The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XLI

Death of Lady Burton


87. The Jew, the Gypsy, and El Islam. 1898.

88. Wanderings in Three Continents. 1901.

183. Lady Burton at Eastbourne.

Lady Burton spent the year 1894 and part of 1895 at Baker Street and Mortlake, making occasional visits to friends. As at Trieste, she surrounded herself with a crowd of servants and other idle people whom, in her good nature, she systematically pampered, and who in their turn did their best to make her life unendurable. She could, however, easily afford these luxuries, for thanks to the large sums received for her Life of Sir Richard, the Library Edition, &c., she was now in affluent circumstances. She won to herself and certainly deserved the character of “a dear old lady.” In politics she was a “progressive Conservative,” though what that meant neither she nor those about her had any clear notion. She dearly loved children — at a safe distance — and gave treats, by proxy, to all the Catholic schools in the neighbourhood. She took an active interest in various charities, became an anti-vivisectionist, and used very humanely to beat people about the head with her umbrella, if she caught them ill-treating animals. If they remonstrated, she used to retort, “Yes, and how do you like It?” “When she wanted a cab,” says Mr. W. H. Wilkins, “she invariably inspected the horse carefully first, to see if it looked well fed and cared for; if not, she discharged the cab and got another; and she would always impress upon the driver that he must not beat his horse under any consideration.” On one occasion she sadly forgot herself. She and her sister, Mrs. FitzGerald, had hired a cab at Charing Cross Station and were in a great hurry to get home. Of course, as usual, she impressed upon the cabman that he was not to beat his horse. “The horse, which was a wretched old screw, refused, in consequence, to go at more than a walking pace,” and Lady Burton, who was fuming with impatience, at last so far forgot herself as to put her head out of the window and cry to the driver, “Why don’t you beat him? Why don’t you make him go?”691 She occasionally met her husband’s friends, Mr. and Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mr. Payne. One day at some dinner it transpired in the course of conversation that Mr. Payne had all his life been an habitual sufferer from insomnia.

“I can tell you how to cure that,” said Lady Burton.

“How?” said Mr. Payne. “Say your prayers,” said she.

After an attack of influenza Lady Burton hired a cottage — Holywell Lodge — at Eastbourne692 where she stayed from September to March 1896, busying herself composing her autobiography.693 Two letters which she wrote to Miss Stisted from Holywell Lodge are of interest. Both are signed “Your loving Zoo.” The first contains kindly references to Mr. and Mrs. Arbuthnot, who had been visiting her, and to the widow of Professor Huxley694 who was staying at Eastbourne; and the second, which is amusing enough, records her experiences among some very uncongenial people at Boscombe. Wherever she went, Lady Burton, as we have seen, was always thrusting her opinions, welcome or not, upon other persons; but at Boscombe the tables were turned, and she experienced the same annoyance that she herself had so often excited in others.

“I went,” she says, “to a little boarding-house called. . . . The house was as comfortable as it could be, the food plain, but eatable, but the common table was always chock full of Plymouth Brethren and tract-giving old maids, and we got very tired of it.”

Then follows an account of her establishment at Eastbourne. “It consists,” she says, “of my secretary (Miss Plowman) and nurse, and we have our meals together, and drive out together whenever I am able. Then my servants are a maid, house-parlour-maid, a housemaid and a cook (my Baker Street lot). The cottage [at Mortlake] is in charge of a policeman, and Baker Street a caretaker. My friend left three servants in the house, so we are ten altogether, and I have already sent one of mine back, as they have too much to eat, too little to do, and get quarrelsome and disagreeable.” Thus it was the same old story, for Lady Burton, though she had the knack of living, was quite incapable of learning, or at any rate of profiting by experience.

The letter concludes sadly, “As to myself, I am so thin and weak that I cannot help thinking there must be atrophy, and in any case my own idea is that I may be able to last till March.”

691 The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, ii., 763.

692 Holywell Lodge, Meads, Eastbourne.

693 Left unfinished. Mr. Wilkins incorporated the fragment in The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton.

694 Huxley died 29th June 1895.

184. Death of Lady Burton, 22nd Mar. 1896.

Lady Burton from that time gradually grew weaker; but death, which “to prepared appetites is nectar,” had for her no terrors. To her it meant release from pain and suffering, ultimate reception into the presence of an all-merciful God, re-union with her beloved husband. She did, however, last, as she had anticipated, till March. Early in that month she returned to Baker Street, where she died rather suddenly on Sunday the 22nd.

By her will dated, 28th December 1895, she left some £12,000 to her sister, Mrs. FitzGerald,695 and the following persons also benefitted: her sister, Mrs. Van Zeller, £500; her secretary, Miss Plowman £25; Khamoor £50; her nephew Gerald Arthur Arundell, the cottage at Mortlake; the Orphanage at Trieste, £105. She directed that after her heart had been pierced with a needle her body was to be embalmed in order that it might be kept above ground by the side of her husband. She stated that she had bought a vault close to the tent, and that two places were to be reserved in it in order that if a revolution should occur in England, and there should be fear of the desecration of the dead, the coffins of her husband and herself might be lowered into it. She provided for 3,000 masses to be said for her at once at Paris, and left an annuity to pay for a daily mass to be said there perpetually. The attendance of priests at her funeral was to be “as large as possible.”

Lady Burton was buried on Friday March 27th, the service taking place in the Catholic church at Mortlake where five years previous she had knelt beside the coffin of her husband; and a large number of mourners was present. After mass her remains were carried to the Arab Tent, and so she obtained her wish, namely, that in death she and her husband might rest in the same tomb.

695 Mrs. FitzGerald died 18th January 1902, and is buried under the Tent at Mortlake. Mrs. Van Zeller is still living. I had the pleasure of hearing from her in 1905.

185. Miss Stisted’s “True Life.”

As might have been expected, Lady Burton’s Life of her husband gave umbrage to the Stisted family — and principally for two reasons; first its attempt to throw a flood of Catholic colour on Sir Richard, and secondly because it contained statements which they held to be incorrect. So after Lady Burton’s death, Miss Stisted wrote and published a small work entitled The True Life of Sir Richard Burton. It is written with some acerbity, for Lady Burton as a Catholic was not more militant than Miss Stisted as a Protestant. It throws additional and welcome light on Sir Richard’s early days, but as we have elsewhere remarked, the principal charge that it made against Lady Burton, namely that she was the main cause of her husband’s downfall at Damascus, is unsupported by sufficient evidence.

186. Mr. Wilkins’s Work, 1897.

That there should be a counterblast to The True Life was inevitable, and it came in the shape of The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, which consists of Lady Burton’s unfinished autobiography and a continuation by Mr. W. H. Wilkins. The work is a valuable addition to Burton lore, but Mr. Wilkins’s friendship for Lady Burton led him to place her on a far higher pedestal than we have been able to give her. Perhaps it was natural that in dealing with the True Life he should have betrayed some heat. However, death has now visited Miss Stisted696 as well as Lady Burton, and the commotion made by the falling of the stone into the pool is at this distance represented only by the faintest of circles. In 1898, Mr. Wilkins published, with an acceptable preface, three of Burton’s unfinished works in one volume, with the title of The Jew, the Gypsy, and El Islam, and in 1901 he placed the public under further obligation to him by editing and issuing Burton’s Wanderings in Three Continents.

696 She died in 1904.

187. Burton’s Friends.

Most of Burton’s friends have followed him to the tomb. Edward Rehatsek died at a ripe age at Worli on 11th December 1891, and was cremated in Hindu fashion. At the time of his death he was working at the translation of the third part of The Rauzat-us-Safa.697 In his last letter to Mr. Arbuthnot, after referring to his declining health, he finished by saying, “Hope, however, never dies; and as work occupies the mind, and keeps off despair, I am determined to translate for you, though slowly, the third part of the Rauzat-us-Safa, so as to make the history of the Khalifahs complete.”698

Mr. Arbuthnot continued to take interest in Oriental matters and wrote prefaces for several translations by Rehatsek and Dr. Steingass, including the First Part of Rehatsek’s Rauzat-us-Safa (1891) and Steingass’s Assemblies of Al Haririr (1898). His Arabic Authors appeared in 1890, his Mysteries of Chronology in 1900. He died in May 1901, and was buried at Shamley Green, Guildford. He left money for the Oriental Translation Fund, of which, it will be remembered, he was the founder, and his memory will always be honoured by Orientalists. A memorial of him — the Arbuthnot Institute — was opened at Shamley Green on 31st May 1905.

Mr. Ashbee died in 1900, Dr. F. J. Steingass in January, 1903.

After Burton’s death, Mr. Letchford went to Bohemia as the guest of the Prince of Thurn and Taxis. At Vienna his next resort, he painted many beautiful pictures, one of the best being founded on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Silence.” Finally he went to Naples, where he produced the series of pictures that has given him immortality — the illustrations to The Arabian Nights. Then followed days of darkness and trouble, but he was always courageous. “He felt that what he had striven for so long was now within his reach; he had the presentiment that he was about to take those flights of art which are permitted to very few.” His portrait of the son of Sir William Wollcock is a work of genius.

In July 1905, hearing that Mr. Letchford was ill, I wrote to his sister, Daisy,699 who lived with him. The letter was received, and Mr. Letchford intended replying to it himself. “He was only waiting to feel a little stronger,” wrote Miss Letchford, “he never thought the end was near. On Monday morning of the 24th of July he still kept making wonderful plans for the future. He had the room in which he spent his last hours crowded with flowers, and as he felt his powers failing him he recited Swinburne’s beautiful poem, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’:

“Though one were fair as roses

His beauty clouds and closes.”

“Suddenly he lost consciousness, and he awoke from his comatose state only to repeat the identical words which were Sir Richard Burton’s last — ‘I am dying — I am dead.’ His beautiful soul had left this world for ever, for it was indeed a beautiful soul.”700

Major Edward Burton, Sir Richard’s brother, died 31st October 1895 — after his terrible silence of nearly forty years. He was never married. Miss Stisted died in 1904. So of Burton’s parents there are now no descendants. Within fifteen years of his death, the family was extinct.

Of the friends and intimate acquaintances of Burton who still survive we must first mention Mr. A. C. Swinburne, Mr. Watts-Dunton and Mr. John Payne. Mr. Swinburne has, year after year, it is scarcely necessary to say, added to his fame, and all Englishmen are proud of his genius. The Definitive Edition of his works has delighted all his admirers; and just as we are going to press everyone is reading with intense interest his early novel Love’s Cross Currents. Mr. Watts-Dunton is in excellent health, and his pen is as vigorous as ever. He enjoys the proud position of being our greatest living literary critic.

Mr. Payne, who is still hard at work, has published since Burton’s death translations of The Novels of Matteo Bandello (six vols. 1890), the Quatrains of Omar Kheyyam (1898), and — Atlantean task — the Poems of Hafiz (3 vols. 1901). His Collected Poems (1862-1902) in two handsome volumes, appeared in 1902; and he has since issued Vigil and Vision (1903), Songs of Consolation, and Hamid the Luckless (1904). In the last he returns to his old love, The Arabian Nights, most of the poems being founded on tales in that work.

Mr. W. F. Kirby, Dr. Grenfell Baker, Mrs. E. J. Burton, Major St. George Burton, Mr. Frederick Burton, Mr. P. P. Cautley, Mr. A. G. Ellis, and Professor Blumhardt are also living. His excellency Yacoub Artin Pasha is still Minister of Instruction at Cairo; Mr. Tedder is still at the Athenaeum.

Our task is ended. Sir Richard Burton was inadequately regarded in his lifetime, and even now no suitable memorial of him exists in the capital of the Empire, which is so deeply indebted to him. Let us hope that this omission will soon be rectified. His aura, however, still haunts the saloons of his beloved Athenaeum, and there he may be seen any day, by those who have eyes latched701 over, busily writing at the round table in the library — white suit, shabby beaver, angel forehead, demon jaw, facial scar, and all. He is as much an integral part of the building as the helmeted Minerva on the portico; and when tardy England erects a statue to him it ought to select a site in the immediate neighbourhood of his most cherished haunt.

Our task, we repeat, is ended. No revolution, so far as we are aware, has distracted modern England, and Sir Richard and Lady Burton still sleep in sepulchral pomp in their marmorean Arab Tent at Mortlake. More than fifteen years have now elapsed since, to employ a citation from The Arabian Nights, there came between them “the Destroyer of Delights and the Sunderer of Companies and glory be to Him who changeth not, neither ceaseth, and in whom all things have their term.”702


697 Or Garden of Purity, by Mirkhond. It is a history of Mohammed and his immediate successors.

698 Part 3 contains the lives of the four immediate successors of Mohammed.

699 Now Madame Nicastro.

700 Letter of Miss Daisy Letchford to me. 9th August, 1905.

701 See Midsummer Night’s Dream, iii., 2.

702 Close of the tale of “Una El Wujoud and Rose in Bud.”

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