The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXV

15th October 1888 to 21st July 1890

Working at the “Catullus” and “The Scented Garden”


78. Catullus translated 1890, printed 1894.

79. The Golden Ass and other works left unfinished.

162. Switzerland 15th October 1888.

From London the Burtons proceeded first to Boulogne where Sir Richard visited the haunts of his early manhood and called upon his old fencing master, Constantin, who was hale and well, though over eighty; and then to Geneva, where he delivered before the local Geographical Society what proved to be his last public lecture. From Geneva he wrote several letters to Mr. Payne. In that of November 21st, his mind running on the Bandello, he says, “You would greatly oblige me by jotting down when you have a moment to spare the names of reverends and ecclesiastics who have written and printed facetious books.603 In English I have Swift and Sterne; in French Rabelais, but I want one more, also two in Italian and two in German.”

In reply, Mr. Payne sent him some twenty or thirty names in half a dozen literatures. From Geneva the Burtons made their way first to Vevey, where Sir Richard revelled in its associations with Ludlow, the English regicide, and Rousseau; and then to Lausanne for the sake of his great hero, Edward Gibbon; and on 12th March (1889) they were back again at Trieste.

Writing to Mr. A. G. Ellis on May 8th, Burton enquires respecting some engravings in the Museum brought over from Italy by the Duke of Cumberland, and he finished humorously with, “What news of Mr. Blumhardt? And your fellow-sufferer from leather emanations, the Sanskiritist?”604 — an allusion to the Oriental Room, under which, in those days, was the book-binding department.

603 There is an article on Clerical Humorists in The Gentleman’s Magazine for Feb. 1845.

604 Mr. Bendall.

163. Mr. Letchford, August and September 1889.

In July, for Burton found it impossible to content himself long in any place, the Burtons made another journey, this time through Western Austria, being accompanied as usual by Dr. Baker and Lisa. After their return, on September 13th, it was necessary for Burton to undergo two operations; and Lady Burton, racked with anxiety and fearing the worst, seemed, when all was successfully over, to have recovered from a horrible nightmare. Then followed acquaintance with the gifted young artist, Mr. Albert Letchford, and his beautiful and winning sister, Daisy. Mr. Letchford became the Burtons’ Court Painter, as it were — frequently working in their house — and both he and his sister admired — nay, worshipped Sir Richard down to the ground. Even as a child, Albert Letchford was remarkable for his thoughtful look, and his strong sense of beauty. In church one day he begged his mother to let him run home and get his little sword, as there was such an ugly woman there and he wished to cut her head off. As a youth he drew and studied from morning to night, living in a world of his own creation — a world of books and pictures. His letters were those of a poet and an artist. Beauty of the mind, however, attracted him even more than beauty of the body. Thus, he fell in love with his cousin Augusta, “though she had the toothache, and her head tied up in a handkerchief.” At seventeen he studied art in Venice. From Venice he went to Florence, where he met the Burtons and got from them introductions to all the best people, including the Countess Orford and Mlle. de la Ramee (Ouida). We then find him in Paris, in London, in Egypt, where he acquired that knowledge of the East which helped him later when he illustrated The Arabian Nights. Finally he settled at Trieste. “That wonderful man, Sir Richard Burton, with the eyes of a tiger and the voice of an angel,” writes Miss Letchford, “loved my brother, for he found something more in him than in others — he found a mind that could understand his own, and he often said that Mr. Albert Letchford was about the only man that he was pleased to see — the only one who never jarred on his nerves. To him did Sir Richard, proud and arrogant to most people, open his soul, and from his lips would come forth such enchanting conversation — such a wonderful flow of words and so marvellous in sound that often I have closed my eyes and listened to him, fancying, thus — that some wonderful learned angel had descended from Heaven unto Earth.”

Among the friends of the Burtons was the Princess of Thurn and Taxis, who with her husband became one of Letchford’s best patrons. The princess won Sir Richard’s heart by her intelligence, her beauty and grace; and “his conversation was never so brilliant, and his witticisms were never so sparkling as in her presence.” One day another princess — a foolish, vain woman — after making a number of insipid remarks, shook hands with Sir Richard, lifting high her arm and elbow in the fashion which was then just coming into vogue, but which has now lost acceptance.605 Sir Richard, while giving her his right hand, quietly with his left put down her arm and elbow. The princess turned scarlet, but she never after practised “the high shake.” Miss Letchford sums up Lady Burton as “a most beautiful and charming woman, with many lovely ideas, but many foolish ones.” Unfortunately she was guided entirely by her confessor, a man of small mental calibre. One of the confessor’s ideas was to convert Sir Richard by dropping small charms into his pockets. Sir Richard got quite used to finding these little images about him; but they invariably made their way out of the window into the garden. One of Lady Burton’s little failings was the fear lest anybody should come to the house in order to steal, and the servants had special commands to admit none who did not look “a perfect gentleman or lady,” with the result that one day they slammed the door in the face of the Archduke Louis Salvator, simply because he did not happen to have a card with him. After that Lady Burton’s orders were less strict.

Mr. Letchford’s paintings include views of the neighbourhood, a portrait of Burton which was exhibited in the Stanley Gallery, and a full-length portrait of Burton fencing,606 but he is best known by his series of illustrations to The Arabian Nights.

605 On the Continent it was called “The Prince of Wales shake.”

606 It is now in the Public Library, Camberwell.

164. To Dr. Tuckey.

On April 24th we find Burton writing to thank Dr. Charles Tuckey for the gift of a copy of his Psycho-Therapeutics. “An old pupil of Dr. Elliotson,”607 he says, “I am always interested in these researches, and welcome the appearance of any addition to our scanty knowledge of an illimitable field. Suggestion (what a miserable name!) perfectly explains the stigmata of St. Francis and others without preter-natural assistance, and the curative effect of a dose of Koran (a verset written upon a scrap of paper, and given like a pill of p.q.). I would note that the “Indian Prince”608 was no less a personage than Ranjit Singh, Rajah of the Punjab, that the burial of the Fakir was attested by his German surgeon-general, and that a friend and I followed Colonel Boileau’s example in personally investigating the subject of vivi-sepulture. In p. 10: The throngs of pilgrims to Mecca never think of curing anything but their ‘souls,’ and the pilgrimage is often fatal to their bodies. I cannot but take exception to such terms as ‘psychology,’ holding the soul (an old Egyptian creation unknown to the early Hebrews) to be the ego of man, what differentiates him from all other men, in fact, like the ‘mind,’ not a thing but a state or condition of things. I rejoice to see Braid609 duly honoured and think that perhaps a word might be said of ‘Electro-biology,’ a term ridiculous as ‘suggestion’ and more so. But Professor Yankee Stone certainly produced all the phenomena you allude to by concentrating the patient’s sight upon his ‘Electro-magnetic disc’ — a humbug of copper and zinc, united, too. It was a sore trial to Dr. Elliotson, who having been persecuted for many years wished to make trial in his turn of a little persecuting — a disposition not unusual.”610

607 John Elliotson (1791-1868). Physician and mesmerist. One always connects his name with Thackeray’s Pendennis.

608 A reference to a passage in Dr. Tuckey’s book.

609 James Braid (1795-1850) noted for his researches in Animal Magnetism.

610 See Chapter xxiv, 112.

165. To Mr. Kirby 15th May 1889.

In a letter to Mr. W. F. Kirby, 15th May 1889, Burton, after referring to a translation of the Kalevala,611 upon which Mr. Kirby was then engaged, says: “We shall not be in England this year. I cannot remove myself so far from my books, and beside, I want a summer in Austria, probably at Closen or some place north of Vienna. We had a long ten months’ holiday and must make up for time lost. The Scented Garden is very hard work, and I have to pay big sums to copyists and so forth. Yet it will, I think, repay the reader. What a national disgrace is this revival of Puritanism with its rampant cant and ignoble hypocrisy! I would most willingly fight about it, but I don’t see my way.” Writing again on 6th November (1889) he says, “I like very much your idea of visiting Sweden in the interests of the Kalevala. Perhaps you might date the Preface from that part of the world. The Natural History of The Nights would be highly interesting. Have you heard that Pickering and Chatto, of Haymarket, London, are going to print 100 (photogravure) illustrations of the Nights? When last in London I called on them. On Friday week, 15th November, we start upon our winter’s trip. From here to Brindisi, await the P. and O., then to Malta (ten days), Tunis (month), Tripoli and Algiers, where I hope at last to see the very last of The Scented Garden.”

611 The famous Finnish epic given to the world in 1835 by Dr. Lonnrot.

166. Tunis and Algiers, November 1889 to March 1890.

At the time stated, Burton, Lady Burton, Dr. Baker and Lisa took steamer for Brindisi, where they visited Virgil’s house, and then made for Malta. On December 20th they were at Tunis, and Sir Richard ransacked the bazaar and button-holed people generally in order to get manuscripts of The Scented Garden, but without success. Nobody had ever heard of it.612 At Carthage he recalled that rosy morning when Dido in “flowered cymar with golden fringe” rode out with Aeneas to the hung, read Salammbo, and explored the ruins; but Lady Burton had no eyes for anything but convents, monks and nuns, though she certainly once took Lisa to a harem, where they learnt how to make Tunisian dishes. The biblical appearance of everything reminded Burton of his Damascus days. Seeing a man in a burnous ploughing with oxen and a wooden plough on a plain where there was no background, he said, “Look, there’s Abraham!” At Constantine, Sir Richard and Lady Burton celebrated their 29th, and as it proved, their last wedding day. With Algiers, the next stopping place, which boasted a cardinal’s Moorish palace and a Museum, Burton was in ecstasies, and said he wanted to live there always; but in less than three weeks he was anxious to get as far away from it as possible.

From Algiers he wrote to Mr. Payne (28th January 1890). After recording his failure to obtain manuscripts of The Scented Garden at Tunis he says: “To-day I am to see M. Macarthy, of the Algiers Bibliotheque Musee; but I am by no means sanguine. This place is a Paris after Tunis and Constantine, but like all France (and Frenchmen) in modern days dirty as ditchwater. The old Gaulois is dead and damned, politics and money getting have made the gay nation stupid as Paddies. In fact the world is growing vile and bete, et vivent les Chinois!613 A new Magyar irruption would do Europe much good.”

In a letter to Mr. A. G. Ellis, dated 12th February, 1890, he refers to the anecdote of the famous Taymor al Wahsh, who, according to a Damascus tradition, played polo with the heads of his conquered enemies. “Every guide book,” he continues, “mentions my Lord Iron’s nickname ‘The Wild Beast,’ and possibly the legend was invented by way of comment. He drove away all the Persian swordsmiths, and from his day no ‘Damascus blade’ has been made at Damascus. I have found these French colonies perfectly casual and futile. The men take months before making up their minds to do anything. A most profligate waste of time! My prime object in visiting Tunis was to obtain information concerning The Scented Garden, to consult MSS. &c. After a month’s hard work I came upon only a single copy, the merest compendium, lacking also Chapter 21, my chief Righah (the absurd French R’irha) for a week or ten days [for the sake of the baths] then return to Algiers, steam for Marseilles and return to Trieste via the Riviera and Northern Italy — a route of which I am dead sick. Let us hope that the untanned leather bindings have spared you their malaria. You will not see me in England next summer, but after March 1891, I shall be free as air to come and go.” At Hammam R’irha, Burton began in earnest his translation of Catullus, and for weeks he was immersed in it night and day. The whole of the journey was a pleasurable one, or would have been, but for the cruelty with which animals were treated; and Burton, who detested cruelty in all forms, and had an intense horror of inflicting pain, vented his indignation over and over again against the merciless camel and donkey drivers.

As the party were steaming from Algiers to Toulon, a curious incident occurred. Burton and Dr. Baker having sauntered into the smoke room seated themselves at a table opposite to an old man and a young man who looked like, and turned out to be, an Oxford don. Presently the don, addressing the old man, told him with dramatic gesticulations the venerable story about Burton killing two Arabs near Mecca, and he held out his hand as if he were firing a pistol.

Burton, who had long known that the tale was in circulation but had never before heard anyone relate it as fact, here interrupted with, “Excuse me, but what was the name of that traveller?”

“Captain Burton,” replied the don, “now Sir Richard Burton.”

“I am Burton,” followed Sir Richard, “and I remember distinctly every incident of that journey, but I can assure you I do not remember shooting anybody.”

At that, the don jumped up, thanked him for giving the story denial, and expressed his happiness at being able to make the great traveller’s acquaintance.614

On March 26th (1890) a week after his return to Trieste, Burton wrote to Mr. A. G. Ellis: “It is very kind and friendly of you to write about The Scented Garden MSS. I really rejoice to hear that you and Mr. Bendall have escaped alive from those ground floor abominations stinking of half rotten leather. I know the two Paris MSS. [of The Scented Garden] (one with its blundering name): they are the merest abridgments, both compressing Chapter 21 of 500 pages (Arabic) into a few lines. I must now write to Gotha and Copenhagen in order to find out if the copies there be in full. Can you tell me what number of pages they contain? Salam to Mr. Bendall, and best wishes to you both. You will see me in England some time after March 19th 1891.”

At no work that he had ever written did Sir Richard labour so sedulously as at The Scented Garden. Although in feeble health and sadly emaciated, he rose daily at half-past five, and slaved at it almost incessantly till dusk, begrudging himself the hour or two required for meals and exercise. The only luxury he allowed himself while upon his laborious task was “a sip of whiskey,” but so engrossed was he with his work that he forgot even that. It was no uncommon remark for Dr. Baker to make: “Sir Richard, you haven’t drunk your whiskey.” One day, as he and Dr. Baker were walking in the garden he stopped suddenly and said: “I have put my whole life and all my life blood into that Scented Garden, and it is my great hope that I shall live by it. It is the crown of my life.”

“Has it ever occurred to you, Sir Richard,” enquired Dr. Baker, “that in the event of your death the manuscript might be burnt? Indeed, I think it not improbable.”

The old man turned to the speaker his worn face and sunken eyes and said with excitement, “Do you think so? Then I will at once write to Arbuthnot and tell him that in the event of my death the manuscript is to be his.”

He wrote the letter the same day. Arbuthnot duly received it, and several letters seem to have passed between them on the subject; but we do not know whether Lady Burton was aware of the arrangement. All we can say is that Arbuthnot believed she knew all about it.

It seems to have been at this time that Lady Burton prevailed upon her husband to range himself nominally among the Catholics. “About a year before her death,” Mr. T. Douglas Murray writes to me, “Lady Burton showed me a paper of considerable length, all of it in Sir R. Burton’s writing and signed by himself, in which he declared that he had lived and would die a Catholic, adhering to all the rites and usages of the Church.”615 Curiously enough, while bringing forward all the evidence she could adduce to prove that Burton was a Christian, Lady Burton makes no reference in her book to this paper. Perhaps it was because Sir Richard continued to gibe at the practices of her church just as much after his “conversion” as before. However, it gratified her to know that if he was not a good Catholic, he was, at any rate, the next best thing — a Catholic. An intimate friend of Burton to whom I mentioned this circumstance observed to me, “I am sure, that Burton never in any way accepted the idea of a personal God; but, rather than be perpetually importuned and worried, he may have pretended to give in to Lady Burton, as one does to a troublesome child.”

Lady Burton tells us that during the last few years of his life he used to lock the outer doors of his house twice a day and then engage in private prayer; on the other hand, friends of Burton who knew him and were with him almost to the last have received this statement with skepticism.

Lady Burton’s happiness was further increased by the present of a very beautiful oil painting representing the Virgin Mary, done by Miss Emily Baker, Dr. Baker’s sister. It was generally known by the Burtons, from the colour of its drapery, as “the Blue Madonna.”616

612 Letter to Mr. Payne, 28th January 1890.

613 As ingrained clingers to red tape and immobility.

614 I give the anecdote as told to me by Dr. Baker.

615 Letter of Mr. T. D. Murray to me 24th September 1904. But see Chapter xxxi. This paper must have been signed within three months of Sir Richard’s death.

616 On 28th June 1905, I saw it in the priest’s house at Mortlake. There is an inscription at the back.

167. Visit of Arbuthnot, Last Letter to Mr. Payne, May 1890.

On May 11th Mr. Arbuthnot paid a second visit to Trieste, and the pleasure that the vent gave to Sir Richard is reflected in a letter to Mr. Payne written the same month. “At last!” he says, “Arbuthnot has brought the volume [Payne’s Alaeddin] and the MS. [Zotenberg’s MS. of Zayn al-Asnam which Burton had lent to Mr. Payne].” He then goes on to say that he has kicked up “an awful shindy with the Athenaeum Club,” about something, just as if he had not been kicking up awful shindies with all sorts of people ever since his schoolboy days at Tours. “I am delighted,” he goes on, “with the volume [Payne’s Alaeddin] and especially with the ascription,617 so grateful in its friendly tone. I have read every word with the utmost pleasure. We might agree to differ about Cazotte.618 I think you are applying to 1750 the moralities of 1890. Arbuthnot’s visit has quite set me up, like a whiff of London in the Pontine marshes of Trieste. He goes to-day, d —— the luck! but leaves us hopes of meeting during the summer in Switzerland or thereabouts. He is looking the picture of health and we shall return him to town undamaged. Best of good fortune to Bandello.”619

Burton and Arbuthnot had spent many a delightful hour sitting out on Burton’s verandah, smoking, listening to the nightingales, and enjoying sea and landscape. It must not be supposed that erotic literature was the only subject upon which they conversed, though as hierarchs of the Kama Shastra Society they naturally bestowed upon that and curious learning considerable attention. Religion was also discussed, and Arbuthnot’s opinions may be gathered from the following citation from his unpublished Life of Balzac which is now in my hands. “The great coming struggle of the 20th century,” he says, “will be the war between Religion and Science. It will be a war to the death, for if Science wins it will do away with the personal God of the Jews, the Christians and the Muhammedans, the childish doctrine or dogma of future rewards and punishments, and everything connected with the supernatural. It will be shown that Law reigns supreme. The police representing Law and Order will be of more importance than the clergy. Even now we might do away with the latter, everybody becoming his own priest — a great economy. None of us knows what happens to us after death, all we can do is to hope for the best, and follow the three great Laws, viz., 1. Instruct your mind. 2. Preserve your health. 3. Moderate your passions and desires.” Thus spake the Founder of the Kama Shastra Society.

On May 15th, Burton told Mr. Kirby all about the Algiers trip. “Plenty to see and do,” he says, “but I was not lucky about my MS. The Scented Garden. No one seemed to know anything about it. Never advise any one to winter in Algiers. All the settled English are selling their villas. French mismanagement beats ours holler, and their hate and jealousy of us makes their colonies penal settlements to us. We stay here [at Trieste] till the weather drives us away — about the end of June.” The letter concludes with kindly enquiries respecting Professor Bendall,620 Mr. A. G. Ellis and Dr. Kirby (Mr. Kirby’s son).

617 Alaeddin was prefaced by a poetical dedication to Payne’s Alaeddin, “Twelve years this day — a day of winter dreary,” etc.

618 See Chapter xxxiii., 156. Payne had declared that Cazotte’s tales “are for the most part rubbish.”

619 Mr. Payne’s translation of The Novels of Matteo Bandello, six vols. Published in 1890.

620 Now Professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52