AT THIS MOMENT, when the name of Burton has been brought before the English public by a biography1 which fails lamentably to do justice to it, I venture to say a few words concerning one whom I knew well, from my own early life until his death, and who never failed to visit me on his returns to Europe. The English biographer has seldom been distinguished for skill in narrative, for terseness and lucidity in relation and representation; he generally wanders over too much ground, collects too many facts, arranges them loosely, and oscillates between to much description and too little; seems too afraid to be morally responsible for his hero, and generally washes all color out of his portrait.
Burton’s was a life which presented innumerable difficulties to the biographer. He was a man of great reserve, of the most varied experiences, of the most complicated character; witty, sardonic, caustic, stern; who would tell you the most incredible stories with the gravest face, to amuse himself with your discomfort, and who delighted in being thought by people in general a devil incarnate. Over the greater part of his adventurous life no biographer could have any certain sight; for the chief part of its experiences it was necessary to rely upon himself; and it was an extremely difficult thing to be certain whether he was laughing at you or not in his portrayal of experiences.
But to write of him without having known him, seems to me absolutely useless. I do not think that any of the biographical articles on him have done him justice, and the recent more copious biography has the immeasurable defect of having been written by a person who was not personally acquainted with him. As well might a painter portray a lion who never had seen one! The individuality of Burton was so unique, so singular, so many-sided, so extremely startling to all commonplace people, so utterly confounding and unintelligible to all ordinary persons, that the idea of anyone presuming to know it when he was himself unknown is amazing and almost comical in its audacity. To write the life of any contemporary without being acquainted with him seems a strange temerity at any time; but in the case of a biography of Burton it appears as strange as if a blind man were to try to paint a hawk in its circling flight. There must have always been but few people living contemporaneously with him who knew him well enough to be able to describe him as he was, to enter into the singularities and angularities of his temperament, and to understand his absolute unlikeness to his own generation, the virility and independence of his nature and his character. That such a man was wasted by the British Governments of many years in the commercial squabbles of petty consulates, and the fruitless exiles of such buckram-bureaucracy as reigns there, is humiliating to those who wish to be able to feel some esteem for the intelligence of Downing Street.
Burton saw things and persons as they were; and to do so seldom results in compliments to persons and things; he had no patience with hypocrisies, formalities, or formulae, and, therefore, he should never have entered the English public service, which cannot be represented in any of its branches without them, and which is tremulously afraid of all independence of character of action and of utterance in its public servants.
It has no doubt had many great and admirable servants; but we shall never know how many it has lost by the suffocating straight waistcoats in which it has insisted on their existing, nor how many have quitted its service, early in their career, through impatience of its narrowness and harshness, and thirst for their own liberty and free-will.
I HAVE OFTEN wondered where Burton got his Oriental physiognomy, his un-English accent, his wonderfully picturesque and Asiatic appearance, for which there was nothing in his descent and education to account. Apparently, by all inheritance, he was a commonplace Englishman of the middle classes; actually, he was a man who looked like Othello and lived like the Three Mousquetaires blended into one. Perhaps, if South Africa had been then what it is now, a more congenial field, a more sympathetic employment, might have been found for him than settling the disputes of traders and signing the papers of tourists; as it was, his genius, his force, his wonderful originality, his masterful powers, were tied up like grand dogs in narrow kennels, and became savage as the dogs become.
I do not venture to speak of the great actions and occupations of Burton’s life because I can have no pretension to do so. I cannot judge of his labours as a traveler, as an explorer, as an Orientalist. I cannot say whether the jealous attempts to undervalue his achievements were or were no in any degree justified. I cannot tell whether the rabid calumnies of lesser men were or were not in any measure founded on fact, and whether or not any justice lay beneath the undoubted (and always unexplained) hostility of the Foreign Office to him. But that his great deeds were mere Munchausen tales I do not believe; he had too virile and scornful a temper to be a liar; that he had many and very malignant enemies there was no doubt; that his own sarcastic and gouailleur temper made him many foes there was also no manner of doubt, and that his mere presence in a club-room made the ordinary club-man feel small, there can also be no doubt; and when we dwarf others it is inevitable that those others should throw must behind us. Besides, to the difficulties which his character offered to any comprehension by the ordinary man there was added the delight he took in mystifying people, in terrifying them, in painting himself as the devil before the frightened eyes of timid mortals. He loved nothing better than to sit at an hotel table d’hote and paralyse his companions by diabolical frowns or gruesome rolling of his eyes. If he gained a terribly melodramatic reputation he owed it in much to this love of playing on the nerves of weaker mortals. His physiognomy lent itself to this sport, for he had a dramatic and imposing presence: the disfigurement of modern attire could not destroy the distinction, and the Oriental cast, of his appearance and his features. In the largest crowd he was noticeable.
Was it his own fault or that of his country that this man, who had in him so many elements of greatness, died, a petty consul of a mercantile seaport in the most uncongenial and unworthy atmosphere which could have been found for him by a Mother-Country which was, to him, certain a step-mother of the most niggardly and unkindest sort? The beheading of Walter Raleigh was, I think, a kinder treatment than the imprisonment of Burton in Trieste.
I NEVER UNDERSTOOD why he did not leave the Consular Service, which, at its best posts, could never have been a service for him. Neither its occupations or its remunerations, its restrictions or it emoluments, were fitted for him. I never could comprehend why he kept his head in its halter a twelvemonth. He must have known that he had a bad name in it; that he was wholly unfitted for its dreary routine and tiresome obligations; that whilst he scared his chiefs, he was himself as irritated as a horse under the bearing rein.
A country which had possessed any power to ease and appreciate such a man would have given him a free rein in some vast wild land like Uganda, and not have expected from him a parish-priest’s morality and an old woman’s scruples.
“Did you really shoot that Arab boy?” I asked him once; for the killing of the Arab boy was always being cast up against him.
“Oh, yes,” he answered. “Why not? Do you suppose one can live in those countries as one lives in Pall Mall and Piccadilly?”
And he laughed; with contemptuous remembrance, probably of the tolerance of his nation for the Deadly Trades which make plutocrats of those who kill men and women by the thousands before their thirtieth year in their factories and furnaces.
To shoot anybody even in self-defence sets the hair on end and the nerves on edge of the British householder; but to have capitalists manufactured out of human starvation and suffering, whilst nail-makers and pelt-cleaners and white-lead workers die for their enrichment, does not seem to the British householder any matter at all, even as to the British public the shooting of any natives in Natal by batches seems a perfectly innocent and natural proceeding.
Men in the Foreign Office in this time used to hunt dark horrors about Burton, and certainly, justly or unjustly, he was disliked, feared and suspected in English political and social life, not for what he had done, but for what he was believed capable of doing, and also for that reserve of power and that unspoken sense of superiority which the dullest and the vainest could scarcely fail to feel in his presence. Beside him most other men looked poor creatures.
IN THE EYES of women he had the unpardonable fault: he loved his wife. He would have been a happier and a greater man if he had had no wife; but his love for her was extreme; it was a source of weakness, as most warm emotions are in the lives of strong men Their marriage was romantic and clandestine; a love-marriage in the most absolute sense of the words, not wise on either side, but on each impassioned. She adored him, and, like most women who adore, she was not always wise. She was of great courage and intelligence, and shone in society even as she suffered solitude and met danger with fortitude. She was as happy in the great world of London as in the ruined cities of Asia, and could adapt herself to the most varying circumstance with equal spirit and patience; she was exceedingly tender and humane to animals, and of unswerving fortitude and resolution in all kinds of peril. What made the one weakness in her character was the religious superstition which is the rift in the lute of so many a female soul. Like all her family, she was a devoted Catholic; this bigotry increased with years, and after Burton’s death became so great that it made her actually burn the MS. of one of his most precious translations, because she deemed it of immoral tendency. This act, I confess, I could never pardon her; and I never spoke or wrote to her after the irreparable act.
Throughout the chief part of their lives he was implicitly obeyed by her, but during the close of his, ill-health made him more helpless, and compelled him to rely on her in all things, and then the religious ogre raised its head and claimed its prey; when Burton lay unconscious on his death-bed she brought a priest into the chamber, and had the comedy of religious rites gone through over a body in which life was already almost extinct, and the power of volition was already wholly dead. I know not what others may think of this act; to me it was an unpardonable treachery. I think also that it was for her sake that he remained in the Consular Service, which was so unsuited to him and so drearily wasted time, which he could have so far better employed in intellectual work or in exploration. She was naturally extravagant, and the world she lived in when in England was one which necessitated large expenditure. This occasioned many worries and frequent troubles, and caused gossip which discredited him in his chiefs’ opinion. He himself, if he had not had another to maintain, could have lived on a shilling a day and a few good cigars. They had no children. He regretted it; men always do; I do not think she did so; children would have been impedimenta in the varying life which she so keenly enjoyed in the changes from Belgravia to Syria, from the Grand Hotel to the hair-tent, from the crowd of carriages in Bond Street to the solitude of Sahara under the stars.
As the passing of time increased her credulity and weakened her judgement, she became more and more possessed by religious superstition, more and more convinced that her husband was lost for all eternity; and to his acute and virile mind such fanaticism was the most harassing form that human folly could possibly take; joined to the physical ills of the kind which so frequently accompany the end of a life spent in the heat and cold of strongly contrasting climates, they lent a tormenting irritation to the pain of enfeebled strength.
“If I could only save Dick’s soul!” she would cry; and I could not persuade her that his soul, if he had one, did not want her help. Women have such strange illusions as to what they believe to be their charge d’ames!
She was a noble spirited and very humane woman; but she had the misfortune to be imbued, by hereditary and educational influences, with superstitious prejudices and persuasions which made her imagine that her supreme duty was to worry her husband until she dragged him down to her own theological level. Happily, she never succeeded; but when he was dead, there was no one who could dispute her right to dispose of his remains as she chose, and she consigned his manuscript to the flames, and his body to an English Catholic cemetery.
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE for her to recognize the folly of her acts and the offence which they inspired in his friends. I think no Government could ever have more foolishly or impudently slighted two men of unique powers than the English Government slighted Burton and Matthew Arnold: to waste the energies of the one in minor Consulates, and the scholarship and intellect of the other in an inspectorship of schools, makes one long to impale Britannia on her own trident.
A man, absolutely alone, can, no doubt, do much to shape his own destiny; but he must not be married, and he must not belong to any branch of the public service. There are no more worlds to conquer, but there are still wide and wild lands to rule: Burton should have been sent to rule one of these and been let alone. He would not certainly have done so with any glove over his iron hand, but he would, I believe, have governed with strict justice, with keen insight, and certainly with courage and with power.
And let us note that it was not one Government, but a series of Governments, which did this one after another. Against Burton there is the cowardly, because vague and unproven, accusation that “something wrong” was known. But in the case of Matthew Arnold no excuse or pretence of such a kind ever could be made; yet until the day of his death this brilliant and beautiful mind, the mind of a scholar and a poet, was wasted in paltry routine work. I do not believe that the native population of any provinces which Burton had ruled would have suffered under him; he had a very just mind; his sympathies were always naturally, also, with the Oriental than with the Occidental, with the native than the invader. Downing Street never trusted him with power; and the distrust galled him bitterly.
It was impossible for those who valued his qualities, and resented his exclusion from suitable posts, ever to discover the secret of the black cross which was placed against his name in Downing Street. That there was one was never denied. That it could be placed there for any grave offence seemed impossible in view of the fact that he was retained on its active service until the day of his death. But here we are met by that mixture of injustice and tyranny whih is so generally characteristic of Government offices. If he had done anything greatly incorrect he should have been dismissed for the offence, and its form declared. If he had done nothing, he should have been subjected to the injury of whispered calumny by the hints of the department which employed him. There should be no medium between one or other of these alternatives in the measure dealt out by the government to its officials. It has been always a mystery to me why the Consular Service continued to hold him in its ranks if it had accusations or even suspicions against him, as why he continued to remain in such poorly paid and unsuitable appointments as the Governments of his day gave to him. It is incomprehensible to me why he did not leave the service which appreciated him so ill, and seek fortune on his own unshackled initiative. No man was more fitted by nature and intellect to do so.
ENGLAND HAS MANY able men who are visible and famous; but I think she has many others whom she either does not recognize or does not use; and these are probably the greatest. Burton was unquestionably greater in his talents, in his powers, in his whole idiosyncrasy than any of his contemporaries who followed his own lines of thought and action: Grant or Speke or Stanley could not compare with him for an instant; yet he lived and died in the inferior grades of the Consular Service: a career as fitted to him as the shafts of the tradesman’s van to a racer entered for Epsom and Chantilly.
A perverse destiny dogged his steps and drove him backward from his just attainment.
But it will be replied to me that the truly great man makes his own fate, and is not to be hindered on his course.
Perhaps: who knows?
I must also leave to Arabic scholars the due appreciation (or depreciation) of the Arabian Nights and other of his translations from a language which only orientalists can appreciate. But that Burton merely used the translations of others, as his detractors venture to say is, I am certain, a cowardly calumny. He was not perhaps a scrupulous man, but he was a very clever man, a man who knew other men in all their wisdom and al their folly; and it is quite certain that such a man would never have done such an imbecile act, or given such a handle against himself to his antagonists. He was very proud of his rendering of the Nights, and held it to be the great achievement of his literary life. He constantly affirmed this.
Ouida was the pseudonym of Maria Louise Ramé (1839-1908), a popular novelist (Dog of Flanders, Under Two Flags, many others). Burton (1821-1890) was a famous and exotic ethnographer, spy, poet and explorer, among other things. His 1885 translation of the One Thousand and One Nights, with its abundance of sexualized annotations, was a literary sensation. A rich archive of work by and about Burton is at Burtoniana.org.
This article has been manually transcribed from the Fortnightly Review, Vol. 85, June 1906.
- The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright, 2 vol., London 1906. Wright accused Burton of plagiarizing his translation of the Thousand and One Nights. ↩