyika journey and discussed stock, agriculture and religion; but when Burton asked to be admitted as a Mormon, Young replied, with a smile, “I think you’ve done that sort of thing once before, Captain.” So Burton was unable to add Mormonism to his five or six other religions. Burton then told with twinkling eyes a pitiful tale of how he, an unmarried man, had come all the way to Salt Lake City, requiring a wife, but had found no wives to be had, all the ladies having been snapped up by the Saints. A little later the two men, who had taken a stroll together, found themselves on an eminence which commanded a view both of the Salt Lake city and the Great Salt Lake. Brigham Young pointed out the various spots of interest, “That’s Brother Dash’s house, that block just over there is occupied by Brother X’s wives. Elder Y’s wives reside in the next block and Brother Z’s wives in that beyond it. My own wives live in that many-gabled house in the middle.”

Waving his right hand towards the vastness of the great Salt Lake, Burton exclaimed, with gravity:

“Water, water, everywhere”

and then waving his left towards the city, he added, pathetically:

“But not a drop to drink.”

Brigham Young, who loved a joke as dearly as he loved his seventeen wives, burst out into hearty laughter. In his book, “The City of the Saints,” Burton assures us that polygamy was admirably suited for the Mormons, and he gives the religious, physiological and social motives for a plurality of wives then urged by that people. Economy, he tells us, was one of them. “Servants are rare and costly; it is cheaper and more comfortable to marry them. Many converts are attracted by the prospect of becoming wives, especially from places like Clifton, near Bristol, where there are 64 females to 36 males. The old maid is, as the ought to be, an unknown entity.”178

Burton himself received at least one proposal of marriage there; and the lady, being refused, spread the rumour that it was the other way about. “Why,” said Burton, “it’s like

A certain Miss Baxter, Who refused a man before he’d axed her.”179

As regards the country itself nothing struck him so much as its analogy to Palestine. A small river runs from the Wahsatch Mountains, corresponding to Lebanon, and flows into Lake Utah, which represents Lake Tiberias, whence a river called the Jordan flows past Salt Lake City into the Great Salt Lake, just as the Palestine Jordan flows into the Dead Sea.

From Salt Lake City, Burton journeyed by coach and rail to San Francisco, whence he returned home via Panama.

178 He is, of course, simply endorsing the statement of Hippocrates: De Genitura: “Women, if married, are more healthy, if not, less so.”

179 The anecdotes in this chapter were told me by one of Burton’s friends. They are not in his books.

41. Marriage. 22nd January 1861.

He arrived in England at Christmas 1860, and Miss Arundell, although her mother still frowned, now consented to the marriage. She was 30 years old, she said, and could no longer be treated as a child. Ten years had elapsed since Burton, who was now 40, had first become acquainted with her, and few courtships could have been more chequered.

“I regret that I am bringing you no money,” observed Miss Arundell.

“That is not a disadvantage as far as I am concerned,” replied Burton, “for heiresses always expect to lord it over their lords.” — “We will have no show,” he continued, “for a grand marriage ceremony is a barbarous and an indelicate exhibition.” So the wedding, which took place at the Bavarian Catholic Church, Warwick Street, London, on 22nd January 1861, was all simplicity. As they left the church Mrs. Burton called to mind Gipsy Hagar, her couched eyes and her reiterated prophecy. The luncheon was spread at the house of a medical friend, Dr. Bird, 49, Welbeck Street, and in the midst of it Burton told some grisly tales of his adventures in the Nedj and Somaliland, including an account of the fight at Berbera.

“Now, Burton,” interrupted Dr. Bird, “tell me how you feel when you have killed a man.” To which Burton replied promptly and with a sly look, “Quite jolly, doctor! how do you?” After the luncheon Burton and his wife walked down to their lodgings in Bury Street, St. James’s, where Mrs. Burton’s boxes had been despatched in a four-wheeler; and from Bury Street, Burton, as soon as he could pick up a pen, wrote in his fine, delicate hand as follows to Mr. Arundell:

“January 23 1861,180

“Bury Street,

“St. James.

“My dear Father, “I have committed a highway robbery by marrying your daughter Isabel, at Warwick Street Church, and before the Registrar — the details she is writing to her mother. “It only remains to me to say that I have no ties or liaisons of any sort, that the marriage is perfectly legal and respectable. I want no money with Isabel: I can work, and it will be my care that Time shall bring you nothing to regret.

“I am

“Yours sincerely,

“Richard F. Burton.”

“There is one thing,” said Burton to his wife, “I cannot do, and that is, face congratulations, so, if you are agreeable, we will pretend that we have been married some months.” Such matters, however, are not easy to conceal, and the news leaked out. “I am surprised,” said his cousin, Dr. Edward J. Burton, to him a few days later, “to find that you are married.” “I am myself even more surprised than you,” was the reply. “Isabel is a strong-willed woman. She was determined to have her way and she’s got it.”

With Mr. Arundell, Burton speedily became a prime favourite, and his attitude towards his daughter was Metastasio’s:

“Yes, love him, love him,

He is deserving even of such infinite bliss;”

but Mrs. Arundell, poor lady, found it hard to conquer her prejudice. Only a few weeks before her death she was heard to exclaim, “Dick Burton is no relation of mine.” Let us charitably assume, however, that it was only in a moment of irritation. Isabel Burton, though of larger build than most women, was still a dream of beauty; and her joy in finding herself united to the man she loved gave her a new radiance. Her beauty, however, was of a rather coarse grain, and even those most attached to her remarked in her a certain lack of refinement. She was a goddess at a little distance.

Her admiration of her husband approached worship. She says, “I used to like to sit and look at him; and to think ‘You are mine, and there is no man on earth the least like you.’” Their married life was not without its jars, but a more devoted wife Burton could not have found; and he, though certainly in his own fashion, was sincerely and continuously attached to her. If the difference in their religious opinions sometimes led to amusing skirmishes, it was, on the other hand, never allowed to be a serious difficulty. The religious question, however, often made unpleasantness between Mrs. Burton and Lady Stisted and her daughters — who were staunch Protestants of the Georgian and unyielding school. When the old English Catholic and the old English Protestant met there were generally sparks. The trouble originated partly from Mrs. Burton’s impulsiveness and want of tact. She could not help dragging in her religion at all sorts of unseasonable times. She would introduce into her conversation and letters remarks that a moment’s reflection would have told her could only nauseate her Protestant friends. “The Blessed Virgin,” or some holy saint or other was always intruding on the text. Her head was lost in her heart. She was once in terrible distress because she had mislaid some trifle that had been touched by the Pope, though not in more distress, perhaps, than her husband would have been had he lost his sapphire talisman, and she was most careful to see that the lamps which she lighted before the images of certain saints never went out. Burton himself looked upon all this with amused complacency and observed that she was a figure stayed somehow from the Middle Ages. If the mediaeval Mrs. Burton liked to illuminate the day with lamps or camphorated tapers, that, he said, was her business; adding that the light of the sun was good enough for him. He objected at first to her going to confession, but subsequently made no further reference to the subject. Once, even, in a moment of weakness, he gave her five pounds to have masses said for her dead brother; just as one might give a child a penny to buy a top. He believed in God, and tried to do what he thought right, fair and honourable, not for the sake of reward, as he used to say, but simply because it was right, fair and honourable. Occasionally he accompanied his wife to mass, and she mentions that he always bowed his head at “Hallowed by Thy Name,” which “shows,” as Dr. Johnson would have commented, “that he had good principles.” Mrs. Burton generally called her husband “Dick,” but frequently, especially in letters, he is “The Bird,” a name which he deserved, if only on account of his roving propensities. Often, however, for no reason at all, she called him “Jimmy,” and she was apt in her admiration of him and pride of possession, to Dick and Jimmy it too lavishly among casual acquaintances. Indeed, the tyranny of her heart over her head will force itself upon our notice at every turn. It is pleasant to be able to state that Mrs. Burton and Burton’s “dear Louisa” (Mrs. Segrave) continued to be the best of friends, and had many a hearty laugh over bygone petty jealousies. One day, after calling on Mrs. Segrave, Burton and his wife, who was dressed in unusual style, lunched with Dr. and Mrs. E. J. Burton. “Isabel looks very smart to-day,” observed Mrs. E. J. Burton. “Yes,” followed Burton, “she always wears her best when we go to see my dear Louisa.”

Burton took a pleasure in sitting up late. “Indeed,” says one of his friends, “he would talk all night in preference to going to bed, and, in the Chaucerian style, he was a brilliant conversationalist, and his laugh was like the rattle of a pebble across a frozen pond.” “No man of sense,” Burton used to say, “rises, except in mid-summer, before the world is brushed and broomed, aired and sunned.” Later, however, he changed his mind, and for the last twenty years of his life he was a very early riser.

Among Burton’s wedding gifts were two portraits — himself and his wife — in one frame, the work of Louis Desanges, the battle painter whose acquaintance he had made when a youth at Lucca. Burton appears with Atlantean shoulders, strong mouth, penthouse eyebrows, and a pair of enormous pendulous moustaches, which made him look very like a Chinaman. Now was this an accident, for his admiration of the Chinese was always intense. He regarded them as “the future race of the East,” just as he regarded the Slav as the future race of Europe. Many years later he remarked of Gordon’s troops, that they had shown the might that was slumbering in a nation of three hundred millions. China armed would be a colossus. Some day Russia would meet China face to face — the splendid empire of Central Asia the prize. The future might of Japan he did not foresee.

Says Lady Burton: “We had a glorious season, and took up our position in Society. Lord Houghton (Monckton Milnes) was very much attached to Richard, and he settled the question of our position by asking his friend, Lord Palmerston, to give a party, and to let me be the bride of the evening, and when I arrived Lord Palmerston gave me his arm. . . . Lady Russell presented me at Court ‘on my marriage.’”181

Mrs. Burton’s gaslight beauty made her the cynosure of all eyes.

180 This letter was given by Mrs. FitzGerald (Lady Burton’s sister) to Mr. Foskett of Camberwell. It is now in the library there, and I have to thank the library committee for the use of it.

181 Life, i., 345.

42. At Lord Houghton’s.

At Fryston, Lord Houghton’s seat, the Burtons met Carlyle, Froude, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, who had just published his first book, The Queen Mother and Rosamund,182 and Vambery, the Hungarian linguist and traveller. Born in Hungary, of poor Jewish parents, Vambery had for years a fierce struggle with poverty. Having found his way to Constantinople, he applied himself to the study of Oriental languages, and at the time he visited Fryston he was planning the most picturesque event of his life — namely, his journey to Khiva, Bokhara and Samarcand, which in emulation of Burton he accomplished in the disguise of a dervish.183 He told the company some Hungarian tales and then Burton, seated cross-legged on a cushion, recited portions of FitzGerald’s adaptation of Omar Khayyam,184 the merits of which he was one of the first to recognise. Burton and Lord Houghton also met frequently in London, and they corresponded regularly for many years.185 “Richard and I,” says Mrs. Burton, writing to Lord Houghton 12th August 1874, “would have remained very much in the background if you had not taken us by the hand and pulled us into notice.” A friendship also sprang up between Burton and Mr. Swinburne, and the Burtons were often the guests of Mrs. Burton’s uncle, Lord Gerard, who resided at Garswood, near St. Helens, Lancashire.

182 1861.

183 Vambery’s work, The Story of my Struggles, appeared in October 1904.

184 The first edition appeared in 1859. Burton’s works contain scores of allusions to it. To the Gold Coast, ii., 164. Arabian Nights (many places), etc., etc.

185 Life of Lord Houghton, ii., 300.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:36