The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XL

July 1891-December 1893

O Tomb, O Tomb!


84. Life of Sir Richard Burton, 2 vols. 1893.

85. Translation of Catullus. 1894.

86. The Library Edition of The Arabian Nights, 12 vols. 1894.

180. A Letter to Miss Stisted.

In July 1891 there appeared in Temple Bar an article by Miss Stisted, entitled “Reminiscences of Sir Richard Burton,” and upon reading it, Lady Burton, who headed her letter “5 or 67 Baker Street, Portman Square,” wrote as follows:

“Dearest Georgy,677 I read last night your clever and well-written article on my darling, and send you a little notice out of The Daily News. I congratulate you on it and on being able to write again. I was very sorry you and Maria [Lady Stisted] would not come to the funeral. When you come in August I shall give you a photo of the monument and a list of the people who were invited. . . . There were 850 asked, 400 influenza refusals and over 500 were present, counted by the police at the gates. . . . When you come I shall be I trust at No. 67.678 Your loving aunt Zoo.”

But the comic always treads on the heels of the pathetic for it is not probable that Miss Stisted valued very much the photograph of what in her “True Life,” she thought fit to call “an eccentric tomb” in a “shabby sectarian cemetery.”679 The removal into 67, Baker Street, took place in September 1891, and a little later Lady Burton hired a cottage at Wople End, near Mortlake, where she spent her summer months. During the last decade of her husband’s life she had become, to use her own words, coarse and rather unwieldy, but her sorrow had the effect of restoring to her some of the graces of person that had marked her early days. That this is no figment of our imagination may easily be seen by anyone who compares her portrait in the group taken by Miller in 1888 with the photograph by Gunn and Stuart,680 where she is in her widow’s cap with its long white streamers. In this photograph and others taken at the time she looks handsome and stately. She is once more “Empress of Damascus.” The house in baker Street has thus been described: “No sooner have you crossed Lady Burton’s threshold than you are at once transported, as if by magic, to Eastern climes. You are greeted by a handsome woman whose black dress and white widow’s cap present a striking contrast to the glow of rich but subdued colour which surrounds her. Opposite the fireplace is a full length and very characteristic portrait of Burton in fencing costume.681 Among the curiosities are the necklace682 of human bones given to Burton by Gelele, some specimens of old Istrian china picked up in the cottages near Trieste, and a three-sided mirror and two crystals with which Burton used to mesmerise his wife. From the ceiling hung a quaint Moorish lamp with many branches, and its softened rays often fall on a Damascene silver gilt coffee service studded with turquoises.” At the top of the house and approached by a narrow staircase and a ladder was a large loft, built by herself, for storing her husband’s manuscripts and books. On one side glittered a “small but tastefully decorated altar,” while scattered around were the many relics which have since drifted to Camberwell.

677 Miss Stisted, Newgarden Lodge, 22, Manor Road, Folkestone.

678 67, Baker Street, Portman Square.

679 True Life, p. 415.

680 Frontispiece to this volume.

681 The picture now at Camberwell.

682 Now at Camberwell.

181. The writing of the Life August 1892-March 1893.

In this loft Lady Burton spent many hours examining her husband’s papers, and in the autumn of 1902 she commenced in earnest to write his life — a work that occupied her about eight months. That she was absolutely unfitted for the task must be clear to all who have any knowledge of Burton. Indeed, she was quite incapable of doing literary work of any kind properly. The spirit in which she wrote may be gauged both from the book itself, with its frequent offences against good taste, and the following citation from a letter to a friend: “I do not know,” she said, “if I can harden my heart against the curs, but I can put out my tongue and point my pen and play pussy cat about their eyes and ears.” By “curs” she means those who rated her for burning her husband’s manuscripts, but in justice to her, let it be borne in mind that she had received some letters that were quite unworthy of the writers.

The great questions was, Would she live to complete her task? Owing to an incurable complaint she could give only a limited portion of her time to the work, and there were whole days in which no progress was made. Every page bears evidences of hurry. We have already told the story of the three appearances of Sir Richard just before the burning of The Scented Garden MS. Lady Burton persistently declared that after the third appearance her husband came again and never left her until she had finished her work. “He was constantly with me,” she said to Mr. Murray, “appearing exactly as in life, and he advised and comforted me. He helped me most materially towards the compilation of his own biography, and gave me references to books and manuscripts so that the biography came comparatively easy to my hand. He gave me absolutely the position of the book in the shelf and the page and reference itself which I required.”

A letter683 of one of Burton’s friends contains the following comments on the work. “I plainly see that the objects of writing the Life were two-fold. First to prove Sir Richard a Roman Catholic, and thus fit him to be buried with her, and secondly to whitewash his escapades and insubordination. As to the first, I know he despised684 the Roman Catholic religion; and if any very deep sense of religious feeling existed at all, it was of the Mohammedan rather than anything else; but his religion was not very apparent, though he was fundamentally an honest and conscientious man, and I think he had but one enemy — himself. He was a very great man; very like a magnificent machine one part of which had gone wrong — and that was his hot temper.”

Lady Burton’s book was finished at Mortlake on 24th March 1893, and appeared in the autumn of that year. She then commenced the issue of the Memorial Edition of her husband’s works. The Pilgrimage to Al Medinah and Meccah (2 vols.), The Mission to Gelele (2 vols.), and Vikram and the Vampire appeared in 1893, First Footsteps in East Africa in 1894. The venture, however, proved a failure, so no more volumes were issued. She published her husband’s Pentameron in 1893, and the Catullus in 1894.

Writing 11th July 1893 to Mrs. E. J. Burton just before a visit to that lady, Lady Burton says — and it must be borne in mind that her complaint often made her feel very ill — “Send me a line to tell me what is the nearest Roman Catholic Church to you, as I must drive there first to make all arrangements for Sunday morning to get an early confession, communion and mass (after which I am at liberty for the rest of the day) because, as you know, I have to fast from midnight till I come back, and I feel bad for want of a cup of tea. . . . The Life is out to-day.”

The reception accorded to her work by the Press, who, out of regard to Sir Richard’s memory, spoke of it with the utmost kindness, gave Lady Burton many happy hours. “It is a great pleasure to me,” she says, “to know how kind people are about my book, and how beautifully they speak of darling Richard.”685

Most of Lady Burton’s remaining letters are full of gratitude to God, tender and Christian sentiment, faulty English and bad spelling.686 “I did see The Times,” she says, “and was awfully glad of it. Kinder still is The Sunday Sun, the 1st, the 8th and the 15th of October, five columns each, which say that I have completely lifted any cloud away from his memory, and that his future fame will shine like a beacon in all ages. Thank God!” St. George Burton was wicked enough to twit her for her spelling, and to say that he found out as many as seventeen words incorrectly spelt in one letter. But she deftly excused herself by saying that she used archaic forms. “Never mind St. George,” she writes good-humouredly, to Mrs. E. G. Burton, “I like old spelling.” She did not excuse her slang by calling it old, or refer her friends to Chaucer for “awfully glad.”

The greatest pleasure of her life was now, as she oddly expresses it, to “dress the mausoleum” on “darling Dick’s anniversary.” She says (21st October 1893 to Mrs. E. J. Burton),687 “I received your dear flowers, and the mausoleum was quite lovely, a mass of lights and flowers sent by relations and affectionate friends. Yours stood in front of the altar.” Then follows a delicious and very characteristic sample of Lady Burton’s English: “We had mass and communion,” she says, “and crowds of friends came down to see the mausoleum and two photographers.”

She was glad to visit and decorate the Mortlake tomb certainly, but the pleasure was a very melancholy one, and she could but say, borrowing a thought from The Arabian Nights:

“O tomb, O tomb, thou art neither earth nor heaven unto me.”688

When Lady Stisted died (27th December 1893), Lady Burton felt the blow keenly, and she wrote very feelingly on the subject, “Yes,” she says, in a letter to Mrs. E. J. Burton, “I was very shocked at poor Maria’s death, and more so because I wish nothing had come between us.” “Poor Maria,” she wrote to St. George Burton, “You would be surprised to know, and I am surprised myself, how much I feel it.” In a letter to Madame de Gutmansthal-Benvenuti (10th January 1894), Lady Burton refers to the Burton tableau to Madame Tussaud’s. She says, “They have now put Richard in the Meccan dress he wore in the desert. They have given him a large space with sand, water, palms; and three camels, and a domed skylight, painted yellow, throws a lurid light on the scene. It is quite life-like. I gave them the real clothes and the real weapons, and dressed him myself.”

“I am so glad,” she writes to Miss Stisted,689 “you went to Tussaud’s, and that you admired Dick and his group. I am not quite content with the pose. The figure looks all right when it stands up properly, but I have always had a trouble with Tussaud about a certain stoop which he declares is artistic, and which I say was not natural to him.”

683 To Dr. E. J. Burton, 23rd March 1897.

684 I think this expression is too strong. Though he did not approve of the Catholic religion as a whole, there were features in it that appealed to him.

685 14th January 1896, to Mrs. E. J. Burton.

686 Sir Richard often used to chaff her about her faulty English and spelling. Several correspondents have mentioned this. She used to retort good-humouredly by flinging in his face some of his own shortcomings.

687 Unpublished letter.

688 Payne, i., 63. Burton Lib. Ed., i., 70.

689 Unpublished letter.

182. The Library Edition of The Nights 1894.

Lady Burton now authorised the publication of what is called the Library Edition of The Arabian Nights. According to the Editorial Note, while in Lady Burton’s Edition no fewer than 215 pages of the original are wanting690 in this edition the excisions amount only to about 40 pages. The Editor goes on: “These few omissions are rendered necessary by the pledge which Sir Richard gave to his subscribers that no cheaper edition of the entire work should be issued; but in all other respects the original text has been reproduced with scrupulous fidelity.”

By this time Lady Burton had lost two of her Trieste friends, namely Lisa, the baroness-maid who died in 1891, and Mrs. Victoria Maylor, Burton’s amanuensis, who died in 1894.

690 Lady Burton included only the Nights Proper, not the Supplementary Tales.

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