Thomas Wright

The Life of Sir Richard Burton

Chapter I
19th March 1821-October 1840
Childhood and Youth

1. Torquay and Elstree.

Sir Richard Burton, the famous traveller, linguist, and anthropologist—“the Arabian Knight”—“the last of the demi-gods”—has been very generally regarded as the most picturesque figure of his time, and one of the most heroic and illustrious men that “this blessed plot ... this England,” this mother of heroes every produced.

The Burtons, a Westmoreland family 24 who had settled in Ireland, included among their members several men of eminence, not only in the army, which had always powerfully attracted them, but also in the navy and the church. 25 For long there was a baronetcy in the family, but it fell into abeyance about 1712, and all attempts of the later Burtons to substantiate their claim to it proved ineffectual. 26

Burton supposed himself to be descended from Louis XIV. La Belle Montmorency, a beauty of the French court, had, it seems, a son, of which she rather believed Louis to be the father. In any circumstances she called the baby Louis Le Jeune, put him in a basket of flowers and carried him to Ireland, where he became known as Louis Drelincourt Young. Louis Young’s grand-daughter married the Rev. Edward Burton, Richard Burton’s grandfather. Thus it is possible that a runnel of the blood of “le grand monarque” tripped through Burton’s veins. But Burton is a Romany name, and as Richard Burton had certain gipsy characteristics, some persons have credited him with gipsy lineage. Certainly no man could have been more given to wandering. Lastly, through his maternal grandmother, he was descended from the famous Scotch marauder, Rob Roy.

Burton’s parents were Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton, a tall, handsome man with sallow skin, dark hair, and coal-black eyes, and Martha Beckwith, the accomplished but plain daughter of Richard and Sarah Baker, of Barham House (now “Hillside” 27), Elstree, Hertfordshire.

Richard Baker was an opulent country gentleman, and the most important personage in the parish. Judging from the size of his pew at church, “No. 19,” he must also have been a man of eminent piety, for it contained sixteen sittings. At all events he kept the parish in admirable order, and, as churchwarden, discountenanced unreasonable sleeping in church. Thanks to his patronage the choir made marked progress, and eventually there was no louder in the county. In 1813, we find him overseer with one George Olney. He took a perfunctory 28 interest in the village school (where, by the by, Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant, received his elaborate education), and was for a time “director.” He led the breezy life of a country gentleman. With his fat acres, his thumping balance at the bank, his cellar of crusted wine, and his horse that never refused a gate, this world seemed to him a nether paradise. He required, he said, only one more boon to make his happiness complete—namely, a grandson with unmistakably red hair. A shrewd man of business, Mr. Baker tied up every farthing of his daughter’s fortune, 30,000; and this was well, for Burton’s father, a rather Quixotic gentleman, had but a child’s notion of the use of money. The Burtons resided at Torquay, and Colonel Burton busied himself chiefly in making chemical experiments, of which he was remarkably fond; but the other members of the household, who generally went about holding their noses, appear not to have sympathised with his studies and researches. He was very superstitious—nothing, for instance, could induce him to reveal his birthday; and he fretted continually because he was not permitted to invest his wife’s money and make a second fortune; which no doubt he would very soon have done—for somebody else.

Richard Francis Burton was born at Torquay 29 on 19th March 1821; and to the intemperate joy of the family his hair was a fierce and fiery red. The news flew madly to Elstree. Old Mr. Baker could scarcely contain himself, and vowed then and there to leave the whole of his fortune to his considerate grandson. The baby, of course, was promptly called Richard after Mr. Baker, with Francis as an afterthought; and a little later the Burtons went to reside at Barham House with the grandparents. Richard was baptised in the parish church at Elstree, 2nd September 1821. In the entry his father’s abode is called “Bareham Wood,” 30 the name being spelt various ways. Our illustration of the old church is taken from an engraving made to commemorate the burial of William Weare 31 murdered by the notorious John Thurtell; an event that occurred in 1823, when Burton was two years old.

There was another link between the Burtons and the Bakers, for Joseph Netterville’s youngest brother, Francis, military surgeon in the 99th regiment, married Sarah Baker, Mr. Richard Baker’s eldest daughter. Dr. Burton 32 who was in St. Helena at the time of Napoleon’s death lives in history as the man who “took a bust of the dead emperor.” 33

2. Tours and Elstree.

Being subject to asthma, Colonel Burton now left England and hired a chateau called Beausejour situated on an eminence near Tours, where there was an English colony. For several years the family fluctuated between Tours and Elstree, and we hear of a great yellow chariot which from time to time rolled into daylight. Richard’s hair gradually turned from its fiery and obtrusive red to jet black, but the violent temper of which the former colour is supposed to be indicative, and of which he had already many times given proofs, signalised him to the end of life. In 1823 Mrs. Burton gave birth to a daughter, Maria Katharine Elisa, who became the wife of General Sir Henry Stisted; and on 3rd July 1824 to a son, Edward Joseph Netterville, both of whom were baptized at Elstree. 34 While at Tours the children were under the care of their Hertfordshire nurse, Mrs. Ling, a good, but obstinately English soul who had been induced to cross the Channel only after strenuous opposition.

3. Death of Richard Baker, 16th September 1824.

Richard Burton always preserved some faint recollections of his grandfather. “The first thing I remember,” he says, “was 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.” This would be in the summer of 1824. Mr. Baker, as we have seen, had intended to leave the whole of his property—worth about half a million—to his red-haired grandson; and an old will, made in 1812, was to be cancelled. But Burton’s mother had a half brother— Richard Baker, junior—too whom she was extravagantly attached, and, in order that this brother should not lose a fortune, she did everything in her power to prevent Mr. Baker from carrying out his purpose. Three years passed away, but at last Mr. Baker resolved to be thwarted no longer, so he drove to his lawyer’s. It was the 16th of September 1824. He reached the door and leapt nimbly from his carriage; but his foot had scarcely touched the ground before he fell dead of heart disease. So the old will had to stand, and the property, instead of going to Burton, was divided among the children of Mr. Baker, Burton’s mother taking merely her share. But for this extraordinary good hap Richard Burton might have led the life of an undistinguished country gentleman; ingloriously breaking his dogs, training his horses and attending to the breed of stock. The planting of a quincunx or the presentation of a pump to the parish might have proved his solitary title to fame. Mr. Baker was buried at Elstree church, where may be seen a tablet to him with the following inscription:

“Sacred to the memory of Richard Baker, Esq., late of Barham
House in this parish, who departed this life on the 16th September
1824, aged 62 years.” 35

Soon after the death of her husband, Mrs. Baker must have left Elstree, 36 for from 1827 to 1839, Barham House was occupied by Viscount Northland. The Burtons continued to reside at Tours, and all went well until cholera broke out. Old Mrs. Baker, hearing the news, and accounting prevention better than cure, at once hurried across the channel; nor did she breathe freely until she had plugged every nose at Beausejour with the best Borneo camphor.

The apprehensive old lady, indeed, hovered round her grandchildren all day like some guardian angel, resolutely determined that no conceivable means should be spared to save them from the dreaded epidemic; and it was not until she had seen them safely tucked in their snowy, lavendered beds that her anxieties of the day really ceased. One night, however, when she went, as was her custom, to look at the sleeping children before retiring herself, she found, to her horror, that they were not there. The whole household was roused, and there was an agonising hue and cry; but, by and by, the culprits were seen slinking softly in at the principal door. It seems that they had climbed down from their room and had gone the round with the death carts and torches, to help collect corpses; and enquiry revealed that they had worked considerably harder than the paid men. When the cholera scare passed off Mrs. Baker took to learning French, and with such success that in less than six months she was able to speak several words, though she could never get hold of the correct pronunciation. Despite, however, her knowledge of the language, the good lady did not take kindly to France, and she often looked wistfully northwards, quoting as she did so her favourite Cowper:

“England with all thy faults I love thee still.”

She and Mrs. Ling, the old nurse, who pined for English beef and beer, made some attempts to console each other, but with inappreciable success, and finally the fellow-sufferers, their faces now beaming with smiles, returned together to their England. And not even Campbell’s sailor lad was gladder to see again the “dear cliffs of Dover.”

Our charmingly quaint picture of Richard, his sister and brother, in wondrous French costumes, is from an oil painting 37 which has not before been copied. Richard was first taught by a lame Irishman named Clough, who kept a school at Tours; and by and by, chiefly for the children’s sake, Colonel Burton gave up Beausejour and took a house in the Rue De L’Archeveche, the best street in the town. The little Burtons next attended the academy of a Mr. John Gilchrist, who grounded them in Latin and Greek. A kind-hearted man, Mr. Gilchrist often gave his pupils little treats. Once, for instance, he took them to see a woman guillotined. Richard and Edward were, to use Richard’s expression, “perfect devilets.” Nor was the sister an angelet. The boys lied, fought, beat their maids, generally after running at their petticoats and upsetting them, smashed windows, stole apple puffs; and their escapades and Richard’s ungovernable temper were the talk of the neighourhood. Their father was at this time given to boar hunting in the neighbouring forest, but as he generally damaged himself against the trees and returned home on a stretcher, he ultimately abandoned himself again to the equally useful but less perilous pursuit of chemistry. If Colonel Burton’s blowpipes and retorts and his conduct in private usually kept Mrs. Burton on tenterhooks, she was no less uneasy on his account when they went into society. He was so apt to call things by their right names. Thus on one occasion when the conversation ran upon a certain lady who was known to be unfaithful to her husband, he inexpressibly shocked a sensitive company by referring to her as “an adulteress.” In this trait, as in many others, his famous son closely resembled him.

A youthful Stoic, Burton, in times of suffering, invariably took infinite pains to conceal his feelings. Thus all one day he was in frightful agony with the toothache, but nobody knew anything about it until next morning when his cheek was swollen to the size of a peewit’s egg. He tried, too, to smother every affectionate instinct; but when under strong emotion was not always successful. One day, throwing stones, he cut his sister’s forehead. Forgetting all his noble resolutions he flew to her, flung his arms round her, kissed her again and again, and then burst into a fit of crying. Mrs. Burton’s way of dressing her children had the charm of simplicity. She used to buy a piece of yellow nankin and make up three suits as nearly as possible alike, except for size. We looked, said Burton, “like three sticks of barley sugar,” and the little French boys who called after them in the streets thought so too, until Richard had well punched all their heads, when their opinions underwent a sudden change.

Another household incident that fixed itself in Burton’s mind was the loss of their “elegant and chivalrous French chef,” who had rebelled when ordered to boil a gigot. “Comment, madame,” he replied to Mrs. Burton, “un—gigot!—cuit a l’eau, jamais! Neverre!” And rather than spoil, as he conceived it, a good leg of mutton he quitted her service. 38 Like most boys, Burton was fond of pets, and often spent hours trying to revive some bird or small beast that had met with misfortune, a bias that affords a curious illustration of the permanence of character. The boy of nine once succeeded in resuscitating a favourite bullfinch which had nearly drowned itself in a great water jug—and we shall find the man of sixty-nine, on the very last day of his life, trying to revive a half-drowned robin.

4. At School, Richmond, 1829.

In 1829 the Burtons returned to England and took a house in Maids of Honour Row, Richmond, while Richard and Edward were sent to a preparatory school at Richmond Green—a handsome building with a paddock which enclosed some fine old elms—kept by a “burly savage,” named the Rev. Charles Delafosse. Although the fees were high, the school was badly conducted, and the boys were both ill-taught and ill-fed. Richard employed himself out of school hours fighting with the other boys, and had at one time thirty-two affairs of honour to settle. “On the first occasion,” he says, “I received a blow in the eye, which I thought most unfair, and having got my opponent down I proceeded to hammer his head against the ground, using his ears by way of handles. My indignation knew no bounds when I was pulled off by the bystanders, and told to let my enemy stand up again. ‘Stand up!’ I cried, ‘After all the trouble I’ve had to get the fellow down.’” 39

Of the various countries he knew, Burton hated England most. Would he ever, he asked see again his “Dear France.” And then Fate, who revels in irony, must needs set him to learn as a school task, of all the poems in English, Goldsmith’s Traveller! So the wretched boy, cursing England in his heart, scowling and taking it out of Goldsmith by daubing his pages with ink, sat mumbling:

“Such is the patriot’s boast, where’er we roam
His first, best country ever is at home.” 40

By and by, to Burton’s extravagant joy—and he always intemperately loved change—measles broke out in the school, the pupils were dispersed, and Colonel Burton, tired of Richmond, resolved to make again for the continent. As tutor for his boys he hired an ox-like man “with a head the shape of a pear, smaller end uppermost”— the Rev. H. R. Du Pre afterwards rector of Shellingford; and Maria was put in charge of a peony-faced lady named Miss Ruxton. The boys hurrahed vociferously when they left what they called wretched little England; but subsequently Richard held that his having been educated abroad was an incalculable loss to him. He said the more English boys are, “even to the cut of their hair,” the better their chances in life. Moreover, that 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 on itself.” 41 An English education might have brought Burton more wealth, but for the wild and adventurous life before him no possible training could have been better than the varied and desultory one he had. Nor could there have been a more suitable preparation for the great linguist and anthropologist. From babyhood he mixed with men of many nations.

5. The Continent Again.

At first the family settled at Blois, where Colonel and Mrs. Burton gave themselves over to the excitement of dressing three or four times a day; and, as there was nothing whatever the matter with them, passed many hours in feeling each other’s pulses, looking at each other’s tongues, and doctoring each other. Richard and Edward devoted themselves to fending and swimming. If the three children were wild in England they were double wild at Blois. Pear-headed Mr. Du Pre stuck tenaciously to his work, but Miss Ruxton gave up in despair and returned to England. At a dancing party the boys learnt what it was to fall in love. Richard adored an extremely tall young woman named Miss Donovan, “whose face was truly celestial—being so far up” but she was unkind, and did not encourage him.

After a year at Blois, Colonel and Mrs. Burton, who had at last succeeded in persuading themselves that they were really invalids, resolved to go in search of a more genial climate. Out came the cumbersome old yellow chariot again, and in this and a chaise drawn by an ugly beast called Dobbin, the family, with Colonel Burton’s blowpipes, retorts and other “notions,” as his son put it, proceeded by easy stages to Marseilles, whence chariot, chaise, horse and family were shipped to Leghorn, and a few days later they found themselves at Pisa. The boys became proficient in Italian and drawing, but it was not until middle life that Richard’s writing developed into that gossamer hand which so long distinguished it. Both had a talent for music, but when “a thing like Paganini, length without breadth” was introduced, and they were ordered to learn the violin, Richard rebelled, flew into a towering rage and broke his instrument on his master’s head. Edward, however, threw his whole soul into the work and became one of the finest amateur violinists of his day. Edward, indeed, was the Greek of the family, standing for music and song as well as for muscle. He had the finely chiselled profile and the straight nose that characterises the faces on Attic coins. Richard, though without the Roman features, was more of the ancient Roman type of character: severe, doggedly brave, utilitarian; and he was of considerably larger mould than his brother. In July 1832, the family stayed at Siena and later at Perugia, where they visited the tomb of Pietro Aretino. At Florence, the boys, having induced their sister to lend them her pocket money, laid it out in a case of pistols; while their mother went in daily terror lest they should kill each other. The worst they did, however, was to put a bullet through a very good hat which belonged to Mr. Du Pre. When their mother begged them not to read Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to a Son, concerning the morality of which she had doubts, they dutifully complied and surrendered themselves piously, and without a murmur, to the chaste pages of Paul de Kock. They did not, however, neglect the art treasures of Florence; and at Rome, their next stopping-place, they sauntered about with Baedeker’s predecessor, “Mrs. Starke,” and peered into earthly churches and flower-illumined ruins. Later the family journeyed to Naples, where the boys continued their studies under Mr. Du Pre. As a clergyman, this gentleman steadily inculcated in his pupils the beautiful principles of the Christian religion, and took a sincere and lively interest in their favourite pastime of cock-fighting.

Colonel Burton continued his chemical studies, and in an evil hour for the family, purchased a copy of the quaint text book by S. Parkes: “A Chemical Catechism ... with copious notes ... to which are added a Vocabulary and a Chapter of Amusing Experiments.” 42 And very amusing they were when Colonel Burton made them. Having studied the book closely, including the “poetry” with which it is studded, he manufactured, at vast expense, a few cakes of a nasty-looking and evil-smelling substance, which, he said, was soap, and ought to be put on the market. Mrs. Burton intimated that he might put it on the market or anywhere else as long as he did not make any more. He next, by the aid of the same manual, prepared a mixture which he called citric acid, though any other name would have suited it equally well; and of this, as neither he nor anybody else had any use for it, he daily produced large quantities. From Naples the family moved to Sorrento, where S’or Riccardo and S’or Edwardo, as the Italians called them, surrendered themselves to the natural and legendary influences of the neighbourhood and to reading. The promontory on which Sorrento stands is barren enough, but southward rise pleasant cliffs viridescent with samphire, and beyond them purple hills dotted with white spots of houses. At no great distance, though hidden from view, stood the classic Paestum, with its temple to Neptune; and nothing was easier than to imagine, on his native sea as it were, the shell-borne ocean-god and old Triton blowing his wreathed horn. Capri, the retreat of Tiberius, was of easy access. Eastward swept a land of myrtle and lemon orchards. While the elder Burton was immersed in the melodious Parkes, who sang about “Oxygen, abandoning the mass,” and changing “into gas,” his sons played the parts of Anacreon and Ovid, they crowned their heads with garlands and drank wine like Anacreon, not omitting the libation, and called to mind the Ovid of well-nigh two thousand years previous, and his roses of Paestum. From poetry they turned once more to pistols, again brought their mother’s heart to her mouth, and became generally ungovernable. A visit to a house of poor reputation having been discovered, their father and Mr. Du Pre set upon them with horsewhips, whereupon the graceless but agile youths ran to a neighbouring house and swarmed to the top of a stack of chimneys, whence partly by word and partly by gesticulation they arranged terms of peace.

In 1836, the Burtons left for Pau in the South of France; and while there Richard lost his heart to the daughter of a French baron. Unfortunately, however, she had to go away to be married; and Richard who loved her to desperation, wept bitterly, partly because he was to lose her and partly because she didn’t weep too. Edward and the young lady’s sister, who also understood each other, fared no better, for Colonel Burton having got tired of Pau, the whole family had to return to Italy. At Pisa “S’or Riccardo” and “S’or Edwardo” again “cocked their hats and loved the ladies,” Riccardo’s choice being a slim, soft, dark beauty named Caterina, Edwardo’s her sister Antonia. Proposals of marriage were made and accepted, but adieux had soon to follow, for Colonel Burton now moved to Lucca. All four lovers gave way to tears, and Richard was so wrung with grief that he did not become engaged again for over a fortnight. At Lucca the precious pair ruffled it with a number of dissolute medical students, who taught them several quite original wickednesses. They went, however, with their parents, into more wholesome society; and were introduced to Louis Desanges, the battle painter, Miss Helen Croly, daughter of the author of Salathiel, and Miss Virginia Gabriel (daughter of General, generally called Archangel Gabriel) the lady who afterwards attained fame as a musical composer 43 and became, as we have recently discovered, one of the friends of Walter Pater. Says Burton “she showed her savoir faire at the earliest age. At a ball given to the Prince, all appeared in their finest dresses, and richest jewellery. Miss Virginia was in white, with a single necklace of pink coral.” They danced till daybreak, when Miss Virginia “was like a rose among faded dahlias and sunflowers.”

Here, as everywhere, there was more pistol practice, and the boys plumed themselves on having discovered a new vice—that of opium-eating, while their father made the house unendurable by the preparation of sulphuretted hydrogen and other highly-scented compounds. It was recognised, however, that these chemical experiments had at least the advantage of keeping Colonel Burton employed, and consequently of allowing everybody a little breathing time at each stopping-place. In the spring of 1840, Colonel Burton, Mr. Du Pre and the lads set out for Schinznach, in Switzerland, to drink the waters; and then the family returned to England in order that Richard and Edward might have a university education. Their father, although not quite certain as to their future, thought they were most adapted for holy orders. Their deportment was perfect, the ladies admired them, and their worst enemies, it seems, had never accused them of being “unorthodox in their views.” Indeed, Mrs. Burton already pictured them mitred and croziered. For a few weeks the budding bishops stayed with “Grandmama Baker,” who with “Aunt Sarah” and “Aunt Georgiana,” and Aunt Sarah’s daughters, Sarah and Elisa, was summering at Hampstead; and filled up the time, which hung heavy on their hands, with gambling, drinking and love-making.

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