The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXII

5th June 1886-15th April 1888

Burton and Social Questions: Anecdotes

147. The Population Question.

In social questions Burton took a keen interest. Indeed he was in many respects a man far in advance of his age. In denouncing various evils he betrays the earnestness of a Carlyle, and when propounding plans for the abolition of the Slave Trade in “that Devil’s Walk and Purlieu,” East Africa, Saul becomes one of the prophets. That he was no saint we should have known if he himself had not told us; but he had, as he believed, his special work to do in the world and he did it with all his might. Though a whirlwind of a man, he had, as we have seen, the tenderest of hearts, he thought with sorrow of the sufferings of the poor, and he often said to his wife: “When I get my pension we’ll spend the rest of our lives in helping the submerged tenth.” Although sympathising warmly with the efforts of General Booth and other men who were trying to grapple with social evils, he could see, nevertheless, that they touched only the fringe of the difficulty. He was, broadly speaking, what is now known as a Neo-Mathusian, that is to say, he held that no man had a right to bring into the world a larger number of children than he could support with comfort, that the poor ought to be advised to limit their families, and that persons suffering from certain terrible diseases ought not to be allowed to marry, or at any rate to have children.

Himself a man of splendid physique, Burton wanted to see every man in England physically healthy and strong. He considered it abominable that infant monstrosities or children born blind should be allowed to live, and held that showmen and others who exhibit monstrosities should be promptly jailed. “Indeed,” he says, “it is a question if civilisation may not be compelled to revive the law of Lycurgus, which forbade a child, male or female, to be brought up without the approbation of public officers appointed ad hoc. One of the curses of the 19th century is the increased skill of the midwife and the physician, who are now able to preserve worthless lives and to bring up semi-abortions whose only effect upon the breed is increased degeneracy.”534 He thought with Edward FitzGerald and many another sympathiser with the poor, that it is the height of folly for a labouring man living in a cottage with only two small bedrooms and earning twelve shillings a week to burden himself with a family of from ten to a dozen. Three or four children he considered enough for anybody. At the same time he perceived that the Neo-Malthusian system might be abused — that is to say, rich persons who could well afford to bring up respectable-sized families might be tempted to restrict the number to one or two.535 Consequently, in the Terminal Essay to the Arabian Nights, we find him recommending the study of an Arabic work, Kitab al Bah not only to the anthropologist but also to the million. He says, “The conscientious study would be useful to humanity by teaching the use and unteaching the abuse of the Malthusian system,536 whereby the family is duly limited to the necessities of society.” At the present time — with the diminishing birth-rate and when the subject is discussed freely in every upper and middle class home in England — these ideas cause no wonderment; but in those days they were novel.

534 Supplemental Nights, Lib. Ed., x., 302, Note.

535 The recent speeches (July 1905) of the Bishop of Ripon and the letters of the Rev. Dr. Barry on this danger to the State will be in the minds of many.

536 Burton means what is now called the Neo-Malthusian system, which at the time was undergoing much discussion, owing to the appearance, at the price of sixpence, of Dr. H. Allbutt’s well-known work The Wife’s Handbook. Malthus’s idea was to limit families by late marriages; the Neo-Malthusians, who take into consideration the physiological evils arising from celibacy, hold that it is better for people to marry young, and limit their family by lawful means.

148. New Projects.

We left the Burtons, it will be remembered, at Gibraltar. After a short stay there, they crossed over to Morocco in a cattle tug. Neither of them liked Tangiers, still, if the Consulate had been conferred upon Sir Richard, it would have given them great happiness. They were, however, doomed to disappointment. Lord Salisbury’s short-lived administration of 1886 had been succeeded by a Liberal Government with Lord Rosebery as Premier; and Tangiers was given to Mr. (afterwards Sir) W. Kirby Green.537 The Burtons were back in Trieste at the end of March.

The success of The Arabian Nights, which was owing entirely to its anthropological and pornographic notes, was for Sir Richard Burton both good and bad. It was good because it removed for the remainder of his life all pecuniary anxieties; it was bad because it led him to devote himself exclusively to subjects which certainly should not occupy exclusively the attention of any man. Henceforth every translation was to be annotated from a certain point of view.538 One can but regret this perversity, for the old Roman and other authors have unpleasantnesses enough without accentuating them. Thus in reading some sweet poem of Catullus, spoilt by perhaps a single objectionable line, we do not want our attention drawn particularly to the blemish. Unfortunately, Sir Richard now made this kind of work his speciality, and it would be idle — or rather it would be untrue — to deny that he now chose certain books for translation, not on account of their beautiful poetry and noble thoughts, but because they lent themselves to pungent annotation. Indeed, his passion for this sort of literature had become a monomania.539 He insisted, however, and he certainly believed, that he was advancing the interests of science; nor could any argument turn him. We wish we could say that it was chiefly for their beauties that he now set himself to translate Catullus, Ausonius,540 and Apuleius. He did appreciate their beauties; the poets and the classic prose writers were to him as the milk of paradise; and some of his annotations would have illuminated the best passages, but the majority of them were avowedly to be consecrate to the worst. Having in The Arabian Nights given the world the fruits of his enquiries in Eastern lands, and said his say, he might with advantage have let the subject rest. He had certainly nothing new to tell us about the manners and customs of the Romans. Then again, for the translating of so delicate, so musical and so gracious a poet as Catullus he was absolutely and entirely unqualified. However, to Catullus he now turned. Sirmio and Rome succeeded to Baghdad and Damascus; jinni and ghoul fled before hoofed satyrs and old Silenus shaking his green stick of lilies. As we shall see, however, he did not begin the translation in earnest till January 1890.541

537 This is Lady Burton’s version. According to another version it was not this change in government that stood in Sir Richard’s way.

538 Vide the Preface to Burton’s Catullus.

539 We are not so prudish as to wish to see any classical work, intended for the bona fide student, expurgated. We welcome knowledge, too, of every kind; but we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that in much of Sir Richard’s later work we are not presented with new information. The truth is, after the essays and notes in The Arabian Nights, there was nothing more to say. Almost all the notes in the Priapeia, for example, can be found in some form or other in Sir Richard’s previous works.

540 Decimus Magnus Ausonius (A.D. 309 to A.D. 372) born at Burdegala (Bordeaux). Wrote epigrams, Ordo Nobilium Urbium, short poems on famous cities, Idyllia, Epistolae and the autobiographical Gratiarum Actio.

541 Among the English translations of Catullus may be mentioned those by the Hon. George Lamb, 1821, and Walter K. Kelly, 1854 (these are given in Bohn’s edition), Sir Theodore Martin, 1861, James Cranstoun, 1867, Robinson Ellis, 1867 and 1871, Sir Richard Burton, 1894, Francis Warre Cornish, 1904. All are in verse except Kelly’s and Cornish’s. See also Chapter xxxv. of this work.

149. Mr. A. G. Ellis and Professor Blumhardt. 5th June 1886-5th April 1887.

On June 5th the Burtons and their “Magpie Trunk” again left Trieste and travelled via Innsbruck, Zurich, Bale and Boulogne to England. After a short stay at Folkestone with Lady Stisted and her daughter, they went on to London, whence Burton memorialized the vice-chancellor and the curators of the Bodleian Library for the loan of the Wortley Montagu manuscripts of the Arabian Nights. Not a private loan, but a temporary transference to the India Office under the charge of Dr. R. Rost. On November 1st came a refusal, and Burton, at great inconvenience to himself, had to go to Oxford. “The Bodleian,” he says, “is the model of what a reading library should not be, and the contrast of its treasures with their mean and miserable surroundings is a scandal.” He did not know in which he suffered most, the Bodleian, the Radcliffe or the Rotunda. Finally, however, the difficulty was got over by having the required pages photographed.

He now wrote to the Government and begged to be allowed, at the age of sixty-six, to retire on full pension. His great services to the country and to learning were set down, but though fifty persons of importance in the political and literary world supported the application, it was refused. It is, however, only just to the Government to say that henceforward Burton was allowed “leave” whenever he wanted it. An easier post than that at Trieste it would have been impossible to imagine, still, he was in a measure tied, and the Government missed an opportunity of doing a graceful act to one of its most distinguished servants, and to one of the most brilliant of Englishmen.

Then followed a holiday in Scotland, where the Burtons were the guests of Mr. (now Sir) Alexander Baird of Urie. Back in London, they lunched at different times with F. F. Arbuthnot, G. A. Sala, A. C. Swinburne, and “dear old Larkin” — now 85 — in whose house at Alexandria, Burton had stayed just before his Mecca journey. It was apparently during this visit that Burton gave to his cousin St. George Burton a seal showing on one side the Burton crest, on another the Burton Arms, and on the third a man’s face and a hand with thumb to the nose and fingers spread out. “Use it,” said Burton, “when you write to a d —— -d snob.” And he conveyed the belief that it would be used pretty often.

On 16th September 1886, writing to Mr. Kirby542 from “United Service Club,” Pall Mall, Burton says, “We here have been enjoying splendid weather, and a really fine day in England (I have seen only two since May) is worth a week anywhere else. . . . You will find your volumes543 sent to you regularly. No. 1 caused big sensation. A wonderful leader about it in Standard (Mrs. Gamp, of all people!) followed by abuse in Pall Mall. I have come upon a young woman friend greedily reading it in open drawing-room, and when I warned another against it, she answered: ‘Very well, Billy [her husband] has a copy, and I shall read it at once.’”

Later Burton’s curiosity was aroused by the news that Mr. A. G. Ellis, of the British Museum, had shown Mr. Kirby an edition of Alaeddin in Malay.544 “Let me know,” he says, “when you go to see Mr. Ellis. I especially want to accompany you, and must get that Malay version of Alaeddin. Lord Stanley of Alderley could translate it.”

It was about this time that Burton decided to make a new and lavishly annotated translation of The Scented Garden. To the Kama Shastra edition of 1886 we have already referred, and we shall deal fully with the whole subject in a later chapter.

On October 6th the Burtons heard Mr. Heron Allen lecture on palmistry at Hampstead. For some weeks Burton was prostrated again by his old enemy, the gout, but Lord Stanley of Alderley, F. F. Arbuthnot, and other friends went and sat with him, so the illness had its compensations. A visit to Mr. John Payne, made, as usual, at tea time, is next recorded, and there was to have been another visit, but Burton, who was anxious to get to Folkestone to see his sister, had to omit it.

On January 10th 1887, he writes to Mr. Payne as follows:

“That last cup of tea came to grief, I ran away from London abruptly, feeling a hippishness gradually creep over my brain; longing to see a sight of the sun and so forth. We shall cross over next Thursday (if the weather prove decent) and rush up to Paris, where I shall have some few days’ work in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Thence to Cannes, the Riviera, &c. At the end of my 5th Vol. (Supplemental) I shall walk in to Edin[burgh] Review.545 . . . I hope you like Vol. x. and its notices of your work. I always speak of it in the same terms, always with the same appreciation and admiration.”

On January 13th 1887, the Burtons reached Paris, where Sir Richard had the pleasure of meeting Herr Zotenberg, discoverer of the Arabic originals of Alaeddin and Zayn al Asnam; and thence they proceeded to Cannes, where the state of Burton’s health gave his wife great uneasiness. She says, “I saw him dripping his pen anywhere except into the ink. When he tried to say something he did not find his words.” An awful fit of “epileptiform convulsions,” the result of suppressed gout, followed, and the local doctors who were called in came to the conclusion that Burton could not recover. They thought it better, however, that their opinion should be conveyed to him by a perfect stranger, so they deputed Dr. Grenfell Baker, a young man who was then staying at Cannes, to perform the painful duty.

Dr. Baker entered the sick room and broke the news to Burton as best he could.

“Then you suppose I am going to die?” said Burton.

“The medical men who have been holding a consultation are of that opinion.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Burton said, “Ah, well! — sit down,” and then he told Dr. Baker a story out of The Arabian Nights. Dr. Baker remained a fortnight, and then Sir Richard, who decided to have a travelling medical attendant, sent to England for Dr. Ralph Leslie, who a little later joined him at Trieste.

To his circle of friends Burton now added Mr. A. G. Ellis, already referred to, Professor James F. Blumhardt, of the British Museum, and Professor Cecil Bendall, of University College, London.546 His first communication with Mr. Ellis seems to have been a post-card dated Trieste, 8th May 1887. He says “The Perfumed Garden is not yet out nor will it be for six months. My old version is to be had at — -‘s, Coventry Street, Haymarket. The Supplemental Nights you can procure from the agent, —— -, Farleigh Road, Stoke Newington.”

As we have seen, Burton’s first and second supplemental volumes of the Nights correspond with Mr. Payne’s three volumes of Tales from the Arabic. He also wished to include the eight famous Galland Tales:— “Zayn Al-Asnam,” “Alaeddin,” “Khudadad and his Brothers,” “The Kaliph’s Night Adventure,” “Ali Baba,” “Ali Khwajah and the Merchant of Baghdad,” “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri-Banu,” and “The Two Sisters who Envied their Cadette;” but the only Oriental text he could find was a Hindustani version of Galland’s tales “Orientalised and divested of their inordinate Gallicism.” As Burton was at this time prostrated by illness, Professor Blumhardt kindly undertook “to English the Hindustani for him. While the volume was going forward, however, M. Zotenberg, of Paris, discovered a MS. copy of The Nights containing the Arabic originals of ‘Zayn Al-Asnam’ and ‘Alaeddin,’ and Burton, thanks to the courtesy of Zotenberg, was able to make use of it.”

542 Mr. Kirby was on the Continent.

543 Presentation copy of the Nights.

544 See Mr. Kirby’s Notes in Burton’s Arabian Nights.

545 See Chapter xxix.

546 Now Professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge.

150. Dr. Leslie and Dr. Baker: Anecdotes. April 1887.

From June 19th to 22nd there were rejoicings at Trieste on account of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. At the banquet, which took place at the Jager, Sir Richard occupied the chair, and he and the Rev. C. F. Thorndike, the chaplain, made speeches. During the summer Sir Richard’s health continued to cause grave anxiety, but he was well enough by July 15th to set out for the usual summer holiday. Accompanied by Lady Burton, Dr. Leslie and Lisa, he first visited Adelsburg, and then Sauerbrunn, where he got relief by drinking daily a cup of very hot water. In a letter to Mr. Ellis written from Sauerbrunn, 14th September 1887, Burton refers to Professor Blumhardt’s contribution to his Supplementary Nights, and finishes: “Salute for me Mr. Bendall and tell him how happy I shall be to see him at Trieste if he pass through that very foul part.”

After the Burtons’ return to Trieste (at the end of September) Dr. Leslie obtained another post, and Dr. Baker was invited to take his place.

Dr. Baker consented to do so, only on the condition that Sir Richard would not dispute his medical orders. This, Dr. Baker explained to me, was a very necessary stipulation, for Sir Richard now looked upon the time spent over his meals as so many half-hours wasted. He never ate his food properly, but used to raven it up like an animal in order to get back quickly to his books. So a treaty was made, and Dr. Baker remained a member of the household the rest of Burton’s life.

To this period belong the following unpublished anecdotes. Of Burton’s interest in Ancient Etruria and especially in the archaeological discoveries at Bologna547 we have already spoken. Once when he and Dr. Baker were visiting Bologna they took a long walk outside the town and quite lost their bearings. Noticing a working man seated on the roadside, Burton asked him in French the way back. In reply the man “only made a stupid noise in his throat.” Burton next tried him with the Bolognese548 dialect, upon which the man blurted out, “Je don’t know savez.” Sir Richard then spoke in English, and the man finding there was no further necessity for Parisian, explained in his own tongue that he was an English sailor who had somehow got stranded in that part.

To Burton’s delight in shocking people we have already alluded. Nor did age sober him. He would tell to open-mouthed hearers stories of his hair-breadth escapes, and how some native plotted against his life. “Another moment,” he would say, “and I should have been a dead man, but I was too quick for my gentleman. I turned round with my sword and sliced him up like a lemon.” Dr. Baker, who had heard many tales about the Austrians and duelling, was exercised in his mind as to what ought to be done if he were “called out.” “Now,” said Burton, “this is one of the things in life worthy of remembrance. Never attack a man, but if he attacks you, kill him.” Sometimes the crusted tale about the Arab murder would come up again. “Is it true, Sir Richard,” a young curate once innocently inquired, “that you shot a man near Mecca?” “Sir,” replied Burton, tossing his head haughtily, “I’m proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”

In after years Dr. Baker was often asked for reminiscences of Burton. “Can you remember any of his sayings?” enquired one interlocutor. “Yes,” replied Dr. Baker. “He once said, ‘Priests, politicians and publishers will find the gate of Heaven extremely narrow.’” “I’m sorry for that,” followed the interlocutor, “for I’ve just been elected M.P. for the —— Division of Yorkshire.”

For Mrs. Lynn Linton, the novelist, whom he described as a “sweet, womanly woman,” Burton had a sincere regard, but he used to say that though she was an angel in the drawing-room, she was a raging, blood-thirsty tigress on the platform. One day, while Sir Richard, Mrs. Linton and Dr. Baker were chatting together, a lady to whom Mrs. Linton was a stranger joined the group and said “Sir Richard, why don’t you leave off writing those heavy books on Bologna and other archaeological subjects, and do something lighter? Couldn’t you write some trash — novels, I mean?” Sir Richard look sideways at Mrs. Linton, and kept his countenance as well as he could. On another occasion when Sir Richard, Lady Burton, Dr. Baker and an aged Cambridge Professor were chatting together, Burton unconsciously glided into Latin — in which he asked the professor a question. The old man began a laboured reply in the same language — and then, stopping suddenly, said, “If you don’t mind, Sir Richard, we’ll continue the conversation in English.”

Believing that Burton was overworking himself, Dr. Baker recommended him to order “a little rubbish in the shape of novels,” from London, and so rest his brain for an hour just before bedtime. Burton demurred, but the novels were ultimately sent for, they duly arrived, and Burton went through a course of “chou-chou,” as he called it. After a while, however, he gave up what he had never taken to kindly, and henceforward he nightly “rested his brain,” by reading books in the modern Greek dialects.

547 Chapter xxxi.

548 Burton’s book, Etruscan Bologna, has a chapter on the contadinesca favella Bolognese, pp. 242-262.

151. Three Months at Abbazia. 1st Dec. 1887-5th March 1888.

On the 1st of December 1887, in order to avoid the fearful boras of Trieste, and to shelter in the supposed mild climate of “the Austrian Riviera,” Burton, accompanied, as always, by his wife, Dr. Baker, and Lisa, went to stay at Abbazia. The subscriptions for his Supplemental Nights were now pouring in, and they put him in great jollity. Jingling his money in his pockets, he said to Dr. Baker, “I’ve always been poor, and now we’ll enjoy ourselves.” Henceforth he spent his money like a dissipated school-boy at a statute fair. Special trains, the best rooms in the best hotels, anything, everything he fancied — and yet all the while he worked at his books “like a navvy.” Abbazia was a disappointment. Snow fell for two months on end, and all that time they were mewed up in their hotel. Burton found the society agreeable, however, and he read German with the Catholic priest. Most of his time was spent in finishing the Supplemental Nights, and Lady Burton was busy preparing for the press and expurgated edition of her husband’s work which, it was hoped, would take its place on the drawing-room table. Mr. Justin Huntly McCarthy, son of the novelist, gave her considerably assistance, and the work appeared in 1888. Mr. Kirby’s notes were to have been appended to Lady Burton’s edition of the Nights as well as to Sir Richard’s, but ultimately the idea was abandoned. “My wife and I agreed,” writes Burton, “that the whole of your notes would be far too learned for her public,”549 so only a portion was used. Lady Burton’s work consisted of six volumes corresponding with Burton’s first ten, from which 215 pages were omitted.

Owing to the stagnation of Abbazia, and the martyrdom which he endured from the gout, Burton was very glad to get back to Trieste, which was reached on March 5th. When his pain was acute he could not refrain from groaning, and at such times, Lady Burton, kneeling by his bedside, use to say “Offer it up, offer it up” — meaning that prayer alone would bring relief.

To Mr. Payne, 14th March 1888, Burton writes, “I have been moving since yours of March 5th reached me, and unable to answer you. . . . Delighted to hear that in spite of cramp,550 Vo. V.551 is finished, and shall look forward to the secret552 being revealed. You are quite right never to say a word about it. There is nothing I abhor so much as a man intrusting me with a secret.”

On March 19th, Sir Richard finished his last volume of the Supplemental Nights, and in May he was visited at Trieste by his old friend, F. F. Arbuthnot.

On the 15th of April (1888) occurred the death of Matthew Arnold, who had for some years enjoyed a Civil List pension of £250 a year; and the event had scarcely been announced before Lady Burton, without consulting her husband,553 telegraphed to the Government to “give Burton Arnold’s pension.” This step, characteristic as it was indiscreet, naturally did not effect its purpose.

549 20th September 1887, from Adeslberg, Styria.

550 Writer’s cramp of the right hand, brought on by hard work.

551 Of the Translation of The Novels of Matteo Bandello, 6 vols. Published in 1890.

552 Mr. Payne had not told Burton the name of the work, as he did not wish the news to get abroad prematurely.

553 She very frequently committed indiscretions of this kind, all of them very creditable to her heart, but not to her head.

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