The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton


Lady Burton began her autobiography a few months before she died, but in consequence of rapidly failing health she made little progress with it. After her death, which occurred in the spring of last year, it seemed good to her sister and executrix, Mrs. Fitzgerald, to entrust the unfinished manuscript to me, together with sundry papers and letters, with a view to my compiling the biography. Mrs. Fitzgerald wished me to undertake this work, as I had the good fortune to be a friend of the late Lady Burton, and one with whom she frequently discussed literary matters; we were, in fact, thinking of writing a romance together, but her illness prevented us.

The task of compiling this book has not been an easy one, mainly for two reasons. In the first place, though Lady Burton published comparatively little, she was a voluminous writer, and she left behind her such a mass of letters and manuscripts that the sorting of them alone was a formidable task. The difficulty has been to keep the book with limits. In the second place, Lady Burton has written the Life of her husband; and though in that book she studiously avoided putting herself forward, and gave to him all the honour and the glory, her life was so absolutely bound up with his, that of necessity she covered some of the ground which I have had to go over again, though not from the same point of view. So much has been written concerning Sir Richard Burton that it is not necessary for me to tell again the story of his life here, and I have therefore been able to write wholly of his wife, an equally congenial task. Lady Burton was as remarkable as a woman as her husband was as a man. Her personality was as picturesque, her individuality is unique, and, allowing for her sex, her life was as full and varied as his.

It has been my aim, wherever possible, throughout this book to let Lady Burton tell the story of her life in her own words, and keep my narrative in the background. To this end I have revised and incorporated the fragment of autobiography which was cut short by her death, and I have also pieced together all her letters, manuscripts, and journals which have a bearing on her travels and adventures. I have striven to give a faithful portrait of her as revealed by herself. In what I have succeeded, the credit is hers alone: in what I have failed, the fault is mine, for no biographer could have wished for a more eloquent subject than this interesting and fascinating woman. Thus, however imperfectly I may have done my share of the work, it remains the record of a good and noble life — a life lifted up, a life unique in its self-sacrifice and devotion.

Last December, when this book was almost completed, a volume was published calling itself The True Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, written by his niece, Miss Georgiana M. Stisted, stated to be issued “with the authority and approval of the Burton family.” This statement is not correct — at any rate not wholly so; for several of the relatives of the late Sir Richard Burton have written to Lady Burton’s sister to say that they altogether disapprove of it. The book contained a number of cruel and unjust charges against Lady Burton, which were rendered worse by the fact that they were not made until she was dead and could no longer defend herself. Some of these attacks were so paltry and malevolent, and so utterly foreign to Lady Burton’s generous and truthful character, that they may be dismissed with contempt. The many friends who knew and loved her have not credited them for one moment, and the animus with which they were written is so obvious that they have carried little weight with the general public. But three specific charges call for particular refutation, as silence on them might be misunderstood. I refer to the statements that Lady Burton was the cause of her husband’s recall from Damascus; that she acted in bad faith in the matter of his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church; and to the impugning of the motives which led her to burn The Scented Garden. I should like to emphasize the fact that none of these controversial questions formed part of the original scheme of this book, and they would not have been alluded to had it not been for Miss Stisted’s unprovoked attack upon Lady Burton’s memory. It is only with reluctance, and solely in a defensive spirit, that they are touched upon now. Even so, I have suppressed a good deal, for there is no desire on the part of Lady Burton’s relatives or myself to justify her at the expense of the husband whom she loved, and who loved her. But in vindicating her it has been necessary to tell the truth. If therefore, in defending Lady Burton against these accusations, certain facts have come to light which would otherwise have been left in darkness, those who have wantonly attacked the dead have only themselves to blame.

In conclusion, I should like to acknowledge my indebtedness to those who have kindly helped me to make this book as complete as possible. I am especially grateful to Mrs. Fitzgerald for much encouragement and valuable help, including her reading of the proofs as they went through the press, so that the book may be truly described as an authorized biography. I also wish to thank Miss Plowman, the late Lady Burton’s secretary, who has been of assistance in many ways. I acknowledge with gratitude the permission of Captain L. H. Gordon to publish certain letters which the late General Gordon wrote to Sir Richard and Lady Burton, and the assistance which General Gordon’s niece, Miss Dunlop, kindly gave me in this matter. My thanks are likewise due to the Executors of the late Lord Leighton for permission to publish Lord Leighton’s portrait of Sir Richard Burton; to Lady Thornton and others for many illustrations; and to Lady Salisbury, Lady Guendolen Ramsden, Lord Llandaff, Sir Henry Elliot, Mr. W. F. D. Smith, Baroness Paul de Ralli, Miss Bishop, Miss Alice Bird, Madame de Gutmansthal-Benvenuti, and others, for permission to publish sundry letters in this book.


8, Mandeville Place, W.,
April, 1897.

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