The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 3/Chapter 1

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Now I indeed will hide desire and all repine,
And light up this my fire that neighbours see no sign:
Accept I what befalls by order of my Lord,
Haply he too accept this humble act of mine.
Alf Laylah wa Laylah
(Burton's "Arabian Nights").

SIR RICHARD BURTON'S funeral was attended by a great crowd of mourners and representatives of every class in Trieste. The Austrian authorities accorded him military honours, and the Bishop of Trieste conceded all the rites of the Church. His remains were laid, with much pomp and circumstance, in their temporary resting-place—a small chapel in the burial-ground—until his widow could take them back with her to England. The funeral over, Lady Burton returned to her desolate house—a home no longer, for the loved presence which had made the palazzo a home, as it would have made a home to her of the humblest hut on earth, was gone for ever. The house was but an empty shell. Sir Richard Burton's death had been so sudden and unexpected that none of Lady Burton's near relatives, her sisters, were able to reach her in time; and though they had telegraphed to her offering to come at once, she had replied asking them not to undertake the journey. And so it came about that, in this hour of sorest trial, she was absolutely alone. She had no one to turn to in her grief; she had no children's love to solace her; she had no son to say, "Mother, lean on me"; no daughter to share her sorrow. Friends she had in plenty, and friends such as the world rarely gives, but they could not intrude their sympathy overmuch at such a time as this. Moreover, she had concentrated all her affections on her husband; she had lived so entirely for him, and in him, that she had not formed any of those intimate friendships in which some women delight. She had, in short, put all her earthly happiness in one frail barque, and it had foundered.

Hitherto we have followed her through her wedded life, that beautiful union which was more like a poem than an ordinary marriage. We have seen how the love which she bore her husband had sanctified her life, and his, lifting it above and beyond the ordinary love of men and women, glorifying all things, even her meanest tasks, for they were done in love's holy name. We have seen how she knew no fear, spared herself no pain, heeded no rebuff in the service of the man she loved. We have followed her in journeyings often, in perils of sea, in perils of robbers, in perils of the heathen, in perils of the wilderness, in weariness and sorrow, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, and besides these things that were without, bearing those secret sorrows—"my beloved secret cross" she called them—which are known only to the soul and its God. We have seen all this, the full, perfect, glorious life which she lived by the side of the man she loved; in the brief survey of the few broken years left to her on earth, we shall henceforth see her alone—alone, yet not alone, for the Divine love went with her, and with her also was ever present the memory of an earthly love, a love purified and holy, growing nearer and nearer to the love of the perfect day.

If we were to search the wide world over, ransack history, dive deep into the annals of the past, I doubt if there would be found any more perfect example of unselfish love than that which is exemplified in the wedded life of this woman. With her it was always "Richard only." It is with this thought in our minds that we approach her crowning act of self-sacrifice; her last supreme offering on the altar of her love. I refer to the act whereby she deliberately sacrificed the provision her husband had made for her, and faced poverty, and the contumely of her enemies, for the sake of his fair memory.

Lady Burton's first act after her husband's death was to lock up his manuscripts and papers to secure them against all curious and prying eyes—a wise and necessary act under the circumstances, and one which was sufficient to show that, great though her grief was, it did not rob her for one moment of her faculties. As soon as her husband's funeral was over, she went back to his rooms, locked the door securely, and examined carefully all his books and papers, burning those which he had desired to be burnt, and sorting and classifying the others. Among the manuscripts was Sir Richard's translation of the notorious Scented Garden, Men's Hearts to Gladden, of the Shaykh el Nafzawih, which he had been working at the day before his death, completed all but one page, and the proceeds of which he had told his wife were to form her jointure. As his original edition of The Arabian Nights had brought in £10,000 profit, the Scented Garden, beside which The Arabian Nights was a "baby tale," might reasonably have been expected to have produced as much, if not more. Indeed, a few days after Sir Richard's death, a man offered Lady Burton six thousand guineas down for the manuscript as it stood, and told her that he would relieve her of all risk and responsibility in the matter. She might, therefore, easily have closed with this offer without any one being the wiser, and if she had been inclined to drive a bargain, she would doubtless have had no difficulty in securing double the price. As her husband's death had reduced her to comparative poverty, the temptation to an ordinary woman, even a good and conscientious woman, would have been irresistible; she could have taken the money, and have quieted her conscience with some of those sophistries which we can all call to our aid on occasion. But Lady Burton was not an ordinary woman, and the money side of the question never weighed with her for one moment. How she acted at this crisis in her life is best told by herself.

"My husband had been collecting for fourteen years information and materials on a certain subject. His last volume of The Supplemental Nights had been finished and out on November 13, 1888. He then gave himself up entirely to the writing of this book, which was called The Scented Garden, a translation from the Arabic. It treated of a certain passion. Do not let any one suppose for a moment that Richard Burton ever wrote a thing from the impure point of view. He dissected a passion from every point of view, as a doctor may dissect a body, showing its source, its origin, its evil, and its good, and its proper uses, as designed by Providence and Nature, as the great Academician Watts paints them. In private life he was the most pure, the most refined and modest man that ever lived, and he was so guileless himself that he could never be brought to believe that other men said or used these things from any other standpoint. I, as a woman, think differently. The day before he died he called me into his room and showed me half a page of Arabic manuscript upon which he was working, and he said, "To-morrow I shall have finished this, and I promise you after this I will never write another book upon this subject. I will take to our biography." I told him it would be a happy day when he left off that subject, and that the only thing that reconciled me to it was, that the doctors had said that it was so fortunate, with his partial loss of health, that he could find something to interest and occupy his days. He said, "This is to be your jointure, and the proceeds are to be set apart for an annuity for you"; and I said, "I hope not; I hope you will live to spend it like the other.' He said, "I am afraid it will make a great row in England, because The Arabian Nights was a baby tale in comparison to this, and I am in communication with several men in England about it.' The next morning, at 7 a.m., he had ceased to exist. Some days later, when I locked myself up in his rooms, and sorted and examined the manuscripts, I read this one. No promise had been exacted from me, because the end had been so unforeseen, and I remained for three days in a state of perfect torture as to what I ought to do about it. During that time I received an offer from a man whose name shall be always kept private, of six thousand guineas for it. He said, 'I know from fifteen hundred to two thousand men who will buy it at four guineas, i.e. at two guineas the volume; and as I shall not restrict myself to numbers, but supply all applicants on payment, I shall probably make 20,000 out of it.' I said to myself, "Out of fifteen hundred men, fifteen will probably read it in the spirit of science in which it was written; the other fourteen hundred and eighty-five will read it for filth's sake, and pass it to their friends, and the harm done may be incalculable.' 'Bury it,' said one adviser; 'don't decide.' 'That means digging it up again and reproducing at will.' 'Get a man to do it for you,' said No. 2; 'don't appear in it.' 'I have got that,' I said. 'I can take in the world, but I cannot deceive God Almighty, who holds my husband's soul in His hands.' I tested one man who was very earnest about it: 'Let us go and consult So-and-so'; but he, with a little shriek of horror, said, 'Oh, pray don't let me have anything to do with it; don't let my name get mixed up in it, but it is a beautiful book I know.'

I sat down on the floor before the fire at dark, to consult my own heart, my own head. How I wanted a brother! My head told me that sin is the only rolling stone that gathers moss; that what a gentleman, a scholar, a man of the world may write when living, he would see very differently to what the poor soul would see standing naked before its God, with its good or evil deeds alone to answer for, and their consequences visible to it for the first moment, rolling on to the end of time. Oh for a friend on earth to stop and check them! What would he care for the applause of fifteen hundred men now for the whole world's praise, and God offended. My heart said, 'You can have six thousand guineas; your husband worked for you, kept you in a happy home, with honour and respect for thirty years. How are you going to reward him? That your wretched body may be fed and clothed and warmed for a few miserable months or years, will you let that soul, which is part of your soul, be left out in cold and darkness till the end of time, till all those sins which may have been committed on account of reading those writings have been expiated, or passed away perhaps for ever? Why, it would be just parallel with the original thirty pieces of silver!' I fetched the manuscript and laid it on the ground before me, two large volumes' worth. Still my thoughts were, Was it a sacrilege? It was his magnum opus; his last work that he was so proud of, that was to have been finished on the awful morrow—that never came. Will he rise up in his grave and curse me or bless me? The thought will haunt me to death, but Sadi and El Shaykh el Nafzawih, who were pagans, begged pardon of God and prayed not to be cast into hell fire for having written them, and implored their friends to pray for them to the Lord, that He would have mercy on them. And then I said, 'Not only not for six thousand guineas, but not for six million guineas will I risk it.' Sorrowfully, reverently, and in fear and trembling, I burnt sheet after sheet, until the whole of the volumes were consumed."[1]

As to the act itself I am not called upon to express any opinion. But there can be no two opinions among fair-minded people as to the heroism, the purity, and the sublime self-sacrifice of the motives which prompted Lady Burton to this deed. Absolutely devoted to her husband and his interests as she had been in his lifetime, she was equally jealous of his honour now that he was dead. Nothing must tarnish the brightness of his good name. It was this thought, above all others, which led her to burn The Scented Garden. For this act the vials of misrepresentation and abuse were poured on Lady Burton's head. She was accused of the "bigotry of a Torquemada, the vandalism of a John Knox." She has been called hysterical and illiterate. It has been asserted that she did it from selfish motives," for the sake of her own salvation, through the promptings of a benighted religion," for fear of the legal consequences which might fall upon her if she sold the book, for love of gain, for love of notoriety, for love of "posing as a martyr," and so on, and so on. She was publicly vilified and privately abused, pursued with obscene, anonymous, and insulting letters until the day of her death. In fact, every imputation was hurled at her, and she who might have answered all her persecutors with a word, held her peace, or broke it only to put them on another track. It was not merely the act itself which caused her suffering; it was the long persecution which followed her from the day her letter appeared in The Morning Post almost to the day she died. How keenly she felt it none but those who knew her best will ever know. A proud, high-spirited woman, she had never schooled herself to stay her hand, but generally gave her adversaries back blow for blow; but these cowardly attacks she bore in silence, nay more, she counted all the suffering as gain, for she was bearing it for the sake of the man she loved. And this silence would never have been broken, and the true reasons which led Lady Burton to act as she did would never have been told to the world, had it not been that, after her death, a woman, whom she had never injured by thought, word, or deed, has seen fit to rake up this unpleasant subject again, for the purpose of throwing mud on her memory, impugning her motives, and belittling the magnitude of her sacrifice.

It is solely in defence that the truth is now told. I have never read Sir Richard's translation of The Scented Garden, for the simple reason that there is none in existence (notwithstanding all that has been said to the contrary); the only two copies were destroyed by his widow. But I have read another translation of the book, mainly the work of a man who was also an Orientalist and a distinguished soldier, which, though doubtless inferior to Burton's, is more than sufficient to give one full knowledge of the character of the book. I have read also Burton's original and unexpurgated edition of Alf Laylah wa Laylah and his Terminal Essay, including the Section which is omitted in all later editions, and certain other unpublished notes of his on the same subject. Lady Burton also talked with me freely on the matter. I know therefore of what I speak, and am not in the same position as Lady Burton's latest accuser, who declares with quite unnecessary emphasis that she has never read The Arabian Nights, and of course never saw the burnt manuscript of The Scented Garden. She is therefore obviously disqualified to express any opinion on the subject.

So far as I can gather from all I have learned, the chief value of Burton's version of The Scented Garden lay not so much in his translation of the text, though that of course was admirably done, as in the copious notes and explanations which he had gathered together for the purpose of annotating the book. He had made this subject a study of years. For the notes of the book alone he had been collecting material for thirty years, though his actual translation of it only took him eighteen months. The theme of The Scented Garden is one which is familiar to every student of Oriental literature. Burton, who was nothing if not thorough in all he undertook, did not ignore this. In fact, one may say that from his early manhood he had been working at it, as he commenced his inquiries soon after his arrival in India. Lady Burton, it will be seen, says he "dissected a passion from every point of view, as a doctor may dissect a body, showing its source, its origin, its evil, and its good, and its proper uses, as designed by Providence and Nature"; that is, Burton pursued his inquiries on this subject in the same spirit as that which has animated Kraft-Ebbing and Moll, and other men of science. But from what I have read in The Arabian Nights and elsewhere, it seems to me that Burton's researches in this direction were rather of an ethnological and historical character than a medical or scientific one. His researches had this peculiarity, that whereas most of the writers on this subject speak from hearsay, Burton's information was obtained at first hand, by dint of personal inquiries. Thus it came about that he was misunderstood. For a man, especially a young soldier whose work is not generally supposed to lie in the direction of scientific and ethnological investigation, to undertake such inquiries was to lay himself open to unpleasant imputations. People are not apt to distinguish between scientific motives and unworthy ones, and so Burton found it. His contemporaries and comrades in India did not understand him, and what people do not understand they often dislike. In his regiment he soon incurred odium, and a cloud of prejudice enveloped him. Unfortunately, too, he was not overwise; and he had a habit of telling tales against himself, partly out of bravado, which of course did not tend to improve matters. People are very apt to be taken at their own valuation, especially if their valuation be a bad one. It must not be supposed that I am giving countenance, colour, or belief to these rumours against Burton for a moment: on the contrary, I believe them to be false and unjust; but false and unjust though they were, they were undoubtedly believed by many, and herein was the gathering of the cloud which hung over Burton's head through the earlier part of his official career. To prove that I am not drawing on my own imagination with regard to this theory, I quote the following, told in Burton's own words:—

"In 1845, when Sir Charles Napier had conquered and annexed Sind, ... it was reported to me that Karachi, a townlet of some two thousand souls, and distant not more than a mile from camp. . . . Being then the only British officer who could speak Sindi, I was asked indirectly to make inquiries, and to report upon the subject; and I undertook the task on the express condition that my report should not be forwarded to the Bombay Government, from whom supporters of the conqueror's policy could expect scant favour, mercy, or justice. Accompanied by a Munshi, Mirza Mohammed Hosayn Shiraz, and habited as a merchant, Mirza Abdullah the Bushiri passed many an evening in the townlet, visited all the porneia, and obtained the fullest details, which were duly dispatched to Government House. But the 'Devil's Brother' presently quitted Sind, leaving in his office my unfortunate official; this found its way with sundry other reports to Bombay, and produced the expected result. A friend in the secretariat informed me that my summary dismissal had been formally proposed by one of Sir Charles Napier's successors, whose decease compels me parcere sepulto, but this excess of outraged modesty was not allowed."[2]

Burton was not dismissed from the Service, it is true, but the unfavourable impression created by the incident remained. He was refused the post he coveted—namely, to accompany the second expedition to Mooltan as interpreter; and seeing all prospect of promotion at an end for the present, he obtained a long furlough, and came home from India under a cloud. Evil rumour travels fast; and when he went to Boulogne (the time and place where he first met Isabel), there were plenty of people ready to whisper ill things concerning him. When he returned to India two years after, notwithstanding his Mecca exploit, he found prejudice still strong against him, and nothing he could do seemed to remove it. His enemies in India and at home were not slow to use it against him. One can trace its baleful influence throughout his subsequent career. Lady Burton, whose vigilance on her husband's behalf never slept, and who would never rest until she confronted his enemies, got to know of it. When I know not, in what way I know not, but the fact that sooner or later she did get to know of it is indisputable. How she fought to dispel this cloud none but herself will ever know. Official displeasure she could brave, definite charges she could combat; but this baseless rumour, shadowy, indefinite, intangible, ever eluded her, but eluded her only to reappear. She could not grasp it. She was conscious that the thing was in the air, so to speak, but she could not even assume its existence. She could only take her stand by her husband, and point to his blameless life and say, "You are all the world to me; I trust you and believe in you with all my heart and soul." And in this her wisdom was justified, for at last the calumny died down, as all calumnies must die, for lack of sustenance.

When The Arabian Nights came out, at which she had worked so hard to manage the business arrangements, Lady Burton did not read the book throughout; she had promised her husband not to do so. She had perhaps a vague idea of some of its contents, for she raised objections. He explained them away, and she then worked heart and soul to ensure its success. The success which the book achieved, and the praise with which it was greeted, were naturally gratifying to her, and did much to dispel any objections which she might have had, especially when it is remembered that this book yielded profits which enabled her to procure for her husband every comfort and luxury for his declining years. It has been urged against her that she was extravagant because, when Burton died, only four florins remained of the 10,000 which they had netted by The Arabian Nights; but when it is borne in mind that she spent every penny upon her husband and not a penny upon herself, it is not possible that the charge of extravagance can be maintained against her —certainly not in a selfish sense.

When Burton took to translating The Scented Garden, he acquainted his wife to some extent with its contents, and she objected. But he overcame her objections, as he had done before, and the thought that the money would be needed to maintain her husband in the same comfort as he had enjoyed during the last few years weighed down her scruples; besides which, though she had a general idea that the book was not virginibus purisque, she had no knowledge of its real character. When therefore she read it for the first time, in the lonely days of her early widowhood, with the full shock of her sudden loss upon her, and a vivid sense of the worthlessness of all earthly gain brought home to her, she naturally did not look at things from the worldly point of view. She has told with graphic power how she sat down with locked doors to read this book, and how she read it through carefully, page by page; and it must be remembered that it was not Burton's translation alone which she read, but also the notes and evidence which he had collected on the subject. Then it was that the real nature of its contents was brought home to her, and she determined to act. It has been said that she only "half understood" what she read. Alas! she understood but too well, for here was the nameless horror which she had tried to track to earth leaping up again and staring her in the face. She knew well enough what interpretations her husband's enemies—those enemies whom even the grave does not silence—would place upon this book; how they would turn and twist it about, and put the worst construction upon his motives, and so blur the fair mirror of his memory. Burton wrote as a scholar and an ethnologist writing to scholars and ethnologists. But take what precautions he would, sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, the character of his book would ooze out to the world, and the ignorant world judges harshly. So she burnt the manuscript leaf by leaf; and by the act she consummated her life sacrifice of love.

I repeat that her regard for her husband's memory was her supreme reason for this act. That there were minor reasons is not denied: she herself has stated them. There was the thought of the harm a book of this kind might do; there was the thought of her responsibility to God and man; there was the thought of the eternal welfare of her husband's soul. She has stated, "It is my belief that by this act, if my husband's soul were weighed down, the cords were cut, and it was left free to soar to its native heaven." It is easy to sneer at such a sentiment as this, but the spiritual was very real with Lady Burton. All these minor considerations, therefore, weighed with her in addition to the greatest of them all. On the other hand, there came to her the thought that it was the first time she had ever gone against her husband's wishes, and now that he was dead they were doubly sacred to her. The mental struggle which she underwent was a terrible one: it was a conflict which is not given to certain lower natures to know, and not knowing it, they can neither understand nor sympathize. I make bold to say that the sacrifice which she made, and the motives which prompted her to make it, will stand to her honour as long as her name is remembered.

There remain two other considerations: the first is—Why did she make this act known to the world at all? Surely it would have been better from every point of view to have veiled it in absolute secrecy. She has given the answer in her own words: "I was obliged to confess this because there were fifteen hundred men expecting the book, and I did not quite know how to get at them; also I wanted to avoid unpleasant hints by telling the truth." In other words, there was a large number of Burton's supporters, persons who had subscribed to The Arabian Nights, and all his literary friends, with whom he was in constant communication, who knew that he was working at The Scented Garden, and were eagerly expecting it. Lady Burton burned the manuscript in October, 1890; she did not make her public confession of the act in The Morning Post until June, 1891, nearly nine months after the event. During all this time she was continually receiving letters asking what had become of the book which she knew that she had destroyed. What course was open to her? One answer suggests itself: send a circular or write privately to all these people, saying that the book would not come out at all. But this was impossible because she did not know all of "the little army of her husband's admiring subscribers"; she neither knew their names nor their addresses; and apart from the endless worry and difficulty of answering letters which such a course would have entailed, a garbled version of the facts would be sure to have leaked out, and then she would have had to contradict the misstatements publicly. Or perhaps spurious copies of The Scented Garden professing to be Sir Richard's translation might have been foisted upon the public, and she would have been under the necessity of denouncing them. So she argued that it was best to have the thing over and done with once for all, to make a clean breast of it, and let the world say what it pleased. In this I cannot but think that she was right, though she often said, "I have never regretted for a moment having burned it, but I shall regret all my life having made it known publicly, though I could hardly have done otherwise. I did not know my public, I did not know England." Here I think she was wrong in confusing England with a few anonymous letter-writers and scurrilous persons; for however opinions may differ upon the act itself, its wisdom or unwisdom, all right-thinking people honoured her for the sacrifice which she had made. They would have honoured her even more if they had known that she had done it for the sake of her husband's name!

Her latest and most malevolent accuser, Miss Stisted, has also urged against her that by this act she conveyed a "wrong impression concerning the character of the book," and so cast a slur upon her husband's memory. A wrong impression! The ignorance and animus of this attack are obvious. The character of the manuscript was well known: it was the translation of a notorious book.

The story of Burton's inquiries in this unpleasant field was known too, if not to the many at least to the few, and his enemies had not scrupled to place the worst construction on his motives. His wife knew this but too well, and she fought the prejudice with sleepless vigilance all the years of her married life, and by this last act of hers did her best to bury it in oblivion. Surely it is cruelly unjust to say that it was she who cast the slur!

And now to refer to another matter. Miss Stisted animadverts on Lady Burton's having sold the library edition of The Arabian Nights in 1894 "with merely a few excisions absolutely indispensable." "Coming as it did so soon," she says, "after her somewhat theatrical destruction of The Scented Garden" this act "could not be permitted to pass unchallenged." She not only charges Lady Burton with inconsistency, but hints at pecuniary greed, for she mentions the sum she received. Yet there was nothing inconsistent in Lady Burton's conduct in this connexion. On the contrary, it is one more tribute to her consistency, one more proof of the theory I have put forward in her defence, for the excisions which Lady Burton made were only those which referred to the subject which was the theme of The Scented Garden. Lady Burton was no prude: she knew that ignorance is not necessarily innocence. She knew also that her husband did not write as "a young lady to young ladies"; but she drew the line at a certain point, and she drew it rigidly. By her husband's will she had full power to bring out any editions she might please of The Arabian Nights or any other book of his. She therefore sanctioned the library edition with certain excisions, and the reasons which prompted her to make these excisions in The Arabian Nights were the same as those which led her to burn The Scented Garden.

  1. Lady Burton's letter to The Morning Post, June 19, 1891.
  2. Vol. X. Arabian Nights, Terminal Essay, Section D, pp. 205, 206, 1886.