The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXIV

July 1883-November 1883

The Palazzone

108. Anecdotes of Burton.

In 1883 the Burtons removed from their eyrie near the Railway Station and took up their abode in a palazzone378 — “the Palazzo Gosleth” — situated in a large garden, on the wooded promontory that divides the city from the Bay of Muggia. It was one of the best houses in Trieste, and boasted an entrance so wide that one could have driven a carriage into the hall, a polished marble staircase and twenty large rooms commanding extensive and delightful views. The garden, however, was the principal amenity. Here, in fez and dressing-gown, Burton used to sit and write for hours with nothing to disturb him except the song of birds and the rustle of leaves. In the Palazzo Gosleth he spent the last eight years of his life, and wrote most of his later works.

Perhaps this is the best place to introduce a sheaf of miscellaneous unpublished anecdotes which have been drawn together from various sources. We are uncertain as to their dates, but all are authentic. To the ladies Burton was generally charming, but sometimes he behaved execrably. Once when he was returning alone to Trieste, a lady past her prime, being destined for the same place, asked whether she might accompany him. Burton, who hated taking care of anyone, frowned and shook his head. “There can be no scandal, Captain Burton,” pleaded the lady, “because I am old.”

“Madame,” replied Burton, “while fully appreciating your kindness, I must decline. Had you been young and good-looking I would have considered the matter.”

378 Augmentative of palazzo, a gentleman’s house.

109. Burton and Mrs. Disraeli.

But Burton could be agreeable enough even to plain ladies when he wished. In one of his books or pamphlets he had said “There is no difference except civilization between a very old woman and an ape.” Some time after its publication, when he was the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli, Mrs. Disraeli, herself both elderly and very plain, laid a plan to disconcert him. She seated herself close to a low mirror, in the hopes that Burton would presently join her. He soon fell into the trap and was observed a few minutes later leaning over her and “doing the amiable.”

“Captain Burton,” said Mrs. Disraeli, with affected annoyance, and pointing to her reflection, “There must be an ape in the glass. Do you not see it?”

Burton instantly recalled the remark in his book, but without exhibiting the least disconcertion, he replied, “Yaas, yaas, Madam, quite plainly; I see myself.”

It was altogether impossible for Burton to do anything or to be in anything without causing a commotion of some kind. Generally it was his own fault, but sometimes the Fates were to blame. Few scenes at that period could have been more disgraceful than those at the official receptions held in London by the Prime Minister. Far too many persons were invited and numbers behaved more like untutored Zulus than civilised human beings.

“Now darling,” said Mrs. Burton to her husband, just before one of these functions, “You are to be amiable, remember, and not lose your temper.” Burton readily promised compliance, but that day, unfortunately, the crush on the staircase was particular disgraceful. Apparently Burton, his wife on arm, was pushed on to the train of a lady in front of him, but whatever he was doing the crush had rendered him helpless.

“Oh dear!” cried the lady, “this horrid man is choking me.”

“It’s that blackguard of a Burton!” followed the lady’s husband.

Burton’s eyes flashed and his lips went livid, “I’ll have you out for this,” he cried, “and if you won’t fight I’ll thrash you like a dog.”

“That’s how you keep your promise,” said Mrs. Burton to him, when they got home. “You don’t get half a dozen steps up the staircase before you have a row with someone.” Then he burst out with his “pebble on ice” laughter.

For Burton to overhear remarks uncomplimentary to himself was no uncommon occurrence, but he rarely troubled to notice them. Now and again, however, as the previous anecdote shows, he broke his rule. Once at a public gathering a lady said, loudly, to a companion, “There is that infamous Captain Burton, I should like to know that he was down with some lingering and incurable illness.”

Burton turned round, and fixing his eyes upon her, said with gravity: “Madame, I have never in all my life done anything so wicked as to express so shocking a wish as that.”

The next anecdote shows how dangerous Burton could be to those who offended him. When the Sultan of Zanzibar was paying a visit to England, Burton and the Rev. Percy Badger were singled out to act as interpreters. But Burton had quarrelled with Badger about something or other; so when they approached the Sultan, Burton began addressing him, not in Arabic, but in the Zanzibar patois. The Sultan, after some conversation, turned to Badger, who, poor man, not being conversant with the patois, could only stand still in the dunce’s cap which Burton, as it were, had clapped on him and look extremely foolish; while the bystanders nodded to each other and said, “Look at that fellow. He can’t say two words. He’s a fraud.” Burton revelled in Badger’s discomfiture; but a little later the two men were on good terms again; and when Badger died he was, of course, Burton’s “late lamented friend.”

Another of Burton’s aversions was “any old woman made up to look very young.” “Good gracious,” he said, one day to a painted lady of that category. “You haven’t changed since I saw you forty years ago. You’re like the British flag that has braved a thousand years of the battle and the breeze.” But the lady heaped coals of fire on his head.

“Oh, Captain Burton,” she cried, “how could you, with that musical — that lovely voice of yours — make such very unpleasant remarks.”

110. “I am an Old English Catholic.”

In England, whatever objections Protestants may make to Roman Catholic services, they admit that everything is done decently and in order. The laxity, however, in the Italian churches is, or was until recently, beyond belief, and every traveller brought home some queer tale. Mrs. Burton, who prided herself on being “an old English Catholic,” was frequently distressed by these irregularities, and she never hesitated to reprove the offending priests. One day a priest who had called at Burton’s house was requested to conduct a brief service in Mrs. Burton’s private chapel. But the way in which he went through the various ceremonies so displeased Mrs. Burton that she called out to him, “Stop! stop! pardon me, I am an old English Catholic — and therefore particular. You are not doing it right — Stand aside, please, and let me show you.” So the astonished priest stood aside, and Mrs. Burton went through all the gesticulations, genuflexions, etcetera, in the most approved style. Burton, who was standing by, regarded the scene with suppressed amusement. When all was over, he touched the priest on the shoulder and said gravely and slowly, pointing to Mrs. Burton: “Do you know who this is? It is my wife. And you know she will some day die — We all must die — And she will be judged — we must all be judged — and there’s a very long and black list against her. But when the sentence is being pronounced she will jump up and say: ‘Stop! stop! please pardon my interruption, but I am an old English Catholic.’”

To one house, the hostess of which was one of the most fashionable women in London, Burton, no matter how much pressed, had never been prevailed upon to go. He disliked the lady and that was enough. “Here’s an invitation for all of us to Lady —— ‘s,” said Mrs. Burton to him one day in honied tones. “Now, Dick, darling, this time you must go just for Lisa’s sake. It’s a shame she should lose so excellent a chance of going into good society. Other people go, why shouldn’t we? Eh, darling?”

“What won’t people do,” growled Burton, “for the sake of a dinner!”

Eventually, however, after an explosion, and he’d be asterisked if he would, and might the lady herself be asterisked, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, “Dick Darling” was coaxed over, and he, Mrs. Burton and Lisa at the appointed time sallied forth in all the glory of war paint, and in due course were ushered into the detested house.

As he approached the hostess she looked steadily at him through her lorgnon, and then, turning to a companion, said with a drawl: “Isn’t it horrid, my dear! Every Dick, Tom and Harry’s here to-night.”

“That’s what comes of being amiable,” said Burton to his wife, when they got home again — and he’d be asterisked, and might everybody else be asterisked, if he’d enter that asterisked house again. Then the humour of it all appealed to him; and his anger dissolved into the usual hearty laughter.

One very marked feature of Burton’s character was that, like his father, he always endeavoured to do and say what he thought was right, quite regardless of appearances and consequences. And we may give one anecdote to illustrate our meaning.

On one occasion379 he and another Englishman who was known by Burton to have degraded himself unspeakably, were the guests at a country house. “Allow me, Captain Burton,” said the host, “to introduce you to the other principal guest of the evening, Mr. —— ” Looking Mr. —— in the face, Burton said: “When I am in Persia I am a Persian, when in India a Hindu, but when in England I am an English gentleman,” and then he turned his back on Mr. —— and left him. As Mr. —— ‘s record was not at the time generally known, those who were present at the scene merely shrugged their shoulders and said: “Only another of Burton’s eccentricities.” A few months, later, however, Mr. — -‘s record received publicity, and Burton’s conduct and words were understood.

One of Burton’s lady relations being about to marry a gentleman who was not only needy but also brainless, somebody asked him what he thought of the bridegroom-elect.

“Not much,” replied Burton, drily, “he has no furniture inside or out.”

To “old maids” Burton was almost invariably cruel. He found something in them that roused all the most devilish rancours in his nature; and he used to tell them tales till the poor ladies did not know where to tuck their heads. When reproved afterwards by Mrs. Burton, he would say: “Yaas, yaas, no doubt; but they shouldn’t be old maids; besides, it’s no good telling the truth, for nobody ever believes you.” He did, however, once refer complimentarily to a maiden lady — a certain Saint Apollonia who leaped into a fire prepared for her by the heathen Alexandrians. He called her “This admirable old maid.” Her chief virtue in his eyes, however, seems to have been not her fidelity to her principles, but the fact that she got rid of herself, and so made one old maid fewer.

“What shall we do with our old maids?” he would ask, and then answer the question himself — “Oh, enlist them. With a little training they would make first-rate soldiers.” He was also prejudiced against saints, and said of one, “I presume she was so called because of the enormity of her crimes.”

Although Mrs. Burton often reproved her husband for his barbed and irritating remarks, her own tongue had, incontestibly, a very beautiful edge on it. Witness her reply to Mrs. X., who declared that when she met Burton she was inexpressibly shocked by his Chaucerian conversation and Canopic wit.

“I can quite believe,” commented Mrs. Burton, sweetly, “that on occasions when no lady was present Richard’s conversation might have been startling.”

How tasteful is this anecdote, as they say in The Nights, “and how enjoyable and delectable.”

379 We have altered this anecdote a little so as to prevent the possibility of the blanks being filled up.

111. Burton begins his Translation, April 1884.

As we have already observed, Mr. Payne’s 500 copies of the Thousand Nights and a Night were promptly snapped up by the public and 1,500 persons had to endure disappointment. “You should at once,” urged Burton, “bring out a new edition.” “I have pledged myself,” replied Mr. Payne, “not to reproduce the book in an unexpurgated form.”

“Then,” said Burton, “Let me publish a new edition in my own name and account to you for the profits — it seems a pity to lose these 1,500 subscribers.” This was a most generous and kind-hearted, but, from a literary point of view, immoral proposition; and Mr. Payne at once rejected it, declaring that he could not be a party to a breach of faith with the subscribers in any shape or form. Mr. Payne’s virtue was, pecuniarily and otherwise, its punishment. Still, he has had the pleasure of a clear conscience. Burton, however, being, as always, short of money, felt deeply for these 1,500 disappointed subscribers, who were holding out their nine-guinea cheques in vain; and he then said “Should you object to my making an entirely new translation?” To which, of course, Mr. Payne replied that he could have no objection whatever. Burton then set to work in earnest. This was in April, 1884. As we pointed out in Chapter xxii., Lady Burton’s account of the inception and progress of the work and Burton’s own story in the Translator’s Foreword (which precedes his first volume) bristle with misstatements and inaccuracies. He evidently wished it to be thought that his work was well under weigh long before he had heard of Mr. Payne’s undertaking, for he says, “At length in the spring of 1879 the tedious process of copying began and the book commenced to take finished form.” Yet he told Mr. Payne in 1881 that beyond notes and a syllabus of titles nothing had been done; and in 1883 he says in a letter, “I find my translation is a mere summary,” that is to say, of the Boulac edition, which was the only one familiar to him till he met Mr. Payne. He admits having made ample use of the three principal versions that preceded his, namely, those of Jonathan Scott, Lane and Payne, “the whole being blended by a callida junctura into a homogeneous mass.” But as a matter of fact his obligations to Scott and Lane, both of whom left much of the Nights untranslated, and whose versions of it were extremely clumsy and incorrect, were infinitesimal; whereas, as we shall presently prove, practically the whole of Burton is founded on the whole of Payne. We trust, however, that it will continually be borne in mind that the warm friendship which existed between Burton and Payne was never for a moment interrupted. Each did the other services in different ways, and each for different reasons respected and honoured the other. In a letter to Mr. Payne of 12th August, 1884, Burton gave an idea of his plan. He says “I am going in for notes where they did not suit your scheme and shall make the book a perfect repertoire of Eastern knowledge in its most esoteric form.” A paper on these subjects which Burton offered to the British Association was, we need scarcely say, courteously declined.

Writing to Payne on September 9th (1884) he says, “As you have been chary of notes my version must by way of raison d’etre (amongst others) abound in esoteric lore, such as female circumcision and excision, etc. I answer all my friends that reading it will be a liberal education, and assure them that with such a repertory of esotericism at their finger ends they will know all the Scibile380 requisite to salvation. My conviction is that all the women in England will read it and half the men will cut me.”

380 That which is knowable.

112. The Battle over the Nights.

Although, as we have seen, Burton’s service to Mr. Payne’s translation was almost too slight to be mentioned, Burton was to Mr. Payne in another way a tower of strength. Professional spite, jealousy and other causes had ranged against his Nights whole platoons of men of more or less weight. Jealousy, folly and ignorance made common cause against the new translation — the most formidable coterie being the group of influential men who for various reasons made it their business to cry up the commonplace translation of E. W. Lane, published in 1840, and subsequently reprinted — a translation which bears to Payne’s the relation of a glow-worm to the meridian sun. The clique at first prepared to make a professional attack on the work, but the appearance of Volume i. proved it to be from a literary, artistic and philological point of view quite unassailable. This tactic having failed, some of these gentlemen, in their meanness, and we fear we must add, malevolence, then tried to stir up the authorities to take action against Mr. Payne on the ground of public morality.381 Burton had long been spoiling for a fight — and now was his opportunity. In season and out of season he defended Payne. He fell upon the Lane-ites like Samson upon the Philistines. He gloried in the hurly-burly. He wallowed, as it were, in blood. Fortunately, too, at that time he had friends in the Government — straightforward, commonsense men — who were above all pettinesses. Lord Houghton, F. F. Arbuthnot, and others, also ranged themselves on the same side and hit out manfully.

Before starting on the Palmer expedition, Burton, in a letter of October 29th, had written to Mr. Payne: “The more I read your translation the more I like it. You have no need to fear the Lane clique; that is to say, you can give them as good as they can give you. I am quite ready to justify the moral point. Of course we must not attack Lane till he is made the cheval de bataille against us. But peace and quiet are not in my way, and if they want a fight, they can have it.” The battle was hot while it lasted, but it was soon over. The Lane-ites were cowed and gradually subsided into silence. Mr. Payne took the matter more coolly than Burton, but he, too, struck out when occasion required. For example, among the enemy was a certain reverend Professor of Semitic languages, who held advanced opinions on religious matters. He had fought a good fight, had suffered persecution on that account, and is honoured accordingly. “It is usual,” observed Burton, “with the weak, after being persecuted to become persecutors.”382 Mr. ——— had the folly to put it about that Payne’s translation was made not direct from the Arabic but from German translations. How he came to make so amazing a statement, seeing that at the time no important German translation of the Nights existed,383 it is difficult to say; but Mr. Payne sent him the following words from the Nights, written in the Arabic character: “I and thou and the slanderer, there shall be for us an awful day and a place of standing up to judgment.”384 After this Mr. ——— sheathed his sword and the Villon Society heard no more of him.

381 Let it be remembered that the edition was (to quote the title-page) printed by private subscription and for private circulation only and was limited to 500 copies at a high price. Consequently the work was never in the hands of the general public.

382 This was a favourite saying of Burton’s. We shall run against it elsewhere. See Chapter xxxiv., 159. Curiously enough, there is a similar remark in Mr. Payne’s Study of Rabelais written eighteen years previous, and still unpublished.

383 Practically there was only the wearisome, garbled, incomplete and incorrect translation by Dr. Weil.

384 The Love of Jubayr and the Lady Budur, Burton’s A. N. iv., 234; Lib. Ed., iii., 350; Payne’s A. N., iv., 82.

113. Completion of Mr. Payne’s Translation.

Mr. Payne’s first volume appeared as we have seen in 1882. The last left the press in 1884. The work was dedicated to Burton, who writes, “I cannot but feel proud that he has honoured me with the dedication of ‘The Book of the Thousand Nights and one Night.’ . . . He succeeds admirably in the most difficult passages, and he often hits upon choice and special terms and the exact vernacular equivalent of the foreign word so happily and so picturesquely that all future translators must perforce use the same expression under pain of falling far short.”

Having finished the Nights, Mr. Payne commenced the translation of other Eastern stories — which he published under the title of Tales from the Arabic.385

385 Three vols., 1884.

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