The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 1/Chapter 10

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My beloved is mine, and I am his.

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm:
For love is strong as death.

The Song of Solomon.

IT was Christmas, 1860, that I went to stop with my relatives, Sir Clifford and Lady Constable (his first wife, née Chichester), at Burton Constable—the father and mother of the present baronet. There was a large party in the house, and we were singing; some one propped up the music with the Times, which had just arrived, and the first announcement that caught my eye was that "Captain R. F. Burton had arrived from America."

I was unable, except by great resolution, to continue what I was doing. I soon retired to my room, and sat up all night, packing, and conjecturing how I should get away—all my numerous plans tending to a "bolt" next morning—should I get an affectionate letter from Richard. I received two; one had been opened and read by somebody else, and one, as it afterwards turned out, had been burked at home before forwarding. It was not an easy matter. I was in a large country house in Yorkshire, with about twenty-five friends and relatives, amongst whom was one brother, and I had heaps of luggage. We were blocked up with snow, and nine miles from the station, and (contra miglior noler voler mal pugna) I had heard of his arrival only early in the evening, and twelve hours later I managed to get a telegram, ordering me to London, under the impression that it was of the most vital importance.

What a triumph it is to a woman's heart, when she has patiently and courageously worked and prayed and suffered, and the moment is realized that was the goal of her ambition!

As soon as we met, and had had our talk, he said:

"I have waited for five years. The first three were inevitable, on account of my journey to Africa, but the last two were not. Our lives are being spoiled by the unjust prejudice of your mother, and it is for you to consider whether you have not already done your duty in sacrificing two of the best years of your life out of respect to her. If once you really let me go, mind, I shall never come back, because I shall know that you have not got the strength of character which my wife must have. Now you must make up your mind to choose between your mother and me. If you choose me, we marry, and I stay; if not, I go back to India, and on other explorations, and I return no more. Is your answer ready?"

I said, "Quite! I marry you this day three weeks, let who will say nay."

When we fixed the date of our marriage, I wanted to be married on Wednesday, the 23rd, because it was the Espousals of Our Lady and St. Joseph; but he would not, because Wednesday the 23rd and Friday the 13th were our unlucky days; so we were married on the Vigil, Tuesday, January 22.

We pictured to ourselves much domestic happiness, with youth, health, courage, and talent to win honour, name, and position. We had the same tastes, and perfect confidence in each other. No one turns away from real happiness without some very strong temptation or delusion. I went straight to my father and mother, and told them what had occurred. My father said, "I consent with all my heart, if your mother consents"; and mother said, "Never!" I asked all my brothers and sisters, and they said they would receive him with delight. My mother offered me a marriage with my father and brothers present, my mother and sisters not. I felt that this was a slight upon him, a slight upon his family, and a slur upon me, which I did not deserve, and I refused it. I went to Cardinal Wiseman, and I told him the whole case as it stood, and he asked me if my mind was absolutely made up, and I said, "Absolutely." Then he said, "Leave the matter to me." He requested Richard to call upon him, and asked him if he would give him three promises in writing—(1) that I should be allowed the free practice of my religion; (2) that if we had any children they should be brought up Catholics; (3) that we should be married in the Catholic Church: which three promises Richard readily signed. He also amused the Cardinal, as the family afterwards learnt, by saying sharply, "Practise her religion indeed! I should rather think she shall. A man without a religion may be excused, but a woman without a religion is not the woman for me." The Cardinal then sent for me, promised me his protection, said he would himself procure a special dispensation from Rome, and that he would perform the ceremony himself. He then saw my father, who told him how much opposed my mother was to it; that she was threatened with paralysis; that we had to consider her in every possible way, that she might receive no shocks, no agitation; but that all the rest quite consented to the marriage. A big family council was then held; and it was agreed far better for Richard and me and for every one to make all proper arrangements to be married and to be attended by friends, and for me to go away on a visit to some friends, that they might not come to the wedding, nor participate in it, in order not to agitate my mother; that they would break it to her at a suitable time; and that the secret of their knowing it should be kept up as long as mother lived. "Mind," said my father, "you must never bring a misunderstanding between mother and me, nor between her and her children."

I passed that three weeks preparing very solemnly and earnestly for my marriage day, but yet something differently to what many expectant brides do. I made a very solemn religious preparation, receiving the Sacraments. Gowns, presents, and wedding pageants had no part in it, had no place.

The following were my reflections[2]:

"The principal and leading features of my future life are going to be:

"Marriage with Richard.

"My parents' blessing and pardon.

"A man-child.

"An appointment, money earned by literature and publishing.

"A little society.

"Doing a great deal of good.

"Much travelling.

"I have always divided marriage into three classes—Love, Ambition, and Life. By Life I mean a particular style of life and second self that a peculiar disposition and strong character require to make life happy, and without which possibly neither Love alone nor Ambition alone would satisfy it. And I love a man in whom I can unite all three, Love, Life, and Ambition, of my own choice. Some understand Ambition as Title, Wealth, Estates; I understand it as Fame, Name, Power. I have undertaken a very peculiar man; I have asked a difficult mission of God, and that is to give me that man's body and soul. It is a grand mission; and after ten years and a half of prayer God has given it to me. Now we must lead a good, useful, active, noble life, and be each other's salvation; and if we have children, bring them up in the fear of God. The first thing to be done is to obtain my parents' pardon and blessing for going my own way; the next, to pray for a child to comfort me when he is absent and cannot take me; and, thirdly, to set to work with a good heart to work for an appointment or other means of living. We must do any amount of study and publishing, take society in moderation as a treat; we must do good according to our means; and when successful we will travel. My rules as a wife are as follows:

Rules for my Guidance as a Wife.

"1. Let your husband find in you a companion, friend, and adviser, and confidante, that he may miss nothing at home; and let him find in the wife what he and many other men fancy is only to be found in a mistress, that he may seek nothing out of his home.
"2. Be a careful nurse when he is ailing, that he may never be in low spirits about his health without a serious cause.
"3. Make his home snug. If it be ever so small and poor, there can always be a certain chic about it. Men are always ashamed of a poverty-stricken home, and therefore prefer the club. Attend much to his creature comforts; allow smoking or anything else; for if you do not, somebody else will. Make it yourself cheerful and attractive, and draw relations and intimates about him, and the style of society (literati) that suits him, marking who are real friends to him and who are not.
"4. Improve and educate yourself in every way, that you may enter into his pursuits and keep pace with the times, that he may not weary of you.
"5. Be prepared at any moment to follow him at an hour's notice and rough it like a man.
"6. Do not try to hide your affection for him, but let him see and feel it in every action. Never refuse him anything he asks. Observe a certain amount of reserve and delicacy before him. Keep up the honeymoon romance, whether at home or in the desert. At the same time do not make prudish bothers, which only disgust, and are not true modesty. Do not make the mistake of neglecting your personal appearance, but try to look well and dress well to please his eye.
"7. Perpetually work up his interests with the world, whether for publishing or for appointments. Let him feel, when he has to go away, that he leaves a second self in charge of his affairs at home; so that if sometimes he is obliged to leave you behind, he may have nothing of anxiety on his mind. Take an interest in everything that interests him. To be companionable, a woman must learn what interests her husband; and if it is only planting turnips, she must try to understand turnips.
"8. Never confide your domestic affairs to your female friends.
"9. Hide his faults from every one, and back him up through every difficulty and trouble; but with his peculiar temperament advocate peace whenever it is consistent with his honour before the world.
"10. Never permit any one to speak disrespectfully of him before you; and if any one does, no matter how difficult, leave the room. Never permit any one to tell you anything about him, especially of his conduct with regard to other women. Never hurt his feelings by a rude remark or jest. Never answer when he finds fault; and never reproach him when he is in the wrong, especially when he tells you of it, nor take advantage of it when you are angry; and always keep his heart up when he has made a failure.
"11. Keep all disagreements for your own room, and never let others find them out.
"12. Never ask him not to do anything—for instance, with regard to visiting other women, or any one you particularly dislike; trust him, and tell him everything, except another person's secret.
"13. Do not bother him with religious talk, be religious yourself and give good example, take life seriously and earnestly, pray for and procure prayers for him, and do all you can for him without his knowing it, and let all your life be something that will win mercy from God for him. You might try to say a little prayer with him every night before laying down to sleep, and gently draw him to be good to the poor and more gentle and forbearing to others.
"14. Cultivate your own good health, spirits, and nerves, to counteract his naturally melancholy turn, and to enable you to carry out your mission.
"15. Never open his letters, nor appear inquisitive about anything he does not volunteer to tell you.
"16. Never interfere between him and his family; encourage their being with him, and forward everything he wishes to do for them, and treat them in every respect (as far as they will let you) as if they were your own.
"17. Keep everything going, and let nothing ever be at a standstill: nothing would weary him like stagnation."[3]

Richard arranged with my own lawyer and my own priest that everything should be conducted in a strictly legal and strictly religious way, and the whole programme of the affair was prepared. A very solemn day to me was the eve of my marriage. The following day I was supposed to be going to pass a few weeks with a friend in the country.

At nine o'clock on Tuesday, January 22, 1861, my cab was at the door, with my box on it. I had to go and wish my father and mother good-bye before leaving. I went downstairs with a beating heart, after I had knelt in my own room, and said a fervent prayer that they might bless me, and if they did I would take it as a sign. I was so nervous, I could scarcely stand. When I went in mother kissed me, and said, "Good-bye, child; God bless you!" I went to my father's bedside, and knelt down and said good-bye. "God bless you, my darling!" he said, and put his hand out of the bed and laid it on my head. I was too much overcome to speak, and one or two tears ran down my cheeks, and I remember as I passed down I kissed the door outside.

I then ran downstairs, and quickly got into my cab, and drove to the house of some friends (Dr. and Miss Bird), where I changed my clothes—not wedding clothes (clothes which most brides of to-day would probably laugh at)—a fawn-coloured dress, a black-lace cloak, and a white bonnet—and they and I drove off to the Bavarian Catholic Church, Warwick Street. When assembled, we were altogether a party of eight. The Registrar was there for legality, as is customary. Richard was waiting on the doorstep for me, and as we went in he took holy water, and made a very large sign of the cross. The church doors were wide open, and full of people, and many were there who knew us. As the 10.30 Mass was about to begin we were called into the Sacristy, and we then found that the Cardinal in the night had been seized with an acute attack of the illness which carried him off four years later, and had deputed Dr. Hearne, his Vicar-General, to be his proxy.

After the ceremony was over and the names signed, we went back to the house of our friend Dr. Bird and his sister Alice, who have always been our best friends, where we had our wedding breakfast. During the time we were breakfasting Dr. Bird began to chaff Richard about the things that were sometimes said of him, and which were not true. "Now, Burton, tell me, how do you feel when you have killed a man?" Dr. Bird (being a physician) had given himself away without knowing it. Richard looked up quizzically, and drawled out, "Oh, quite jolly! How do you?"[4]

The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton - Burton at marriage.jpg


We then went to Richard's bachelor lodgings, where he had a bedroom, dressing-room, and sitting-room; and we had very few pounds to bless ourselves with, but were as happy as it is given to any mortals out of heaven to be. The fact is, that the only clandestine thing about it—and that was quite contrary to my desire—was that my poor mother, with her health and her religious scruples, was kept in the dark; but I must thank God, though paralysis came on two years later, it was not I that caused it.

To say that I was happy would be to say nothing. A peace came over me that I had never known. I felt that it was for eternity, an immortal repose, and I was in a bewilderment of wonder at the goodness of God, Who had almost worked miracles for me.

  1. This chapter is a condensed account of Lady Burton's marriage, as related by herself in her Life of her husband, with some fresh material added.
  2. From her devotional book Laméd.
  3. She wrote in her book Laméd in 1864: "All has been carried out by God's help, with the only exception that He saw it was not good to give us children, for which we are now most grateful. Whatever happens to us is always for the best."
  4. Miss Alice Bird, who knew Sir Richard and Lady Burton for many years, has told me the following details about the wedding. The Birds were friends of the Arundell family, and Isabel came to them and told them how matters stood with regard to Mrs. Arundell's opposition and her ill-health, and asked if she might be married from their house, and so, to use her own phrase, "throw the mantle of respectability over the marriage," to prevent people saying that it was a runaway match. Dr. Bird and his sister gladly consented; they accompanied her to the church, and when the ceremony was over the newly wedded couple returned to their house in Welbeck Street, where they had a simple luncheon, which did duty for the wedding breakfast.

    After luncheon was over Isabel and her husband walked off down Welbeck Street to their lodging in St. James's, where they settled down without any fuss whatever. She had sent her boxes on ahead in a four-wheeler. That evening a bachelor friend of Burton's called in at the lodging in St. James's, and found Isabel seated there, in every sense mistress of the situation, and Burton proudly introduced her as "My wife." They did not send the friend away, but kept him there to smoke and have a chat with them.