The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright


20th October 1890-December 1890

The Fate of “The Scented Garden”

173. The Fate of The Scented Garden.

Burton wad dead. All that was mortal of him lay cold and motionless in the chapelle ardente. But his spirit? The spirits of the departed, can they revive us? The Roman poet Propertius answers:

“Yes; there are ghosts: death ends not all, I ween.”

and Lady Burton was just as thoroughly imbued with that belief. Hereby hangs a curious story, now to be told as regards its essentials for the first time; and we may add that Lady Burton particularly wished these essentials to be made public after her decease.646

For sixteen days after her husband’s death Lady Burton shut herself up in the house in order to examine and classify his manuscripts, pack up books, &c., ready for the journey to England, and “carry out his instructions.” To the goodness — the sweetness — of her character we have several times paid tributes. We have spoken of the devotion to her husband which surrounds her with a lambent glory; but we have also shown that she was indiscreet, illiterate,647 superstitious and impulsive; and that she was possessed of a self-assurance that can only be described as colossal. We have also shown that her mind was unhinged by her sad trouble. Such, then, was the woman and such the condition of the woman upon whom devolved the duty of considering the manuscripts of one of the most original men of the 19th century. Which of them were valuable and which mere lumber she was quite incapable of judging. Her right course would have been to call in some competent person; but she thought she was competent.

At Lady Burton’s request, Mr. Albert Letchford and Miss Letchford had come to stay with her “for the remembrance of the love her husband bore them.” It fell to Miss Letchford to sort Sir Richard’s clothes and to remove the various trifles from his pockets. She found, among other things, the little canvas bags containing horse-chestnuts, which, as we have already noticed, he used “to carry about with him against the Evil Eye — as a charm to keep him from sickness.”

Lady Burton now commenced with the manuscripts — and let it be conceded, with the very best intentions. She would have nobody in the room but Miss Letchford. “I helped Lady Burton to sort his books, papers, and manuscripts,” says Miss Letchford. “She thought me too young and innocent to understand anything. She did not suspect that often when she was not near I looked through and read many of those MSS. which I bitterly repent not having taken, for in that case the world would not have been deprived of many beautiful and valuable writings. I remember a poem of his written in the style of ‘The House that Jack built,’ the biting sarcasm of which, the ironical finesse — is beyond anything I have ever read. Many great people still living found their way into these verses. I begged Lady Burton to keep it, but her peasant confessor said ‘Destroy it,’ so it was burnt along with a hundred other beautiful things.” She destroyed valuable papers,648 she carefully preserved and docketed as priceless treasures mere waste paper.649

There now remained only the manuscript of The Scented Garden and a few other papers. By this time Lady Burton had discovered that Miss Letchford was “not so ignorant as she thought,” and when the latter begged her not to destroy The Scented Garden she promised that it should be saved; and no doubt, she really intended to save it. Miss Letchford having gone out for the evening, Lady Burton returned again to her task. Her mind was still uneasy about The Scented Garden, and she took out the manuscript to examine it. Of the character of the work she had some idea, though her husband had not allowed her to read it. Fifteen hundred persons had promised subscriptions; and she had also received an offer of six thousand guineas for it from a publisher.650 She took out the manuscript and laid it on the floor, “two large volumes worth.”651 When she opened it she was perfectly bewildered and horrified. The text alone would have staggered her, but, as we have seen, Burton had trebled the size of the book with notes of a certain character. Calming herself, she reflected that the book was written only for scholars and mainly for Oriental students, and that her husband “never wrote a thing from the impure point of view. He dissected a passion from every point of view, as a doctor may dissect a body, showing its source, its origin, its evil, and its good.”652

Then she looked up, and there, before her, stood her husband just as he had stood in the flesh. He pointed to the manuscript and said “Burn it!” Then he disappeared.

As she had for years been a believer in spirits, the apparition did not surprise her, and yet she was tremendously excited. “Burn it!” she echoed, “the valuable manuscript? At which he laboured for so many weary hours? Yet, doubtless, it would be wrong to preserve it. Sin is the only rolling stone that gathers moss; what a gentleman, a scholar, a man of the world may write, when living, he would see very differently as a poor soul standing naked before its God, with its good or evil deeds alone to answer for, and their consequences visible to it from the first moment, rolling on to the end of time. Oh, he would cry, for a friend on earth to stop and check them! What would he care for the applause of fifteen hundred men now — for the whole world’s praise, and God offended? And yet the book is for students only. Six thousand guineas, too, is a large sum, and I have great need of it.”

At this moment the apparition again stood before her, and in a sterner and more authoritative voice said: “Burn it!” and then again disappeared. In her excitement she scarcely knew where she was or what she did. Still she hesitated. Then she soliloquised: “It is his will, and what he wishes shall be done. He loved me and worked for me. How am I going to reward him? In order that my wretched body may be fed and warmed for a few miserable years, shall I let his soul be left out in cold and darkness till the end of time — till all the sins which may be committed on reading those writings have been expiated, or passed away, perhaps, for ever? Nafzawi, who was a pagan, begged pardon of God and prayed not to be cast into hell fire for having written it, and implored his readers to pray for him to Allah that he would have mercy on him.”653

Still she hesitated. “It was his magnum opus,” she went on, “his last work that he was so proud of, that was to have been finished654 on the awful morrow that never came. If I burn it the recollection will haunt me to my dying day,” and again she turned over the leaves.

Then for the third time Sir Richard stood before her. Again he sternly bade her burn the manuscript, and, having added threatenings to his command, he again disappeared.

By this time her excitement had passed away, and a holy joy irradiated her soul. She took up the manuscript, and then sorrowfully, reverently, and in fear and trembling, she burnt it sheet after sheet, until the whole was consumed. As each leaf was licked up by the fire, it seemed to her that “a fresh ray of light and peace” transfused the soul of her beloved husband.

That such were the facts and that the appearance of her husband was not mere hallucination, Lady Burton stiffly maintained until her dying day. She told Mr. T. Douglas Murray655 that she dared not mention the appearances of her husband in her letter to The Morning Post656 or to her relatives for fear of ridicule. Yet in the Life of her husband — almost the closing words — she does give a hint to those who could understand. She says: “Do not be so hard and prosaic as to suppose that our dead cannot, in rare instances, come back and tell us how it is with them.”657

That evening, when Miss Letchford, after her return, entered Sir Richard’s room, she saw some papers still smouldering in the grate. They were all that remained of The Scented Garden. On noticing Miss Letchford’s reproachful look, Lady Burton said, “I wished his name to live for ever unsullied and without a stain.”

646 She impressed them on several of her friends. In each case she said, “I particularly wish you to make these facts as public as possible when I am gone.”

647 We mean illiterate for a person who takes upon herself to write, of this even a cursory glance through her books will convince anybody.

648 For example, she destroyed Sir Richard’s Diaries. Portions of these should certainly have been published.

649 Some of them she incorporated in her “Life” of her husband, which contains at least 60 pages of quotations from utterly worthless documents.

650 I am told that it is very doubtful whether this was a bona fide offer; but Lady Burton believed it to be so.

651 Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, vol. ii., p. 725.

652 The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton.

653 Lady Burton, owing to a faulty translation, quite mistook Nafzawi’s meaning. She was thinking of the concluding verse as rendered in the 1886 edition, which runs as follows:—

“I certainly did wrong to put this book together,

But you will pardon me, nor let me pray in vain;

O God! award no punishment for this on judgment day!

And thou, O reader, hear me conjure thee to say, So be it!”

But the 1904 and, more faithful edition puts it very differently. See Chapter xxxiv.

654 An error, as we have shown.

655 Mr. T. Douglas Murray, the biographer of Jeanne d’Arc and Sir Samuel Baker, spent many years in Egypt, where he met Burton. He was on intimate terms of friendship with Gordon, Grant, Baker and De Lesseps.

656 Written in June 1891.

657 Life, ii., p. 450.

174. Discrepancies in Lady Burton’s Story.

Some have regarded this action of Lady Burton’s — the destruction of The Scented Garden manuscript — as “one of rare self-sacrifice prompted by the highest religious motives and the tenderest love for one whom she looked to meet again in heaven, to which her burnt offering and fervent prayers might make his entrance sure.” If the burning of the MS. of The Scented Garden had been an isolated action, we might have cheerfully endorsed the opinion just quoted, but it was only one holocaust of a series. That Lady Burton had the best of motives we have already admitted; but it is also very evident that she gave the matter inadequate consideration. The discrepancies in her account of the manuscript prove that at most she could have turned over only three or four pages — or half-a-dozen at the outside.658

Let us notice these discrepancies:

(1) In her letter to the Morning Post (19th June 1891) she says of The Scented Garden: “It was his magnum opus, his last work that he was so proud of.” Yet in the Life (ii., 243) she calls it the only book he ever wrote that was not valuable to the world and in p. 445 of the same work she alludes to it “as a few chapters which were of no particular value to the world.” So it was at once the most valuable book he ever wrote and also of no value whatever. (2) In Volume ii. of the Life (p. 441) she says the only value in the book at all consisted in his annotations, and there was no poetry. This remark proves more than anything else how very superficial must have been her examination of the manuscript, for even the garbled edition of 1886 contains nearly 400 lines of verse, while that of 1904 probably contains over a thousand.659 For example, there are twenty-three lines of the poet Abu Nowas’s. (3) On page 444 of the Life she says: “It was all translation except the annotations on the Arabic work” — which gives the impression that the translation was the great feature, and that the notes were of secondary importance; but on p. 441 she says, “The only value in the book at all consisted in the annotations.” As a matter of fact, the annotations amounted to three-quarters of the whole. [See Chapter xxxiv.] (4) In the Life, page 410 (Vol. ii.), she says the work was finished all but one page; and on page 444 that only 20 chapters were done. Yet she much have known that the whole work consisted of 21 chapters, and that the 21st chapter was as large as the other twenty put together, for her husband was always talking about and trying to obtain an Arabic manuscript of this chapter (See chapter 35).

All this, of course, proved indubitably that Lady Burton actually knew next to nothing about the whole matter. Perhaps it will be asked, What has been lost by this action of Lady Burton’s? After carefully weighing the pros and cons we have come to the conclusion that the loss could not possibly have been a serious one. That Burton placed a very high value on his work, that he considered it his masterpiece, is incontrovertible, but he had formed in earlier days just as high an opinion of his Camoens and his Kasidah; therefore what he himself said about it has not necessarily any great weight. We do not think the loss serious for four reasons: First, because the original work, whatever its claims on the anthropologist, has little, if any, literary merit;660 secondly, because Sir Richard Burton’s “old version”661 of The Scented Garden is public property, and has been reprinted at least three times; thirdly, because only half was done; and fourthly, because the whole of the work has since been translated by a writer who, whatever his qualifications or disqualifications, has had access to manuscripts that were inaccessible to Sir Richard Burton. Practically then, for, as we have already shown, Sir Richard did not particularly shine as a translator, nothing has been lost except his notes. These notes seem to have been equivalent to about 600 pages of an ordinary crown octavo book printed in long primer. Two-thirds of this matter was probably of such a character that its loss cannot be deplored. The remainder seems to have been really valuable and to have thrown light on Arab life and manners. Although the translation was destroyed in October 1890, the public were not informed of the occurrence until June 1891 — nine months after.

Copies of the Kama Shastra edition of The Scented Garden issued in 1886662 are not scarce. The edition of 1904, to which we have several times referred, is founded chiefly on the Arabic Manuscript in the Library at Algiers, which a few years ago was collated by Professor Max Seligsohn with the texts referred to by Burton as existing in the Libraries of Paris, Gotha and Copenhagen.

658 It would have been impossible to turn over half-a-dozen without noticing some verses.

659 We have seen only the first volume. The second at the time we went to press had not been issued.

660 See Chapter xxxiv.

661 The Kama Shastra edition.

662 See Chapter xxvi.

175. The Fate of the Catullus.

The fate of the Catullus was even more tragic than that of The Scented Garden. This work, like The Scented Garden, was left unfinished. Burton had covered his Latin copy and his manuscript with pencil notes looking like cobwebs, and on one page was written “Never show half finished work to women or fools.” The treatment meted to his manuscript would, if Burton had been a poet of the first order, have drawn tears from a milestone. But it must be borne in mind that Lady Burton did consider him a poet of the first order, for she ranked his Camoens and his Kasidah with the work of Shakespere. And this is how she treated a work which she considered a world-masterpiece. First she skimmed it over, then she expurgated it, and finally she either typed it herself,663 or, what is more likely, put it into the hands of a typist who must have been extremely illiterate or abominably careless. Then, without even troubling to correct the copy, she sent the manuscript of the Catullus up the chimney after that of The Scented Garden. The typewritten copy was forwarded to the unhappy and puzzled Mr. Leonard C. Smithers, with the request, which was amusing enough, that he would “edit it” and bring it out. Just as a child who has been jumping on the animals of a Noah’s Ark brings them to his father to be mended.

“To me,” observes Mr. Smithers piteously, “has fallen the task of editing Sir Richard’s share in this volume from a type-written copy literally swarming with copyist’s errors.664 Lady Burton has without any reason constantly refused me even a glance at his MS.” The book, such as it was, appeared in 1894. If Burton had not been embalmed he would have turned in his coffin. We may or may not pardon Lady Burton for destroying the MS. of The Scented Garden, but it is impossible not to pass upon her at any rate a mild censure for having treated in that way a translation of Catullus after it had been expurgated to her own taste. Whether Burton would have considerably improved the poetry of his version we cannot say; but as it stands no single poem is superior to the work of his predecessors. One need only compare his rendering of the lines “To the Peninsula of Sirmio” with the Hon. George Lamb’s665

“Sirmio of all the shores the gem,”

or Leigh Hunt’s

“O, best of all the scattered spots that lie,”

to see what a fall was there, and yet neither Lamb’s version nor Hunt’s is satisfactory. His “Atys” pales before Cranstoun’s, and his “Epithalamium,” is almost unreadable; while the lines “On the death of Lesbia’s Sparrow” naturally compel comparison with Byron’s version. Nor will readers of the translations by Sir Theodore Martin or Robinson Ellis gain anything by turning to Burton.

On the other hand, we can well believe that his work, considered as a commentary on Catullus — for nearly all his loose notes have perished — would have been as valuable to us as, viewed in the same light, is his edition of Camoens. He had explored all the Catullus country. Verona, the poet’s birthplace, “Sweet Sirmio,” his home on the long narrow peninsula that cleaves Garda’s “limpid lake,” Brescia, “below the Cycnaean peak,”666 the “dimpling waters” of heavenly Como, and the estate of Caecilius;667 all were familiar to him. He knew every spot visited by the poet in his famous voyage in the open pinnance668 from Bithynia “through the angry Euxine,” among the Cyclades, by “purple Zante,” up the Adriatic, and thence by river and canal to ‘Home, sweet home.’ He was deep in every department of Catullian lore. He had taken enormous pains; he had given his nights and days to the work. The notes at the end of the printed volume are a mere drop compared with the ocean he left. However, the manuscript with its pencilled cobwebs, the voluminous “loose notes” — all — good and bad — went up the chimney.

Personally we have never expended a sigh over the loss of The Scented Garden, and we should not have minded one straw if Lady Burton had burnt also her typewritten travesty of the Catullus; but her destruction of Sir Richard’s private journals and diaries was a deed that one finds it very hard to forgive. Just as Sir Richard’s conversation was better than his books, so, we are told, his diaries were better than his conversation. Says Mr. W. H. Wilkins,669 referring to Sir Richard, “He kept his diaries and journals, not as many keep them, with all the ugly things left out, but faithfully and fully,” and again, “the private journals and diaries which were full of the secret thoughts and apologia of this rare genius have been committed to the flames.” Dr. Baker, who was favoured with the sight of portions of these diaries, tells me that Sir Richard used to put in them not only an epitome of every important letter written or received by him, and of every conversation he had with persons of consequence; but also any remarks that struck him, uttered by no matter whom.670

663 She often used a typewriter.

664 The same may be said of Lady Burton’s Life of her husband. I made long lists of corrections, but I became tired; there were too many. I sometimes wonder whether she troubled to read the proofs at all.

665 His edition of Catullus appeared in 1821 in 2 vols. 12 mos.

666 Poem 67. On a Wanton’s Door.

667 Poem 35. Invitation to Caecilius.

668 Poem 4. The Praise of his Pinnance.

669 Preface to the 1898 Edition of Lady Burton’s Life of Sir Richard Burton.

670 In her Life of Sir Richard, Lady Burton quotes only a few sentences from these Diaries. Practically she made no use of them whatever. For nearly all she tells us could have been gleaned from his books.

176. Lisa Departs, November 1890.

Like Chico, like Khamoor, Lisa, the Baroness lady-companion, had through injudicious treatment grown well-nigh unendurable. While Burton was alive she still had some dim notion of her place, but after his death she broke the traces, and Lady Burton had, with deep regret, to part with her. They separated very good friends, however, for Lady Burton was generosity itself. By this time she had been pretty well cured of lady’s maid and servant pets, at any rate we hear of no other.

Lady Burton was also distressed by an attack make in The Times upon the memory of her husband by Colonel Grant, who declared that Burton had treated both Speke and their native followers with inhumanity. Lady Burton replied with asperity — giving the facts much as we have given them in Chapter ix. Grant died 10th February 1892.

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