A Rage To Liveby Mary S. Lovell
An "extraordinary biography" (New York Times Book Review) of a brilliant pair of adventurers.
Their marriage was both improbable and inevitable. Isabel Arundell was a schoolgirl, the scion of England's most distinguished Catholic family. When she first saw him while walking at a seaside resort, Richard Burton had already made his mark as a linguist (he was
An "extraordinary biography" (New York Times Book Review) of a brilliant pair of adventurers.
Their marriage was both improbable and inevitable. Isabel Arundell was a schoolgirl, the scion of England's most distinguished Catholic family. When she first saw him while walking at a seaside resort, Richard Burton had already made his mark as a linguist (he was fluent in twenty-nine languages), scholar, soldier, and explorerat once a symbol of Victorian England's vision of empire and an avowed rebel against its mores. When she turned and saw him staring after her, she decided that she would marry him. By their next meeting, Burton had become the first infidel to infiltrate Mecca as one of the faithful, and, in an expedition to discover the source of the Nile, would soon be the first white man to see Lake Tanganyika. After being married, the Burtons traveled and experienced the world, from diplomatic postings in Brazil and Africa to hair-raising adventures in the Syrian desert. In later life Richard courted further controversy as a self-proclaimed erotologist and the translator of The Kama Sutra. Based on previously unavailable archives, Mary Lovell has written a compelling joint biography that sets Isabel in her proper place as Burton's equal in daring and endurance, a fascinating figure in her own right.
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After Richard Burton's death his widow Isabel burned all his unpublished manuscripts, diaries and papers, in a conflagration which lasted days ...
That, at least, is the generally accepted story. It is how Isabel Burton has been depicted in history, and a score of biographies written in the century since the deaths of Richard and Isabel have only served to bolster this charge of literary vandalism. In fact, a number of collections both private and institutional throughout the world containing large tranches of Burton papers (many used in this book have never previously been published or used) prove that such burning as took place was neither so complete, nor the mindless act, of which she has been so often accused. Rather, the surviving Burton papers scattered though they are probably constitute one of the largest collections of papers of any individual to come down to us from that age of diary burners.
In writing this biography the biggest single problem was caused by the overwhelming amount of surviving material; what to edit so that Burton researchers and collectors (of whom there are an astonishing number) are informed of newly discovered information, without cheating the reader new to Burton's story by over-condensing already known facts. Well-known anecdotes contained in earlier biographies had to be edited out to make way for more important new material. The first draft of the manuscript for this book consisted of over a thousand pages and 280,000 words. Cuts had to be made, but even to reach the draft stage I had jettisoned perhaps a third of my research.
I was vaguely aware of the accepted version of the destruction of Burton papers when, in 1992, I was researching a biography of Jane Digby (the Victorian aristocrat who became matriarch of a Bedouin tribe). The Burtons had been close friends of Jane during their time in Damascus and, as always in my biographical research, my first discipline was to seek out papers and diaries of the contemporaries of my subjects. This took me to the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge where, I had ascertained, the Arundell papers were lodged. Knowing that Isabel was a member of the Arundell family of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, I hoped that there might be some clues among the surviving papers of her relatives; letters from her, perhaps, from Damascus. I was agreeably surprised to be advised by the archivist, Mr Stephen Hobbs, that the Records Office had `seven boxes of unclassified material belonging to Isabel Burton' (see Appendix 1) and set about unpacking them with alacrity.
Although there was very little about Jane Digby in the boxes, there was a great deal of fascinating Burton material; letters, notes, family photograph albums, manuscripts, journals and cuttings albums and I realised instantly that most of it had not been included in the two most recent biographies I had read about the Burtons. I surmised that the biographers concerned had not found the Trowbridge collection. Later, as I researched further, I came to realise that no biographers had ever found this material. It was unknown to published writers and researchers on Burton and was, in fact, important enough to form the base of a new biography. My publishers agreed. When I was finally able to start working full-time on the Burton book I began, as usual, with a plan of campaign. No biographer can afford to ignore the existing bibliography, but I was determined that this would not be yet another rehash of the previous biographies. Rather, I would examine, and take photocopies where possible, of all existing original papers and documents that the Burtons and their connections had left and work from those, reading all the known collections of Burton materials and seeking out hitherto unknown ones. And though I could not go to the places where Richard Burton had lived in India, Pakistan and South America, I could visit, and was familiar with, all the other places associated with the story of this extraordinary couple; East Africa, Syria and the Middle East, the United States and various European cities including Trieste where they lived until Burton's death in 1890.
My research has resulted in the discovery of numerous new primary documents which answer many of the questions that have perplexed Burton scholars until now. Not all, but many. For example, previous biographers without the benefit of the Trowbridge papers (and only one had limited use of the treasure trove that forms the Quentin Keynes collection, to which I was given unreserved access), maintain that Burton's marriage was a disaster. In fact, as we shall see it was a mutual joy and highly beneficial to him. I found additional previously unknown caches of letters and papers, such as those in the fascinating archives of Zanzibar which, like the above, have never been examined by Burton researchers.
Disregarding this new material, the last two major biographies of Richard Burton are first-class studies. Fawn Brodie's brilliant and perceptive synopsis of Burton's work on One Thousand and One Nights could hardly be improved upon. Frank McLynn's analysis of his academic prowess is that of one scholar writing of another. Yet lacking historical evidence, both authors relied heavily on post-Freudian psychoanalysis to speculate upon Burton's motives and explain his general behaviour, and his relationship with Isabel. Although in no way wishing to undermine either of these excellent books, I felt deeply uneasy about this methodology when it was used, without supporting historical evidence, to reinforce personal theory, to establish fundamental characteristics in Burton, and particularly to deduce his sexual inclinations. In effect, the persons asking the questions were also providing the answers, a century after the subject's death, by extracting highly selective quotes, often from the subject's fictional writings, and in at least one important case using incorrect data (see pp. 343-345).
In this way both writers reached the conclusion that Burton was either a crypto-homosexual, or a bisexual. Part of the reasoning used by both was the fact that Burton liked to have about him younger men such as John Hanning Speke, Charles Tyrwhitt Drake, Vincent Lovett Cameron and Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot. But this completely ignores the fact that some of his closest friends in life Richard Monkton Milnes, Henry Murray, Walter Scott and George Bird, to name a few were many years older, and also that he was equally friendly with contemporaries such as John Steinhaueser and Alfred B. Richards. In short, Burton drew friends, quite normally, across the generations and from both sexes. It is demonstrably untrue to say, as one of these writers did, that Burton was a misogynist with no women friends.
I am not a trained psychologist and I do not automatically reject psychology as a biographical tool (though I confess to a sinking feeling when I see phrases such as `he was tortured by sexual guilt' in any biography). But psychoanalysis is not an exact science, even when the subject is alive and able to answer in person. The charge of homosexuality has no power to shock as we approach the end of the twentieth century. Society has learned tolerance in the century since the persecution of Oscar Wilde, but in the present climate it is not enough for the subject of a biography to be simply extraordinary. There is a disturbing trend towards imposing some fashionable psychiatric spin to increase readership. My research has unearthed a great deal of previously unpublished material which demonstrates that Burton was heterosexual, and that prior to his successful marriage he had a number of heterosexual affairs; that he had a number of close platonic women friends such as the novelist, Ouida, and Lallah Bird (a member of the Bohemian set), with both of whom he maintained a lively and affectionate correspondence from his youth until his death; and that he loved Isabel in the romantic sense.
Burton was a questioner, a polymath who searched with intellectual curiosity for explanations in multi-disciplines; so I do not rule out sexual experimentation by him. He regarded all aspects of sex sexual behaviour, sexual love, sexual pleasures and preferences as an important subject for anthropological study during his entire life, even after he became (as I suspect) impotent in middle age. And like the ancient Greeks he read and often quoted, particularly Ovid, he felt no sense of shame about this interest which he recognised as a primary instinct in humans. I am absolutely certain, however, that there is no historical evidence to support the theory that Burton was homosexual. The burden of proof is on those who imply the reverse. It is not good enough to point to the few chapters he wrote on homosexual practices as conclusive evidence, when the bulk of his erotic works concentrates on heterosexual activities, and on several occasions in his private correspondence he referred to homosexuality as a perversion.
My best guess after four years' work, three of those years spent in full-time research, is that as a young unattached Army officer Richard was initially amused and normally excited by the `naughty' pornographic element of the erotica he found in India and Arabia. But the authoritative scholarship in his learned and now famous translations of the Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Garden and The Arabian Nights betrays a far more complex interest than that of a man enjoying a few chuckles with his cronies over a piece of forbidden literature.
He was a many-faceted man who combined the unlikely qualities of both daring adventurer and scholar. A near genius, he never attained the destiny which might have been his because he never learned to discipline the massive intellect that enabled him, for example, to learn 29 languages and a dozen additional dialects, many so fluently that he could fool native speakers into believing he had been born in their country. He had a teacher's love of passing on knowledge and his books are a cornucopia of information, though they are not easy reading. However, his natural inquisitiveness makes them comprehensive repositories of knowledge on diverse subjects. He dropped out of Oxford University after little more than a year's tuition and thereafter his acquisition of knowledge was self-acquired, yet his papers and books demonstrate his ability to debate obscure subjects and themes at intensive levels of comprehension, even with men who had dedicated their lives to their specific study. He once ended a letter on Shakespeare's endless ability, to a correspondent who was an eminent Shakespeare scholar, with the phrase `each man makes his own Shakespeare'.
By the same standard, each biographer makes their own Burton by a unique perception of an amount of material too substantial to utilise in full. There is enough information on Burton in his own published works, private papers and the publications and papers of other writers to expand probably a dozen of the chapters in this book into books in their own right. And Burton crammed so much living into his three-score years and almost ten that each one could potentially merit publication.
But even a life packed with incident and adventure was insufficient to ensure really lasting celebrity. A young relative of mine was recently overheard telling a friend that I was `writing a book about Richard Burton'.
`But,' he finished apologetically, `it's not the famous one.'
A GIPSY CHILDHOOD
Richard Burton began his autobiography, `Autobiographers generally begin too late. Elderly gentlemen of eminence sit down to compose memories and describe with fond minuteness babyhood, childhood, and boyhood and drop the pen before reaching adolescence ...' Fortunately Burton did not drop his pen until he had reached the prime of his life. Because most of his early papers perished in a warehouse fire he is virtually the only authority for much of what is known about his early years, and although some of the salient facts can be verified by diligent research we must take his word (and, sometimes, a pinch of salt) for the more colourful anecdotes.
Even so, when he started dictating his autobiography to his wife, en route to India in 1876, he began with a surprising error. He stated that his birthplace was his grandparents' home, Barham House, Barham Wood, near Elstree in Hertfordshire. In fact he was born in Torquay, Devon at 9.30 p.m. on the evening of 19 March 1821. One would assume that he had never been told where he was born but for the fact that in his application for entry to Trinity College, Oxford, at the age of 19 he wrote his birthplace as `Torquay'. He was the first child of Captain Joseph Netterville Burton and his wife Martha, and by the date of the child's baptism six months later the young family had moved to Barham House to live with his mother's parents Richard and Sarah Baker. At the parents' request the officiating clergyman made a note of Richard's birth and birthplace alongside the baptismal entry.
The forces of destiny were at work early in the child's life, for it seems that a quarrel between the King and Queen of England was, ultimately, partially responsible for the peripatetic style of life Richard's parents subsequently adopted, and the restless, roving traits this engendered in their son.
Captain Joseph Burton was half Irish. In appearance he was considered very handsome with a high `Roman' profile, swarthy colouring, black hair and piercing black eyes. He was the third son, one of twelve children of a Protestant clergyman who had migrated from Westmorland, in the north of England, to Ireland and combined his ecclesiastic duties with those of a local squire in Tuam, County Galway. Joseph's mother, also the child of a clergyman, was said to be the great-granddaughter of King Louis XIV by his mistress the Countess of Montmorency, and had inherited `unmistakable Bourbon features'. Life in Ireland was inexpensive so the family was comfortably circumstanced, but Joseph like his brothers was nevertheless obliged to earn a living. Being `gently born', however, there were only two acceptable options open to him: to purchase a commission in the Army, which could prove expensive, or to follow his father into the church.
His dilemma was resolved easily enough when King George III's Army recruiting in Ireland offered free commissions to gentlemen who could bring with them a number of men willing to take the King's shilling. The 17-year-old Joseph rounded up several dozen youths from his father's estate who were happy to accompany the young master for the sheer adventure of it. In a short time the adventure wore off and the young men of Tuam found their way back to the soil, but by then Joseph Burton had been commissioned and posted to Sicily where he saw service in 1802 under Sir John Moore and was promoted to second-lieutenant in 1807. A decade or so later he distinguished himself in the taking of Genoa and the year 1815 found him still a Captain, but with the `local rank' of Major, the senior officer of the small British garrison at Genoa in Italy.
At this point in Joseph Burton's military career fate intervened in the ample form of Her Royal Highness Princess Caroline, the discarded wife of the Prince Regent. In April and May 1815 at the time of the visit to Genoa of the Princess, Captain Burton little imagined how large an influence she would have, albeit indirectly, on his future life. For him and his fellow officers she was the wife of the heir to the throne, and as such was due all the loyalty and respect due to that position. She in turn showed great kindness to the British officers, welcoming their visits to her residence about half a mile outside the city in the respectable suburbs. Her cheerful condescension was much appreciated, and it would be fair to say that she won their affection and admiration during her brief visit.
With Napoleon safely confined in St Helena and the peace concluded, Joseph returned home to Ireland where he found the family estate in dire condition following the death of his father. Having obtained his mother's permission, he called in the tenants who had paid no `rint' for a considerable time and impressed upon them that he would be calling personally to collect all rents and arrears. Thereafter he was shot at on a regular basis as he rode around the estate, but he collected no rents. It did not take him long to decide that a bucolic existence in Ireland was no substitute for the glories of Italy. He had grown away from his numerous brothers and sisters, and the damp climate aggravated his asthma. He therefore returned to his regiment, the 36th Foot, in Nottinghamshire. The asthma continued to bother him and he was placed on extended sick leave.
At one of the parties or balls, invitations for which were inevitably showered upon unmarried officers, Joseph met Martha Baker, one of three heiress daughters of a wealthy Hertfordshire squire. They married in early 1820 at much the same time as King George III died following his record reign of 59 years. The new monarch, George IV, had no intention of sharing his throne with his separated wife whom he abhorred and, as a consequence, in May or June of that year the hapless Joseph, scarcely returned from his honeymoon in the Lake District, was summoned by the secret committee whose task it was to gather evidence of adultery by Princess (now Queen) Caroline, and ordered to provide testimony against her to enable the King to obtain a divorce.
Joseph could probably recall very little, if any, of the Princess's said-to-be scandalous behaviour in Italy which, in fact, was rather more a breach of good taste than impropriety. Her chief indiscretion in Genoa appears to have consisted of being drawn through the streets in an illuminated phaeton constructed in the shape of a conch shell. It was decorated with mother-of-pearl, and drawn by two tiny piebald ponies led by a child dressed as a pink Cupid. Inside, the Princess reclined: `a vast woman of fiftyish, short, round, and high in colour, wrapped in a gauzy decollete gown with a pink bodice. The pink feathers of her head-dress floated in the wind, and a short white skirt came to scarcely past her knees, leaving on view fat pink legs.'
George IV is said to have blanched at the sheer vulgarity of it, and blushed at the impression conveyed in Europe of the British royal family, made a laughing-stock by the unfortunate Princess who was now Queen. But having tolerated the often licentious and expensive vulgarity of the King in his days as Regent, His Majesty's level-headed subjects were not so easily persuaded that the Queen's sins were sufficiently offensive to merit her being set aside. Captain Joseph Netterville Burton, like the majority of the British gentry, took the Queen's side, not least because she had shown kindness to the men of his garrison five years earlier. Therefore, when asked, he declined to act as witness for the prosecution.
Little is known of Joseph's career apart from the standard terse notes in his Army record. Richard Burton tells us that his father was a keen duellist `and shot one brother-officer twice, nursing him tenderly each time afterwards'. The offence on each occasion had been `saying something unpleasant' and though the first affair of honour resulted in Joseph merely `winging' his man, an Irishman, at the second meeting the unfortunate opponent was crippled for life. Neither of these affairs of honour is mentioned in his Army record. Before being summoned by the War Office on the King's business Joseph had been offered the post of aide-de-camp to Lord William Bentinck, Governor General of India, with all the prospects of promotion that such a position entailed. Joseph, however, laid all such prospects on the line when he `flatly refused' to give evidence about his Queen, though ordered to do so by the Commander-in-Chief (Lord Wellington) who was acting for the King. The unfortunate result of his abjuration was that he was requested to stand down from active service and placed indefinitely `on half-pay'.
The couple's first child, Richard Francis, was born in March of the following year. At the time the Burtons were living in Torquay, then a `delightful & romantic watering place' of some 2,000 people which had, a contemporary guide book informs, `become a fashionable resort for invalids'. Tor Church records a large number of Bakers in its registers, and it is probable that the couple were staying with relatives of Martha so that Joseph could take advantage of the mild spring of the West Country and the benefits of the spa to relieve his asthma. Coincidentally, Richard was born within cannon-shot of the birthplaces of two men with whom he would be often compared; the Elizabethan scholar/adventurers Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake.
It was Richard Burton's belief that his parents had gone to live abroad when he was only a few months old, and this sits oddly with his `first memory' of being `brought down after dinner at Barham House to eat white currants, seated upon the knee of a tall man with yellow hair and blue eyes', a description which fits his grandfather Baker. In fact, family documents reveal that Richard was five years old when Joseph Burton took his family to Europe for health reasons. By then two further children had been born: Maria Katherine Elizabeth in 1823, and Edward Joseph in July 1824. Joseph's elder brother Francis had married Martha's younger sister Sarah, and Richard Baker was clearly wary of his two Burton sons-in-law. When he died of a heart attack, it was found that he had sensibly left his daughters' considerable inheritances tied up in trusts providing them with a lifetime income but no access to the capital. However, the old man doted on young Richard and indeed was said to have been on his way to his solicitors to change his will in the child's favour when he collapsed and died. It was probably the English weather, as well as the size of their income, which provoked the Burtons' move to the softer climate of Southern Europe, for Joseph's asthma had worsened and he found the English winters intolerable. In 1825 the family settled in the heart of France at Tours where there was a sizeable English community, surprising considering the recent conflict between the two countries.
Joseph and Martha Burton leased the Chateau de Beausejour. It was a rambling old mansion on a hill on the right bank of the Loire, surrounded by pastures and vineyards and commanding a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. Here the young Burtons flourished despite the fact that their English nurse could not stand living among foreigners and quickly returned home, leaving her charges to a succession of Frenchwomen. Their childhood was the usual mixture of schoolroom, dogs and horses. They slept in a nursery at the top of the house and recalled being `hustled out of our little cots, and taken to the drawing room' in the frequent violent storms of the hot summers, and playing with their Noah's ark and the carved wooden animals. Summer holidays were spent at St Malo and other seaside resorts in Brittany.
On his own admission, Richard's father loved Richard `more than any other being on earth'. He also considered his bright son an infant prodigy, and Richard was therefore provided with the best education that could be procured by a private tutor. That he began learning his alphabet, multiplication tables and prayers at a very tender age is not very surprising, but that he began Latin at three and Greek at four is perhaps more unusual. He also began what he calls `the study of Arms' almost as soon as he could walk, so that guns and fencing particularly the latter became lifelong passions.
When Richard was six, Maria four and Edward three, their education at home came to an end and, with their bundles of books tied with leather straps, they were taken in a small carriage each day to a school in the nearby town. Richard hated it, which is at odds with his insatiable and lifelong desire to acquire knowledge and his ability to absorb information quickly and easily. His antipathy was due to the school's headmaster, Mr Gilchrist, whom Richard describes as `brutal ... he caned his pupils to the utmost.' Richard attended this school for three years from the age of six, and fifty years later he was still able to recall with clarity Mr Gilchrist's relish when he administered the cane to his small charges. Noticeably, for the remainder of his life Richard characteristically rebelled against any form of authority. The school at least widened his curriculum, and in addition to the lessons begun at home Richard showed an early aptitude for French and drawing but no accomplishment in music or dancing. He seemed rather proud of this fact, as though he considered the latter pursuits unmanly.
The Burtons' life at Tours was punctuated by regular visits from members of the family. Aunt Georgina (youngest of the three Baker sisters) was a great favourite; she eventually married Robert Bagshawe, Member of Parliament for Harwich. Grandmama Burton, with her `unmistakable' Bourbon looks and her feisty Irish nature, was seemingly tolerated rather than loved. Richard tells the story of how this woman was once alone at home but for a young maid when the house was broken into by thieves. She went upstairs, opened the barrel of gunpowder, loaded her pistol and went down to confront the intruders who rapidly decamped. When she asked the `raw Irish' maid what had become of her candle in the confusion, the girl replied she had left it `on the barrel of black salt, upstairs'. The intrepid Grandmother Burton had then to go up and carefully rescue the candle before it blew the house to smithereens.
It was Grandmother Baker, however, who was in residence when in 1832 Joseph decided to return to live in England with the intention of sending his boys to the `right' schools. The Burtons had already moved from the old chateau on the hillside into the town of Tours for the convenience of being close to the day school, and Richard recalled in his autobiography that he and his brother became members of a `gang' of small Anglo-French ruffians who broke windows, fought with street urchins and purloined their fathers' guns to shoot at church monuments and weather-vanes. Clearly it was time for a move.
The disposable chattels were duly auctioned and the remaining possessions together with the six members of the family, a maid and various pet dogs were decanted into the huge old-fashioned yellow-bodied travelling coach for the long and tedious journey back to England. It was bad enough that the postilion, `wearing seven-league boots', was content to make a steady five miles an hour along the boring, arrow-straight, poplar-lined, unpaved roads; but things worsened as they reached Paris for, hearing that cholera was raging, Grandmama Baker insisted on stuffing the children's noses full of camphor whenever they neared a town. Such inns as they found were unwholesome and expensive and the journey was exhausting to all concerned. Richard still recalled its awfulness as an old man, though the family must have made the same journey on several occasions to reach the summer holiday destinations he described so cheerfully. At last they reached Dieppe and after a short interval spent enjoying the familiar sandy beaches (while Richard's mother recovered from the rigours of travel), they sailed for England.
Bored and fractious, the children were determined from the outset to dislike their native land. The family's coach was harnessed to teams of hirelings and Richard and Edward amused themselves by poking the horses with a long stick until discovered by the postboys, when they were sentenced to ride inside. Here they were reduced to making uncomplimentary comparisons between their home in France and the land of their birth. Even Brighton then the brightest hub of Society outside London was condemned as `full of smoke ... with air unfit for breathing ... small ... prim ... melancholy'. The beach, unlike Dieppe's firm golden sands, was `shingle'; the sea `grey and heaving'. The food was `revolting' after the cuisine of France, the standard of milk and bread came in for particular aversion and the wine was `like medicine' after the excellent Bordeaux to which their juvenile palates had already become accustomed. After the clear warm skies of mid-France, the weather, naturally, was execrable. Some deep part of Richard would always reject England, even though he always referred to it as `home'.
After a short time the family settled in Richmond so that the boys could be `prepped' for a major public school. Joseph had his sights set on Eton or Harrow and, ultimately, Oxford or Cambridge for his sons. A family friend recommended a suitable preparatory school at Richmond Green and a house was duly found. Again, Richard's memories conflict with strict reality. He writes:
After sundry attempts at housing themselves in the tiny doll-rooms in the stuffy village, they at last found a house, so-called by courtesy, in `Maids of Honour Row' between the River and the Green, a house with a strip of garden fronting it, which a sparrow could hop across in thirty seconds.
Far from being the mean residence of Richard's memory, Maids of Honour Row proves, in fact, to have been one of the more desirable residences in the town. A tall, smart and elegantly designed terrace a stone's throw from one of the attractive broad country reaches of the Thames, it also had the advantage of overlooking the school which faced them across Richmond Green. It lacked the generous open views of the chateau at Tours, of course, Richard's yardstick for a home, and it was clearly this and the loss of freedom that relegated it to a place of derision in his memory.
Certainly, the freedom that the two boys had previously enjoyed was drastically curtailed at the preparatory school, which had undoubtedly been one of Captain Burton's intentions. Richard loathed it and claimed the school to be a `horror of horrors', though probably it was no better or worse than any other of its day. It was run by the Reverend Charles Delafosse, a `bluff and portly man, with dark hair and short whiskers, whose grand aquiline nose took a prodigious deal of snuff'. It was, said Richard, `a kind of Dotheboys Hall' to which gentlemen were content to send their sons and pay 100 [pounds sterling] a year plus extras for the same education that could be obtained on the Continent for 20 [pounds sterling].
Whatever the academic merits of the school might have been, Richard's chief memories were of constant fist fights; `at one time I had 32 affairs of honour to settle,' he wrote. His father's predilection for duelling appears to have been handed down, and Richard may have been unpopular because he fought like a French alley-cat `with knees and feet as well as his fists'; hardly the fighting technique of an embryo English gentleman. He was beaten, he claims, `like a shotten herring', to the extent that his bruises attracted the attention of maid-servants who bathed the boys on Saturday nights. `Drat the boy,' one said, unsympathetically, `what has he been doing? He's all black and blue.' When one considers all the elements here, Richard's intense hatred of the school, his fights and reports of hard beatings, his sister's description that `he was a thin, dark little boy, with small features and large black eyes ... proud, sensitive, shy and nervous', allied to the fact that he was somehow `different' he spoke French fluently and soaked up learning like a sponge it is probable that he was the victim of serious bullying.
It comes as no surprise to learn of the boys' delight when, a year later, after several pupils had died of measles, the school was temporarily closed and the two boys were sent to stay with their Aunt Georgina to whom they related the whole horror of the nightmare establishment. She was quite prepared to listen, especially when the already `cadaverously' thin Richard himself became ill with measles. She brought the boys' claims to the attention of their parents and Captain Burton, who had felt the sacrifice of living in England worthwhile only inasmuch as his sons were reaping an educational benefit from it, decided to return to France.
Pausing only to allow Richard to convalesce, to engage a governess for Maria and a male tutor for Richard and Edward, the family and its small entourage embarked for Boulogne. We do not know how Mrs Burton or Maria felt about this second migration, but Captain Burton was happy to return to the forests of France with all the boar hunting and shooting he could wish and the fine southern climate; and Richard and Edward were delirious with joy at the thought of never returning to Delafosse's establishment. The older Richard, however, when dictating his autobiography, recognised that the move had been a bad one and had irrevocably cast his lot in life as an outsider.
Any young man making his way in Victorian England needed the background of a recognised school and the grounding in public school precepts and mores, plus a `network' of fellow-pupils who knew him and his background, and recognised him as one of themselves. It follows that this would be even more important if the young man concerned was without substantial means. Though he claimed the credit for persuading his father to return to France, Richard also blamed him for not sticking by his earlier decision to have his sons educated in England. Had Joseph insisted that the boys stuck out their time with Delafosse and went to Eton as planned, Richard felt, he would have been spared much heartache in later life.
... future soldiers and statesmen must be prepared by Eton and Cambridge ... the more English they are, even to the cut of their hair, the better. In consequence of being brought up abroad, we never thoroughly understood English society, nor did society understand us. And ... it is a real advantage to belong to some parish. It is a great thing, when you have won a battle, or explored Central Africa, to be welcomed home by some little corner of the Great World, which takes a pride in your exploits, because they reflect honour upon itself. In the contrary condition you are a waif, a stray; you are a blaze of light without a focus.
But at the time, in the late summer of 1833, Richard could not see ahead. At 12 years old he felt only delight and relief at the return to France which was `home' to him. The family settled at Blois, 40 miles or so from their former residence, in an expatriate community so similar to that at Tours that Richard thought it not worth describing, and in yet another large country house on a hillside overlooking the Loire.
Here, in a room set aside as `the schoolroom', Mr Du Pre, an Oxford undergraduate, attempted to instil the Classics as well as the standard subjects in daily sessions of six or seven hours. He also taught them swimming. A Frenchman was called in to perfect the boys' French; besides which there was a dancing master who imparted a comprehensive teaching of all the dances a young man would need in a ballroom, and a fencing master who alone of their teachers captured the wholehearted attention of his pupils. So much did Richard and Edward enjoy fencing that all their spare time was given over to perfecting their techniques. Familiarity bred contempt and they began to fence without face masks until Richard in a bold thrust forced his foil into Edward's open mouth, nearly destroying the soft palate. The accident distressed Richard a good deal. The two boys were inseparable friends; they formed an alliance, so to speak, against the grown-ups.
After a year of this, life at Blois began to pall for the Burton parents. Martha as well as Joseph suffered from asthma, and possibly life in the rich farmland of Central France stimulated undiagnosed bronchial allergies. Captain Burton began to talk of taking the family to live in Italy. It appears that Mrs Burton was not wholly in favour of this scheme, for Grandmother Baker (who was paying a visit at the time) was heard by the younger Burtons to exclaim to her son-in-law `You'll kill your wife, Sir!' This interesting conversation included her assertions that Captain Burton wished to return to Italy because in his days in Sicily there had been a young woman who still received a regular allowance from him, `to keep off claims' as Richard delicately phrased it in his autobiography.
Joseph Burton had long tolerated his mother-in-law's interference in his marriage and the barely concealed allusions to the fact that it was Martha's inheritance which supported the Burton family. He believed that given access to her capital he could have made their fortune on the stock market, and it rankled that it was tied up in trust out of his reach. He attempted many disastrous entrepreneurial schemes during Richard's childhood, always blaming his failures on an inadequacy of project funding. But Grandmama Baker had gone too far this time. She was packed off to England and Captain Burton pulled the old yellow travelling chariot out of its stall, sold up once again, and set off southwards.
The journey was long, punctuated by attacks of asthma by both invalids, and though the discomforts of travel were equal to their previous treks Richard was less inclined to dwell on these and wrote instead of the places they saw and stayed at on their route. Lyons, Avignon, Provence, Marseilles, the voyage to Leghorn (now Livorno) in Italy, and their ultimate destination, Pisa.
`Nothing could be shadier than the English Colony at Pisa,' Richard recalled in his autobiography. As well as respectable invalids and widows eking out an existence in genteel poverty, it included a large number of officers like Joseph, some on half-pay for heaven only knew what transgressions, ladies fallen from grace, and a generous sprinkling of `black sheep' remittance men. Education went on as before, with the added subjects of Italian and another horror violin lessons. Edward showed great ability in the latter and could eventually, it was felt, have earned his living as a professional musician had he ever needed to do so. Richard on the other hand was a frustrated and poor student of music; eventually he lost his temper and broke the violin over the music master's head, which put an end to the misery of both student and instructor. But Richard did not always get his own way. When he learned that his sons had taken liberties with some guns they had purchased with money bullied from their sister Maria, Captain Burton returned the weapons to the shop to the impotent fury of the two sturdy teenagers.
In the following year the family went trekking again: Sienna, Perugia, Florence, Rome and Naples. Here they leased a villa on the Chiaja overlooking the Bay of Naples for the following winter, before sailing across the bay to Sorrento where they spent the summer of Richard's dreams in a large house, the grounds of which included small sheltered bays of the yellowest of sand, the bluest of warm waters and smugglers' caves. There were boating trips to Ischia, to Capri with its romantic Blue Grotto, Salerno and its splendid ruin, the temples of Paestum `more splendid still'. Here the two boys indulged in their first bout of heavy drinking, and went cock-fighting. To pass the long evenings Richard learned to play chess blindfolded. Before long he could play four games simultaneously, with four different partners, and win all of them; a feat which he maintained as a sort of `party trick' all his life. A party trick it may have been, but it provides a useful measure of the intellectual capacity of Richard Burton, both as a 14-year-old and in old age.
When the summer was over the family returned to Naples and settled in for the winter. It was a lively place and a good base for excursions to Herculaneum, Pompeii and Vesuvius. Further subjects were added to the school curriculum here. Signor Caraccioli, celebrated for his marine painting, was hired to teach the children oil painting. Richard was an apt pupil, and he also learned from the artist the knack of caricature. The well-known fencing-master Cavalli, who taught according to the old Neapolitan school, was also engaged. This was fencing stripped of all the flourish and elegance of the newer French school, but Richard noted that in any duel between a Neapolitan and a Frenchman the former was sure to win. The two boys therefore worked hard at this subject, devoting four hours a day to perfecting their skills.
By now, the brothers would be more accurately described as youths. Allowing for some confusion in Richard's recollection of dates, he was about 16 or 17 and Edward 14. In recalling the pranks he once called `wild for strictly brought up Protestant boys', Richard reluctantly admitted 40 years on that `they would be nothing now'. These escapades included what he called `orgies' in the local brothel. But the term should not be taken too literally, since throughout his life Burton frequently used the expression in his correspondence to describe stag drinking sessions or lively parties. Nevertheless it is reasonable to assume, reading between the lines of his autobiography, that he was initiated into his first sexual experience at this time. Some unfortunate correspondence, which contained `declarations of pure love' by the Burton brothers and passages of `debauchery' by two sirens of the brothel, was discovered by his mother in Richard's bed chamber. An almighty row followed in which Captain Burton and Mr Du Pre climbed the stairs to administer what they considered a fitting punishment horsewhipping. The boys escaped and climbed up the chimney to the roof, where they sat and refused to come down until their parents' anger turned to anxiety and it was agreed they could descend without punishment.
Nevertheless, the escapade was looked upon as so serious that the family at once packed and left Naples, indeed shook the dust of Italy off their shoes and set off by steamer for Marseilles and Pau where the next year was spent adding yet further subjects to the curriculum. A mathematics teacher who was also `something of a philosopher' was employed to cram specialist knowledge where Mr Du Pre's expertise ended. The Bearnais dialect, a mixture of French, Spanish and Provencal patois learned on the streets was extra curricula. But the brothers were already almost beyond the schoolroom. In their spare time they took instruction in boxing from their father's Irish groom with the declared intention of thrashing the hapless Mr Du Pre who reported a steady catalogue of the boys' misdeeds to their father. They also took to smoking and drinking. After one heavy drinking session they staggered home and managed to convince their mother that they were ill. Their father was not so easily taken in; after examining one son he curtly informed her, `the beast's in liquor' and turned on his heel. Mrs Burton burst into tears.
The incident provoked the family's move to Argeles, which provided an opportunity for Richard and Edward to become infatuated with the pretty daughters of a neighbour. The elder girl was already engaged to a rich planter and shed no tears when they were parted, but the other three of the foursome were heartbroken. The parting was brought about when, at the onset of winter, Captain Burton's asthma worsened and a decision was made to return, yet again, to Pisa. Here Richard had his first serious love-affair with `Signorina Caterina P'. In a poem written years afterwards Richard wrote that Caterina's eyes `Redoubtable artilleries ... struck my tender heart/ But little came of that amour/ I was a pauper, she was poor/ And so we met to part'. Caterina, the elder daughter of their landlady, was `tall, slim and dark, with the palest possible complexion'. Her younger sister, Antonia, `could not boast the same classical features'. `I fell in love with the elder,' Richard recalled, `and Edward with the latter. Proposals of marriage were made and accepted ... but a serious obstacle occurred in ... getting the ceremony performed.' The relationship was going along nicely until Edward ended up in gaol after a drunken brawl, a nasty incident which precipitated yet another move for the Burton family. `The adieux of Caterina and Antonia were heart-rending.' The lovers agreed to keep in touch by letter, and so they did for a short time.
The last home that the Burtons enjoyed together as a family was at Lucca, a spa town inland from Pisa. Again there was a sizeable community of black-sheep English and semi-permanent invalids to provide the society which the older Burtons enjoyed. During all those troublesome years of their sons' teenage escapades it must not be thought that they were merely stay-at-home, worried parents. They were often out in society; Captain Burton took pains to cultivate acquaintanceship with anybody of influence passing through town, particularly if they might one day be of assistance to his teenage boys. By now he had made the remarkable decision that the behaviour of his sons, clearly beyond his control, fitted them for a career in the church.
Richard and Edward continued to get into scrapes which included girls, drinking and even, on one occasion, the sampling of opium. One long-term friend whom Richard met at this time was Louis Desanges. Desanges' chief talent as a teenager appeared to lie in a splendid counter-tenor voice, but later he migrated to France and became a celebrated war artist. The atmosphere in the Burton household had now become one of continuous noisy strife as Captain Burton ineffectively attempted to maintain authority over his two unruly sons. Mrs Burton was almost continuously in tears. At last their father (who shortly afterwards retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) admitted defeat; the time had come to divide and rule.
He decided that the boys would be sent to England, and after some appropriate cramming Richard would go to Oxford and Edward to Cambridge with the aim of them both making a career in the church. Richard, suffering from a form of teenage eczema, was sent in the care of Mr Du Pre to a sulphur spa in Switzerland for six weeks prior to setting out for England. Captain Burton took Edward directly to England, and it was some months before the brothers met again at the Hampstead home of their Grandmother Baker and `the Aunts' Georgina, and Sarah (recently widowed after the death of Francis Burton). Sarah was accompanied by her two pretty daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth Burton, and though they were first cousins this did not prevent an immediate attraction between Richard and Elizabeth. Richard, it seems, fell in and out of love with remarkable frequency.
The return to England marked the end of Richard's childhood. After a short time the brothers, still comparing England unfavourably against their European `home', were sent to their respective destinations and Joseph Burton returned, no doubt with a sigh of relief, to his wife and daughter in Italy. The family's time together in the future would be very limited, and tame after the recent tumultuous years. Despite his lack of success as a disciplinarian Joseph Burton, who was a devoted father, had done his best by his intelligent and irrepressible sons. Their education, while unconventional, gave them a thorough grounding in a wider range of subjects than their contemporaries at public school would have received. They had grown up with a large measure of independence, and through their extensive travels (which appear to have left Richard with a fevered restlessness) enjoyed a range of experiences denied to those formally educated in England.
Unfortunately, these advantages also served to set them apart from their fellows. It was the beginning of Richard Burton's life as an outsider.
Richard was 19 when he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, for the Michaelmas term in the autumn of 1840. By then he was fully grown and described as `standing about five feet eleven, his broad deep chest and square shoulders reduce his apparent height very considerably, and the illusion is intensified by hands and feet of Oriental smallness.' He had well-defined features, prominent cheekbones, dark `penetrating' eyes, a determined mouth, black hair and in appearance was said to resemble his `handsome Roman-looking' father. The neat entry in the Admissions Register at Trinity, in Richard's own hand, is written in Latin.
He was accepted on condition that he lodged, during his freshman year, as a `resident pupil' with Dr William Greenhill on The Broad. Greenhill (himself a Trinity graduate), was a physician at the Radcliffe Infirmary and church-warden at St Mary's, and his wife was the daughter of Dr Arnold (of Rugby School). This suited Richard, the Greenhills' home seemed always filled with erudite people and entertaining discussion and even after he moved into rooms at Trinity in September 1841, he was a regular visitor to the couple's welcoming parlour.
Richard's lack of formal education manifested itself in gaucheness. Almost his first act at Oxford was to challenge a passing senior student to a duel because the man had hooted in derision at the long and drooping Italianate moustachios affected by Richard. His famous sensitivities were stung and he knew exactly how to deal with such an insult. In the best courtly traditions of his Continental upbringing he bowed politely, handed over his card and issued a challenge to his tormentor to settle the matter honourably with his own choice of weapons. Duelling had been outlawed for many decades in England by 1840, so it is hardly surprising that the offender was taken aback by such remarkable behaviour; indeed the man in question probably dined out on the story for the rest of his life. It was explained to Richard how matters stood and he felt, he said, half quoting Napoleon, as though he had come to live among a nation of grocers.
A year later when he moved to rooms in College, he was warned by a well-meaning College Porter of the torments normally inflicted on new residents (although he was by then no longer a freshman) and advised to lock and bar his door. Belligerently, Richard did the opposite. Having plunged his poker into the heart of the fire to provide a forbidding weapon, he threw open his door as a challenge and eagerly awaited all-comers. His neighbours immediately recognised that here was a man not to be trifled with, but perhaps not to be liked either. At all stages of his career he was apt to cover uncertainty with a display of aggressive bravura to which others reacted variously with fear, irritation and dislike.
For all his widely acquired knowledge, and despite the fact that in his parents' home he would have been exposed to a totally English lifestyle, Richard had missed out on a vital part of formal English education: the ethos of play-up-and-play-the-game; submission to the system even those unpleasant customs such as `fagging' and `bumping'; give and take; take your punishment like a good chap and maintain especially in extremis a stiff upper lip. Experience of these customs made one part of the establishment club. There must have been other students at that time who had been educated at home privately; it was not a unique situation. But there was something within Richard that prevented him identifying himself with the mass of his contemporaries. He recognised in later life that it would have been tactful to be more submissive and less brash, that he should have tried to integrate, but at Oxford he was what he was. Different.
This is not to say that he was friendless. Far from it. He mixed with a knot of men from several colleges and was often the ringleader in high-spirited student pranks against both tutors and fellow undergraduates. Each day he attended a few lectures and tutorials, but this took (depending on which version of his memoirs one reads) only a small proportion of his time; the rest he spent enjoying those activities that most attracted him. Although an able horseman, he could not afford to keep a horse of his own and refused to ride a `miserable hireling', so he took up rowing (he was an oar in the college Torpid), fencing `the great solace of my life', and single-stick practice. It was through fencing in the salle-d'armes at Oxford that he made the acquaintance of an Exeter College man, Alfred Bate Richards, who became a firm friend. A.B. Richards who would achieve fame as the youthful editor of the Morning Advertiser was upwards of six foot, broad and muscular; even Richard declined to box with him, though he was his superior with the sword.
Among other pleasures of his days at Oxford recalled by Richard were long walks which `somehow or other always ended at Bagley Wood, where a pretty gipsy girl (Selina), dressed in silks and satins, sat in state to receive the shillings and the homage of undergraduates'. The description `homage' is likely to be a euphemism. The road to Bagley Wood was then a well-known haunt of local prostitutes plying for trade. In his first book, Oxford Unmasked, Alfred B. Richards explains that the visits of undergraduates to the area were for a purpose `too delicate for us to investigate'. Richard admits, however, that he spent a good deal of his time at Oxford `squiring dames', as well as hiding from his tailor. Debt was an almost universal problem among undergraduates.
In a man destined for the church, Richard's self-confessed near-ignorance of the Anglican creed and articles of faith was lamentable. Early-morning chapel was compulsory for undergraduates, but Richard voluntarily attended the stirring 4-o'clock sermons at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street. These were delivered by the Vicar, John Henry Newman, leader of the controversial Oxford Movement. The subjects that interested Newman most during Richard's time at Oxford were the Anglican Church's attitude to Roman Catholicism, and Monophychism (the theory that Christ was primarily divine with human attributes).
Newman eventually found his own hard-won route to spiritual conviction, shaking the Church of England to its roots by resigning his incumbency of St Mary's in 1846 to convert to Roman Catholicism (and ultimately to become a cardinal), but he was still searching when his famous sermons were packing St Mary's every afternoon in 1840. It is clearly from Newman that Richard formed the opinions (quoted by his wife in the Life) that Roman Catholicism was the only possible alternative to atheism. It was the controversial aspect of the sermons which first drew Richard, but it was Newman himself, and his academically developed opinions, that held Richard's attention throughout his time at University. And, though he differed in opinion from Newman (Richard's religious views will be discussed later), the experience undoubtedly provided the kernel of Richard's lifelong search for a personal gnosis, and there was no man at Oxford he held in greater respect.
Although he was ostensibly studying with a view to entering the church, Richard was not a regular church-goer from choice and he preferred on Sundays to visit Abingdon, then the nearest railway station to Oxford, where one could hire and drive a tandem. This awkward driving rig where one horse is attached to a pole in front of the other (rather than side by side) had only one real merit; it was forbidden to undergraduates, presumably because of the inherent difficulties and consequent danger. He also `managed to hunt out [al work on falconry and studied its pages with ... interest' and began a study of the occult, especially the mystical values supposedly attached to numbers. He had a lifelong fascination with the possibility of unknown influences, talismans, potions and magical power.
At the Greenhills', Richard met the Arabist, Senor Don Pascual de Gayangos. Dr Greenhill had studied languages Greek, Latin, French and Arabic and hoped thereby to `restore the fragments of Greek medicine that are preserved in the Arab language'. It was undoubtedly his admiration of Greenhill, and the multi-lingual discussions between his mentor and de Gayangos that stimulated Richard's desire to learn Arabic. There was no Arab tutoring at Oxford, and he began studying Arabic alone by `attacking' an Arabic grammar from Greenhill's library. He used his own method of learning a new language, tried and tested as he travelled around Europe during his childhood, and since he is celebrated for the number of languages he eventually learned, his system is worth recording.
I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learned them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day. I never worked more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the lesson lost its freshness. After learning some 300 words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy book-work ... and underlined every word that I wished to recollect ... If I came across a new sound like the Arabic Ghayn I trained my tongue to it by repeating it so many thousand times a day ...
Then, when he believed he had `the neck of the language ... broken', he went on to teach himself how to form Arabic characters. No doubt he took pleasure in demonstrating his quick ability to Greenhill and de Gayangos, but his pride was cut to the quick when the Spaniard burst out laughing at his demonstration of the alphabet for he wrote it as a European from left to right, instead of from right to left. Richard was never one to take ridicule gracefully, but on this occasion he bit his tongue and accepted it because he was keen to learn.
Richard and Edward spent the Christmas vacation at their Grandmother Baker's house in London. `A man who dances, who dresses decently and is tolerably well introduced,' wrote Richard, `rarely wants invitations to balls in London and I found some occupation for my evenings. But I sadly wanted a club ...' Lacking one, he and Edward found their way into gaming halls but at least they did not lose money. At home `the Aunts' made a point of inviting interesting guests for the benefit of the two brothers. On one occasion this consisted of a Mrs White, wife of the Colonel of the 3rd Dragoons, and her three strapping sons who were about to leave for an Army career in India. The Afghan War had broken out in 1838 and the most ambitious young men of the British middle classes were making their way to India in the hope of making a name for themselves. The conversation with the White brothers fired Richard and Edward with enthusiasm and, said Richard, `gave me the first idea of going there'.
All too soon, it seemed, Hilary Term began and Richard was back in Oxford. Term started badly. `I had made a name for fastness ... and now a reaction had set in. They laughed at me, at my first lecture, because I spoke in Roman Latin real Latin I did not know the English Latin, only known in England.' In his autobiography he attributed his lack of success at Oxford largely to the fact that during his viva voce he boldly argued with his Latin examiners regarding correct pronunciation, and could not resist noting that some years later his method of pronunciation had become the received style in universities.
For the first two terms of the year, he said, `I worked regularly 12 hours a day [and] failed in everything, chiefly I flattered myself because Latin hexameters and Greek iambics had not entered into the lists of my studies ...' He tried, at his father's insistence, for two scholarships and won neither. At the time his unaccustomed lack of success depressed him and led him to lower his aims; he decided that he was more likely to achieve a second rather than a first-class degree. `Men who may rely upon first classes are bred to it from childhood ... as dogs and cats are trained. They must not waste time and memory upon foreign tongues ...' he said with an air of self-justification.
The long summer vacation of 1841 was spent with his parents and siblings in Weisbaden, where Richard and Edward spent a good deal of time perfecting their fencing technique and attempting to gain admission to one of the famed Heidelberg fencing brigades. They offered to take on all-comers without, they stipulated, the heavy protective clothing habitually worn there. However, when the high standard of Richard's fencing was reported no one came forward to take up the challenge.
But Richard had also been giving some thought to his future career and took the opportunity for a heart-to-heart discussion with his father about this, pleading to be allowed to buy a commission in the Army or to emigrate to Australia or Canada. He said he was prepared to join the Swiss Guards at Naples, the Austrian Service, or even the Foreign Legion, so desperate was he to avoid being coerced into a career in the church. Edward backed him up, he too was unhappy with both Cambridge and with the career mapped out for him. Captain Burton, however, was adamant. They would return to University, they would attempt to win scholarships and they would go into the church. Given Richard's intellectual ability, if not at that stage any proven academic achievement, this dislike of University is puzzling until one recalls that he had never happily accepted the traditions of formal education. He found the regime at Oxford too fixed in its orbit for his thought processes, he was already too self-reliant.
The brothers duly returned to their respective colleges, but with an ill will and a determination to get themselves rusticated. They hoped that the disgrace of being sent down for a few months would be sufficient to put an end to any thought of a career in the church, agreeing that rustication was preferable to expulsion since the latter might imply ungentlemanly behaviour. Richard set about his plan by holding noisy parties and being deliberately provocative. One method he employed to irritate was to distribute a series of unflattering caricatures of dons and tutors, decorated with equally unflattering epigrams. He had used this ploy successfully to upset Mr Du Pre on several occasions, and had found the ones which caused most offence were those showing a sketch of the tombstone of his victim, with a suitably insulting rhyming epitaph. At Oxford some found their way into print, and as he made no attempt to hide his authorship it advanced his plan. But rustication was a serious business and the dons were inclined, wherever possible, to regard youthful high spirits with tolerance. By the Christmas vacation Richard realised that he needed a bolder scheme.
The ideal opportunity arose when a celebrated steeplechaser, `Oliver the Irishman', came to the area in the spring of 1842 for an open race. Many undergraduates thought they stood a chance across country against the great man, and the University authorities placed the races off-limits and called an important lecture for the same hour that the chase was to be run. Undoubtedly, as with the tandems, the restriction had its roots in the potential dangers and not as the disappointed undergraduates opined pure officiousness. Steeplechasing in those days was a mad dash across open countryside on hunters, leaping whatever obstacle came in the way, riding from one highly visible point on the landscape (usually a church steeple) to another. Richard conspicuously missed the lecture, arranging for a forbidden tandem to wait for him behind Worcester College to convey him and a few friends to the races. The event was duly enjoyed probably had he owned a horse Richard would have participated rather than merely watched from his cart and afterwards he returned in high spirits to await his penance.
Summoned to an interview, it looked for a time as though his scheme might backfire and the miscreants be let off with yet another caution. Richard could not allow this to happen. He stepped forward and boldly argued that there was no moral turpitude in attending a race meeting. In banning their attendance, he said, the University had treated undergraduates like schoolboys, and he threw in a few well-worn phrases such as `trust begets trust' as added irritants. The result was that while his fellow culprits were merely sent down for the remainder of term, Richard was recommended not to return from his rustication. This was rather more punishment than he had planned and, `stung by a sense of injustice', he said he hoped the Council would, in that case, return the `caution money' deposited by his father. At the insulting inference that the college authorities might `lose' the money in the college coffers there was, he recalled, `a general rise of dignities, as if my violent expulsion from the room was intended. I made them my lowest and most courtly bow, Austrian fashion, which bends the body almost double, wished them all happiness for the future, and retired from the scene.' As a matter of record the `caution money' of 30 [pounds sterling] was returned to his father in April 1842, a month after Richard was sent down.
Richard's departure from Oxford with his co-conspirators (who were safe in the knowledge that they would be returning the following term) was a gesture of defiance typical of him. A tandem-driven dog-cart was driven up to the doors of Trinity. It was probably an unfortunate accident that caused the plunging leader to steer the shaft horse (and thus the wheels of the laden cart) across the Master's prized flower-beds as they turned out of the gates into Broad Street. Some dons enjoying a peaceful game of bowls stopped in astonishment at this outrage. Ignoring them and blowing kisses to the shop-girls of Oxford, Richard bowled out of town to the merry notes of a coaching horn blown by one of his `companions in misfortune'.
His triumphant nonchalance masked the seeds of suspicion that the act was not perhaps, a wise move. Later he would freely acknowledge its foolishness, while his friend and fellow-undergraduate Alfred Bate Richards would write that `none of us saw the treasure we had among us'. Richard would return several times to his Alma Mater in the future, and there would be no hard feelings, but he was up at Oxford only five terms and the opportunity of channelling his great intellect into disciplined processes was lost to the academic community for ever.
To his doting aunts, to whom he referred as `the family harem', it was easy for Richard to spin the smooth story that he had been allowed to leave early for the Easter vacation as a reward for achieving a double first. They had no difficulty in believing him; he had been such a clever child and teenager that academic achievement was a foregone conclusion. They sprang a celebration dinner party and to Richard's chagrin proudly announced the reason. They were appropriately startled when one of the guests grinned at Richard with immediate understanding. `Rusticated, eh?' said the Judas at the table. His aunts were not that slow; they made enquiries and Richard found himself in deep trouble. But when the resulting family furore settled Richard had achieved what he had set out to accomplish, with only a little help from world events.
Shortly before he was sent down there was a massive tragedy in Afghanistan, a country made sullen and indignant by British occupation. A combination of Governor General Lord Auckland's insensate policies concerning the roles of the former rulers, and the ill-equipped and poorly protected British occupation force under the command of General Elphinstone (a man weakened by illness and fatigue) led to a successful attack by the Emirs on the garrison at Kabul. Before the fighting began a column of 16,000 people British and Indian troops, wives, children, nannies, grooms, cooks, servants and assorted hangers-on set out in the snow through the high passes towards the safety of Jalalabad.
... without supplies with scanty transport, amid snow and ice, over high passes and jagged rocks and through deep narrow valleys, harried day and night by vengeful tribesmen and falling easy victim to the gun and the knife of the relentless and treacherous enemy. Of all their number only one solitary being [Dr William Brydon] reached a refuge from his pursuers.
The Afghans attacked the column, Dr Brydon reported, slaughtering the troops and plundering the animals and equipment. `Nor were the unarmed and helpless camp followers spared. Soon the snow was crimson with blood.' Many simply froze to death as they struggled along, snow-blind and lost in the appalling weather conditions of winter in the mountains. It took Dr Brydon a week to reach Jalalabad, the sole survivor of the thousands who had set out. It was the worst disaster suffered by the British in India, including the Mutiny of 1857. When Dr Brydon's story of the massacre reached London an outraged public clamoured for retaliation, fearing that the defeat, if unavenged, would affect `discipline in the Indian army ... the stability of British rule and our credit for justice among the nations of Asia'.
With all possibility of academic glory gone, and having firmly demonstrated the fact that he was unsuited to a life in the church, in fact in disgrace and `fit for nothing but to be shot at for sixpence a day [by] those Afghans (how I blessed their name)', Richard begged to be allowed to be part of the force being mustered to `teach the Afghans a lesson'. Given the political climate of the day his father, a loyal military man, could hardly refuse. And having capitulated, he bombarded Richard with advice on how to succeed in a military environment.
Richard would have preferred a crack regiment; several of his many cousins served in Cavalry or Guards regiments. Instead he joined the British East India Company's Army where he was commissioned as an ensign. He stated in his autobiography that the choice of regiment was a direct result of his father's refusal to testify against the late Queen Caroline; implying that nothing else was available to him. But even a junior commission in a good regiment could cost thousands of pounds, and it was likely that his long-suffering father could not afford a better commission. Edward, having been set an example by Richard, also contrived somehow to get himself sent down and followed his brother via an Army posting to Ceylon.
According to the files of the East India Company, no money changed hands for Richard's commission in the Bombay Infantry (most of the men killed in the Afghan massacre were from the Bombay Presidency), and if it did it was a highly illicit transaction. A family friend, Joseph Maitland, recommended Richard to John Lock, a Director of the Honourable East India Company. Directors of the Company received a number of cadet nominations a year, but were forbidden to sell them. Richard implied in his autobiography that Joseph Maitland had sold his recommendation to Captain Burton for `about 500 [pounds sterling]', but in 19-year-old Richard's petition for cadetship he wrote `No' to the question, `Do you believe any person has received or is about to receive any pecuniary consideration ... on account of your nomination?' And his Aunt Georgina, who acted as his guardian for the appropriate certificates, swore that `no monies had been paid'. Both parties signed to the effect that if any money was found to have changed hands Richard would be subject to dismissal from the Company's service. But then he also swore `in duty bound' to pray regularly.
The East India Company had begun as a trading organisation in the eighteenth century. Growing rapidly it obtained the right to keep a force of guards to defend its properties and staff. By the mid-nineteenth century, due largely to the lucrative opium trade with China, the Company's interests had flourished. In the process it had acquired huge tracts of property and the old security force had become a full-scale army. While nominally subject to the regular British Army regulations, in practice the Company's Army came under the direct control of the Directors of the East India Company (E.I.C.) who sat in `Courts'. These Directors were immensely powerful and dominated the subcontinent from the three centres (called Presidencies) of Bombay, Madras and Bengal. The Court at the London headquarters in Leadenhall Street comprised twenty-four Directors who commanded the entire machine. Not for nothing were these men regarded as `the Kings of Leadenhall Street', for they were as powerful as monarchs. Sir Charles Napier referred to them as `ephemeral sovereigns' and Lord Wellesley as `ignominious tyrants of the East'. They were totally heedless of the culture they found and overran in India, appropriating sacred buildings for their own secular use. They once considered demolishing the Taj Mahal for its materials?
Richard claimed in his autobiography that he spent the spring and early summer frivolously, but it is evident that he did not fritter away his time for he gave up boxing and fencing to learn Hindustani with an old Scot named Duncan Forbes, a faculty member of Kings College, London, who `had spent a year or so in Bombay, and upon the strength of it was perfect master of Oriental languages ... he spoke all his Eastern languages with the broadest Scotch accent ...'
To the customary tropical kit, much of which would prove useless, Richard added two unusual items. The first was a wig; growing up in hot climates, he said, had taught him the value of shaving his head to keep cool, and the wig was for social occasions. The second was a bull-terrier bitch called Pepper, bought during his period at University and of which he was extremely fond. Thus equipped and in high spirits, he boarded the barque John Knox for the four-month journey round Africa, via the Cape, to India, and sailed down the Thames on 18 June 1842. He always cried at partings, but his tears were for his aunts, not the country of his birth in which he always felt an alien.
It did not take him long to conclude that he was superior to the score of fellow-cadets in education and class, writing them off as `Yahoos' who spent most of their time firing their pistols. Understandable perhaps, he said, for, `were not all these young gentlemen going out to be Commanders-in-Chief?' But where his fellows sought amusements to while away the tedious hours of the long passage, Richard spent the greater part of his time working on his Hindustani with three Indian crew members. He found some time for recreation: teaching his brother-officers to fence, single-stick practice with one of the ship's officers, regular gymnastics to keep himself fit, and swimming in a sail draped over the side of the ship to foil any sharks. Invited by the ship's Captain (whose inability to keep adequate discipline Richard deplored) to a boxing match, Richard knocked the older man `into a cocked hat'.
He was impressed with the view of the Cape and fascinated at the long Antarctic waves `miles in length' in those land-free waters which rolled by `in lines as regular as those of soldiers marching over a plain', but he saw nothing of the East African coast which would later become of such importance to him. As soon as they rounded the tip of Africa the Captain set a course for the west coast of India. They reached their destination after dark on the evening of 27 October. All day long the expectant passengers, primed by the scent which seamen call the smell of land and landsmen call the smell of the sea, had craned to catch the first glimpse of the Indian coast.
Dawn revealed the low, sun-bleached profile of Bombay, then part of a chain of islands (later linked to form a peninsula). It compared unfavourably with Richard's childhood memories of the breathtaking Bay of Naples and with what he had read of Bombay's towers gleaming brightly against the dark blue sea. The only tower he could see was the spire of the Anglican Cathedral `sploched and corroded as if by gangrene'. But even worse disillusion was in store. Shortly afterwards the Government pilot arrived on board:
... excited questions were put to him, `What was he doing in Afghanistan? What of the war?' At his answer all hopes fell to zero. Lord Ellenborough had succeeded Lord Auckland. The avenging army had returned through the Khaybar Pass. The Campaign was finished ... and there was no chance of becoming Commander-in-Chief within the year.
Richard shook off the crashing disappointment philosophically. After all, he reasoned, he had sought travel and adventure and here he was in the most cosmopolitan city in the East.
There was no docking facility and the passengers the newly arrived cadets who were known in India as `Griffins' or `Griffs' were taken in a `shore boat' and landed at the Appolo Bunder, fondly regarded by generations of British travellers as the `Gateway to India'. Richard, determined to avoid being lumped together with the growing number of Victorians who published travel diaries full of breathless uncritical descriptions, rarely enthused in his travel writings. To him the great gateway was merely `a shabby doorway in the dingy old fortifications' which had been left behind by the Portuguese in 1661 when the island of Bombay was ceded to King Charles II on his marriage, as part of the dowry of the Princess Catherine of Braganza.
Having taken in the most immediate sights of Bombay which he found `marvelously picturesque', with its noisy, colourful crowds of people from every part of the East, yet disappointingly squalid, Richard parted from those friends he had made on the voyage and made his way to the British hotel at the Fort. Because it was run by an Englishman he blithely assumed it would maintain at least rudimentary standards, and after almost five months at sea in cramped, hot quarters he was eagerly anticipating the usual amenities of civilisation. He was appalled to find the hotel ...
an abomination. Its teas and curries haunted the sensorium of memory for the rest of man's natural life. The rooms were loose boxes, and at night intoxicated acquaintances stood upon chairs and amused themselves by looking over the thin cloth walls.
On the following day Richard reported himself for duty at the Presidency. A few days later not surprising given his description of his quarters he contracted the inevitable `seasoning sickness' (diarrhoea) of a new visitor to the East. `Sick with rage' over the lack of privacy and squalor of his accommodation, he reported to the Fort Surgeon, Dr J.W. `Paddy' Ryan, who arranged for Richard to move into the Sanatorium, a collection of small bungalows overlooking Back Bay which were cleaner and offered more privacy than the hotel. Nevertheless they were hovels in which `an Englishman tolerably well off would hardly kennel his dogs', and he had to share his two rooms with the permanent residents: lizards, and bandicoot rats that ran across his body at night and snuffled at him with `damp, uncomfortable snouts'. Dr Ryan cautioned Richard that the only way to survive India was to take several glasses of good port daily advice that Richard steadfastly adhered to throughout his time there.
At the Fort Richard immediately sought out the Parsee broker known as `the General' who made his living by being able to supply new arrivals with any item they had forgotten or found indispensable, from a needle to a buggy, or even a loan. Realising the inadequacy of his former language teachers Richard was desperate for tuition. Within days he was introduced to and had hired Dosabhai Sohrabji, also a Parsee, as his munshi (teacher). The old man, widely regarded as the best language teacher in Bombay, taught Hindustani, Gujerati, and a brand of Persian as spoken in India. Richard took to him immediately; he lapped up one-to-one teaching. He also hired a mubid, or priest, whose white cap and coat indicated that he had `coached many generations of griffs', and with these two mentors Richard threw himself into learning the Hindustani language with the passionate enthusiasm that became so characteristic whenever he set himself a task. One tutor took over when the first one tired; later they described Richard as `a man who could learn languages running'.
Apart from study, he had quickly recognised, there was little else for him to do to pass the time. The only part of the day cool enough for pleasurable riding was dawn or dusk. During the following weeks, while he was being `salted' (acclimatised), he spent some time wandering around the city trying out his Hindustani, his knowledge of which was improving rapidly. In the Bhindi Bazaar, the heart of Bombay, his senses were assaulted by the bright colours and heat, the variety of new sounds, the swarming crowds, the strange, spicy and sometimes unpleasant smells, the sheer vivacity of life that swirled around him. For all his expressed disgust at the squalor of India or rather the dirt, disease and poverty of Bombay at this point it is obvious from his writings that he revelled in the experience.
Captain Cleland, master of the John Knox had a sister who lived in Bombay and it was she who introduced Richard to `what passed in Bombay for Society', at which he stood `aghast'. It was, he said, a middle-class society suddenly elevated to the top of the tree, and which had `lost its head accordingly'; men whose parents at home were `small tradesmen ... found themselves ruling districts and commanding Regiments, riding in carriages ... and earning more in a month than their parents earned in a year'. Ability did not appear to be an essential asset for office, Richard noted sourly, all it took to obtain the highest positions in this petty, snobbish and bigoted colonial community was a connection with one of the `Kings of Leadenhall Street'. British customs such as `tiffin' (a heavy lunch eaten at 2 p.m.) and the accepted social niceties of Anglo-Indian life, most intended to bring a touch of `home' to the expatriates, he rejected as ridiculous, tiresome and inappropriate to the climate.
He was not averse to attending social functions, for besides the welcome though sparse female company (`thirty two cavaliers to three dames', he said) there was always a chance he might meet a senior officer who could be a useful connection in the future. In general, though, he was bored by the lengthy and substantial dinners, and startled by the coy husband-catching stratagems of the young women of `the fishing fleet' and their chaperones. It is clear that he quickly became as much an outsider in India as he had formerly been at Oxford.
Within a few weeks, one of the `rackety' fellow inmates of the Sanatorium had introduced Richard to the girls in the local brothel in the Bhindi Bazaar where `dark young persons in gaudy dress, mock jewels and hair japaned with cocoa-nut oil' sat or stood in the doorway of houses offering their services to male passers-by; but about this society and this episode, said Burton as he dictated his memoirs to his wife, `the less said ... the better'. Sexual curiosity and experimentation was common among British expatriates in the East, just as it was for those making the Grand Tour of Europe. The mere fact of being away from family and society, and the resulting lack of moral censorship, offered countless opportunities for exotic indulgence. Richard had lost his virginity as a teenager in Italy and was thereafter an enthusiastic exponent of the art of love-making.
Shortly after his arrival at Bombay, he had been advised that he was posted to the 18th Bombay Native Infantry (not the 14th as he had believed when he set out from England). On 14 November he was advised he was to be based at Baroda in Gujerat in the north-west of India, and six weeks after his arrival at Bombay he received his marching orders and set out to join his regiment.
By now, he had realised that his situation in India was not an enviable one. Though subject to both the East India Company's rules and the Queen's Regulations, service in the former's army was considered inferior to that of the latter. The officers in the Queen's service regarded the Company's army as a second-rate service little more than a policing force staffed by the lower middle classes, and treated its officers accordingly. This was bad enough, but Company officers were unable, except in exceptional circumstances, to rise to high ranks. Richard's natural arrogance and sense of superiority bristled at the pettiness engendered by this form of class distinction, which ran through local society as well as through the two armies, and also at the unfairness for it was an indisputable fact that the Company's army had seen as much, if not more, military action on the subcontinent.
He was also shaken by his first sight of sepoys, the native soldiers who served under the British in India. He described them as sloppy, scruffy individuals with unkempt hair and greasy ill-fitting uniforms that were a travesty of the British scarlet. These were the men he was to command. With no prospect of war in which to win his laurels, his life in the Company's army stretched before him; an endless round of military duties in camp, punctuated by leaves to Bombay where for the most part any society he was likely to encounter was, to him, stultifyingly banal. He saw quite clearly that if he was content to live as other officers he could enjoy the easy, pleasant life of the ruling class in India, a round of polite social diversions and shikar, or sport. `But,' he said, `some are vain enough to want more, and of these fools was I.' He was more trapped than he had been at Oxford, and it was in this mood that he consciously or unconsciously sought a project to keep himself sane.
Since the moment of his arrival in the subcontinent he had been fascinated by the diversity and richness of India's national cultures. Judging by the writings of his contemporaries, the intensity of his interest was unusual. Though he was undeniably a child of the society that believed God was an Englishman- he fully subscribed to the belief that the British were superior he had never acquired a sentimental love for England as `home'. This alone set him apart, but nor did he regard the inhabitants of the subcontinent as merely `uncivilised natives', and he was scornful as he noted that many of his brother-officers regarded the `natives (very often far better than themselves) as faggots ready for burning ...' There was not a subaltern, he said sardonically `who did not consider himself perfectly capable of governing a million Hindus'.
While he himself had been appalled at his first sight of a sepoy in his shabby travesty of regimental dress, Richard soon concluded that the same man `in his national dress was uncommonly picturesque, with his long hair let down, his light jacket of white cotton, his salmon-coloured waistcloth falling to his ankles in graceful folds, and his feet in slippers of bright cloth somewhat like the pieds d'ours of the mediaeval man-at-arms'. And as to their character, he was to conclude, `They are stout hearts and true, these fellows ... and you may ... rely upon their faith and loyalty.'
Richard's writings on India are sprinkled throughout with references to the squalor and unwholesomeness of life there; he never overcame his disgust with the dirt and misery of its teeming cities, but he was fascinated with its social anthropology and ethnology. He wanted to know more. The small amount of Hindustani he had learned, spoken at first haltingly and then with increasing confidence, had already stood him in good stead but in the babble of languages (there are more than 200 languages and dialects spoken in India) it gave him access to only a small part of the community. In order to study the cultures of India in any depth he would need half-a-dozen or more languages, at least, and by the time he set out from Bombay he already had this objective in his sights. He also believed that linguistic proficiency could provide him with a route to promotion in the absence of military action. He was looking forward to his trip to Baroda, and to seeing the real India. Bombay with its centuries of European domination was more garrison than town, he thought.
Just as the quarrel between George IV and Caroline of Brunswick had a fateful effect on Richard's childhood, the results of this seemingly innocuous resolution made by the hopeful 21-year-old subaltern would also have life-altering effects.
Meet the Author
Mary S. Lovell's best-selling biographies include Straight on Till Morning (Beryl Markham) and The Sisters (the Mitford family). She lives in England.
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For several years, my wife kept suggesting that I write a Burton biography that would center on his relationship with his wife. Wouldn't you know it, someone comes out with what is perhaps the definitive version of Burton's life, complete with wife Isabel right beside him. This is a comprehensively researched and intelligently written biography of a man who once described himself as a 'blaze of light without a focus.'