Thomas Wright

The Life of Sir Richard Burton

Chapter II
October 1840-April 1842

6. Trinity College, October 1840.

Edward was then placed under a clergyman at Cambridge—The Rev. Mr. Havergal, whose name, to that gentleman’s indignation, the brothers turned into “a peculiar form of ridicule.” 44 Richard was to go to Trinity College, Oxford. Neither, as we have seen, had been suitably prepared for a University career. Richard, who could speak fluently French, Italian, and modern Greek, did not know the Apostles’ Creed, and what was even more unusual in a prospective clergyman, had never heard of the Thirty-nine Articles. He was struck with the architecture of the colleges, and much surprised at the meanness of the houses that surrounded them. He heretically calls the Isis ‘a mere moat,’ the Cherwell ‘a ditch.’ The brilliant dare-devil from Italy despised alike the raw, limitary, reputable, priggish undergraduates and the dull, snuffling, smug-looking, fussy dons. The torpor of academic dulness, indeed, was as irksome to Burton at Oxford as it had been to FitzGerald and Tennyson at Cambridge. After a little coaching from Dr. Ogle and Dr. William Alexander Greenhill 45, he in October 1840, entered Trinity, where he has installed in “a couple of frowsy dog-holes” overlooking the garden of old Dr. Jenkins, the Master of Balliol.

“My reception at College,” says Burton, “was not pleasant. I had grown a splendid moustache, which was the envy of all the boys abroad, and which all the advice of Drs. Ogle and Greenhill failed to make me remove. I declined to be shaved until formal orders were issued by the authorities of the college. For I had already formed strong ideas upon the Shaven Age of England, when her history, with some brilliant exceptions, such as Marlborough, Wellington and Nelson, was at its meanest.” An undergraduate who laughed at him he challenged to fight a duel; and when he was reminded that Oxford “men” like to visit freshmen’s rooms and play practical jokes, he stirred his fire, heated his poker red hot, and waited impatiently for callers. “The college teaching for which one was obliged to pay,” says Burton, “was of the most worthless description. Two hours a day were regularly wasted, and those who read for honours were obliged to choose and pay a private coach.”

Another grievance was the constant bell ringing, there being so many churches and so many services both on week days and Sundays. Later, however, he discovered that it is possible to study, even at Oxford, if you plug your ears with cotton-wool soaked in glycerine. He spent his first months, not in studying, but in rowing, fencing, shooting the college rooks, and breaking the rules generally. Many of his pranks were at the expense of Dr. Jenkins, for whose sturdy common sense, however, he had sincere respect; and long after, in his Vikram and the Vampire, in which he satirises the tutors and gerund-grinders of Oxford, he paid him a compliment. 46

Although he could not speak highly of the dons and undergraduates, he was forced to admit that in one respect the University out-distanced all other seats of learning. It produced a breed of bull-terriers of renowned pedigree which for their “beautiful build” were a joy to think about and a delirium to contemplate; and of one of these pugnacious brutes he soon became the proud possessor. That he got drunk himself and made his fellow collegians drunk he mentions quite casually, just as he mentions his other preparations for holy orders. If he walked out with his bull-terrier, it was generally to Bagley Wood, where a pretty, dizened gipsy girl named Selina told fortunes; and henceforward he took a keen interest in Selina’s race.

He spent most of his time, however, in the fencing saloons of an Italian named Angelo and a Scotchman named Maclaren; and it was at Maclaren’s he first met Alfred Bates Richards, who became a life friend. Richards, an undergraduate of Exeter, was a man of splendid physique. A giant in height and strength, he defeated all antagonists at boxing, but Burton mastered him with the foil and the broad-sword. Richards, who, like Burton, became a voluminous author 47 wrote long after, “I am sure, though Burton was brilliant, rather wild, and very popular, none of us foresaw his future greatness.”

Another Oxford friend of Burton’s was Tom Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays; the man who, in Burton’s phrase, “taught boys not to be ashamed of being called good,” 48 and he always revered the memory of his tutor, the Rev. Thomas Short. 49 Burton naturally made enemies as well as friends, but the most bitter was that imaginary person, Mrs. Grundy. This lady, whom he always pictured as an exceedingly stout and square-looking body with capacious skirts, and a look of austere piety, had, he tells us, “just begun to reign” when he was at Oxford, although forty years had elapsed since she first made her bow 50, and set everybody asking, “What will Mrs. Grundy say?” Mrs. Grundy had a great deal to say against Richard Burton, and, life through, he took a peculiar delight in affronting her. The good soul disapproved of Burton’s “foreign ways” and his “expressed dislike to school and college life,” she disapproved of much that he did in his prime, and when he came to translate The Arabian Nights she set up, and not without justification, a scream that is heard even to this day and in the remotest corners of the kingdom.

If Richard was miserable at Oxford, Edward was equally so at Cambridge. After the polish and politeness of Italy, where they had been “such tremendous dandies and ladies’ men,” the “boorishness and shoppiness,” of Oxford and Cambridge were well-nigh unendurable. Seizing an early opportunity, Richard ran over to Cambridge to visit his brother. “What is the matter, Edward,” enquired Richard. “Why so downcast?” “Oh, Dick,” moaned Edward, “I have fallen among epiciers. 51

7. Expelled, April 1842.

The dull life at Oxford was varied by the occasional visit of a mesmeric lecturer; and one youth caused peals of canorous laughter by walking round in a pretended mesmeric sleep and kissing the pretty daughters of the dons.

The only preacher Burton would listen to was Newman, then Vicar of St. Mary’s; of Pusey’s interminable and prosy harangues he could not bear even to think. Although unable to bend himself to the drudgery of Oxford, Burton was already forming vast ambitions. He longed to excel as a linguist, and particularly in Oriental languages. Hence he began to teach himself Arabic; and got a little assistance from the Spanish scholar Don Pascual de Gayangos. When he asked the Regius Professor of Arabic to teach him, he was rebuffed with the information that it was the duty of a professor to teach a class, not an individual. He spent the vacation with his Grandmother Baker in Great Cumberland Place, and he and his brother amused themselves about town with other roisterers, chiefly in gambling. Returned to Oxford he applied sedulously to the acquisition of foreign languages. He says, “I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart. ... I never worked more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness. After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy book-work and underlined every word that I wished to recollect. ... Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me. The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid. 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. When I read, I invariably read out loud, so that the ear might aid memory. I was delighted with the most difficult characters, Chinese and Cuneiform, because I felt that they impressed themselves more strongly upon the eye than the eternal Roman letters.” 52 Such remarks from the man who became the first linguist of his day are well worth remembering. For pronouncing Latin words the “Roman way” he was ridiculed, but he lived long enough to see this pronunciation adopted in all our schools. The long vacation of 1841 was spent at Wiesbaden with his father and mother. Here again the chief delights of Richard and his brother were gambling and fencing; and when tired of Wiesbaden they wandered about the country, visiting among other places Heidelberg and Mannheim. Once more Richard importuned his father to let him leave Oxford and enter the army, but Colonel Burton, who still considered his son peculiarly fitted for the church, was not to be moved. Upon his return to England, however, Burton resolved to take the matter into his own hands. He laid his plans, and presently—in April 1842— an opportunity offered.

The Oxford races of that year were being looked forward to with exceptional interest because of the anticipated presence of a noted steeplechaser named Oliver, but at the last moment the college authorities forbade the undergraduates to attend them.

Burton, however, and some other lawless spirits resolved to go all the same, and a tandem conveyed them from the rear of Worcester College to the race meeting. Next morning the culprits were brought before the college dignitaries; but the dons having lectured Burton, he began lecturing them—concluding with the observation that young men ought not to be treated like children. As a consequence, while the other offenders were merely rusticated, Burton was expelled. 53 He made a ceremonious bow, and retired “stung with a sense of injustice,” though where the injustice comes in, it is difficult to see. His departure from Oxford was characteristic. He and Anderson of Oriel, one of the other offenders, hired a tandem in which they placed their luggage, and then with “a cantering leader and a high-trotting shaft horse” they rode through the High Street, and so on to London, Burton artistically performing upon a yard of tin trumpet, waving adieux to his friends and kissing his hands to the shop girls. About the same time Edward, also for insubordination, had to leave Cambridge. Thus Burton got his own way, but he long afterwards told his sister, Lady Stisted, that beneath all his bravado there lay a deep sense of regret that such a course had been necessary.

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