( Λ Ι Θ Ο Φ Ω Ν Η Μ Α ) :





by Frank Baker, D. O. N. [Richard Francis Burton]

First and only edition of 1865.
London, Hardwicke.

PDF Page images (facsimile of 1865 edition).

PDF Transcript edition with errata corrections (2007 edition).


 When Stone Talk was published, early in 1865, Richard Burton’s career was moribund.  “Brought under the reduction” from the army in 1861, after ten years of more or less continuous exploration leave, pension-less at forty and disappointed in his search for the Nile, he had taken up a consulship in West Africa at Fernando Po; a graveyard of the civil service, but all he could get.  He had left his new wife Isabel behind in London to plead his cause at the Foreign Office, while he devoted himself, energetically but diffusely, to a succession of hold-all travel narratives derived from a regime of explorations and excursions of his own making, which stretched his putative jurisdiction right down the West Coast of Africa to Angola, and left little time for the official idea of a consul.

His Nile rival John Hanning Speke had returned to the east coast of Africa in 1860 to search for Nile glory, returning claiming triumph in 1863, only to die in an absurd hunting accident in England a year later.  Speke had died still deeply embroiled in a public dispute with Burton over the true sources of the Nile, which Burton maintained for another twenty years to be Lake Tanganyika, and not Speke’s Lake Victoria, until Speke was eventually vindicated. 

In London, the dedicated champion of all things Burton, Isabel, aggressively badgered and tearfully implored officialdom to rescue her perennially absent husband’s career.  Her society connections finally got Burton a new consular post at Santos in Brazil, in early 1865.  While en-route to Santos, he was forced to return to London from Portugal, to defend himself from accusations of fraud (he had overseen the sale of a ship at Sierra Leone, and it had been bought at a nominal price by a front company run by a friend of his; he was later forced to accept a dock on his salary to repay the disputed money).

This was the turbulent context in which Stone Talk was composed, most probably in West Africa, since Isabel was unaware of the work until after it was published.  But even the most ardent Burton devotee would be hard pressed to describe Stone Talk as great poetry: it is mostly doggerel, with good lines here and there. Burton’s literary reputation is built entirely on his other works, especially his early volumes of travel, and his notoriously explicit translation of the Arabian NightsStone Talk is best read as obfuscated autobiography, for its reflections of Burton’s highly idiosyncratic concerns; it is interesting now for its insights into Burton himself.

Burton apparently thought of himself as a “dual man”, a popular idea of the mid-Victorian era (and the theme of Dostoevsky’s classic satire The Double).  This is cast in Stone Talk as a less-than-sober dialogue between “Dr. Polyglott, Ph.D.” and a paving stone which “vocabulates in human tones”.  Though the sardonic stone often has the better of Dr. Polyglott, it won’t do to identify Burton with the vocabulating stone, since the stone is often made to look shrill and ridiculous, continually overstretching the point.  Burton is both in part and neither in full, hence a dual man.

Stone Talk has been hard to find ever since it was first published.  Burton, who wrote it under the pseudonym Frank Baker, only had 200 copies printed.  The majority of these (128) were for distribution to his friends and the press, and most of the remainder were soon bought back by his wife Isabel and destroyed, ostensibly because she thought the book might damage his career:

‘Richard at this time wrote, secretly, a little “squib” of one hundred and twenty one pages, called “Stone Talk,”… .  He kept it quite secret from me, and one day brought it out of his pocket on a railway journey, as if he had bought it from a stall, and gave it to me to read.  I was delighted with it, kept reading him out passages from it, with peals of laughter.  Fortunately we were alone, and I kept saying to him, “Jemmy, I wish you would not go about talking as you do; I am sure this man has been associating with you at the club, picked up all your ideas and written this book, and won’t he just catch it!”  At last, after going on like that for a considerable time, the amused expression of his face flashed an idea into my brain, and I said, “You wrote it yourself, Jemmy, and nobody else;” and he said , “I did.” When I showed it to Lord Houghton, he told me that he was afraid that it would do Richard a great deal of harm with the “powers that were.” And advised me to buy them up, which I did.  He took the nom de plume of “Frank Baker” from his second name Francis and his mother’s name Baker.’[2]

Was Isabel really motivated by advice from that great facilitator Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), or did she take exception to the content herself, to its strident atheism, and its hostility to marriage?  They had only been married just under five years.  This was then the first of Isabel’s book-burning and suppression acts, for which she became notorious after her husband’s death.  Though she implies that Burton knew about her attempts to recall the book, we have no other reason to believe this.  Since he annotated his copy with corrections for a second edition, it seems unlikely.  It is possible, though, that he found out later, since his “Zoo” apparently confessed all her secrets when hypnotized by him.[3]

Stone Talk is dedicated to James Hain Friswell (1825-78), an essayist, novelist and journalist, who was a friend of the Burtons at the time.  William Tinsley, who published most of Burton’s travel writings, described Friswell as “poor, harmless, and as a rule well-meaning”.[4]  Friswell’s daughter Laura met the Burtons in the family home, and later gave some interesting impressions of them in her biography of her father:

‘Captain and Mrs. Burton became familiar figures in our house. I can remember her, a tall, beautiful woman, my childish ideal of a princess.  In fact, she and one other lady (Mrs. Edmunds, the wife of Dr. Edmunds) figured in all the fairy tales I read, as beautiful queens or princesses. But I was rather alarmed at Captain Burton : to my childish fancy he was fierce of aspect ; with that sabre cut across his face,[5] he looked to me like a bold buccaneer; but he was away, and so I did not see much of him. That my princess was not happy was as it should be ; and that there was a prince somewhere called "dear Richard," about whom she continually talked to my father and mother, and who was persecuted and oppressed, was in the natural course of things. But I was puzzled to identify him, and I was worked up into a silent rage with "government," not that I understood in the least what "government" had done.’

In her autobiography, Laura recalled Burton more specifically, in striking terms:

‘His loud voice, and rather sneering manner, as though he believed in nothing in heaven or earth, and above all the long sabre cut across his face, made him look so fierce that he might well strike terror into the heart of a small girl. My mother says he was fond of talking about spiritualism, and of saying he believed in some of the wonderful stories he told on that subject ; but he said so in such a cynical manner she never believed him ; he was also fond of telling the most vivid, wonderful, and often horrible stories, which she put down as travellers' tales. Of the Indian snake charmers, and conjurors, he had endless tales, one being that "he had seen them call down fire from heaven." He laughed at all religions, and to such an extent that my mother would never allow any discussion on the subject when he came.’[6]

The Burtons tended to produce unambiguous reactions, leading to bitter enemies or devoted followers.  Hain Friswell was more than just an admirer, he appears to have defended Burton from criticism in the press, after the sympathetic treatment by Burton of Mormon polygamy in City of The Saints, repeated later in his books on West Africa.  This put Friswell in a difficult position, but the forceful Isabel seems to have prevailed over his better judgment.  Laura Friswell reproduced one of Isabel’s pleas for help: [7]

 "I enclose you some papers that have been sent here by friends of my husband, and very grateful I am for such warm friends; perhaps you are one of them, I am sure you are. Read A. It is a very bad case and true, but we are dependent on the government, and at the present moment it would be injudicious to vex it, and bad taste in me to wish it. Throw aside A., and read B. All therein is true, and no more praise than he deserves, and no offence to government. Look at the reviewers. They are making a complete `Aunt Sally' of the poor fellow, and he is in Africa, and can't stand up for himself ; you will say he deserves it for his polygamy opinions. There is a man who has married one wife, who is a domestic man at home and a homesick man when away. I want you to do something; it is this. The Times is a noble paper; it appreciates the brave and clever, it defends the absent, it upholds the oppressed. Government robs us of 300 a year and £5000. The reviewers of a moral reputation. Take the memorandums A. and B. to Mr. Lucas. Ask him to put A. in the fire, but to let B. hear his own review of my husband's book in The Times; it will amply compensate me for all I have suffered on his account. Mr. Lucas can then pitch into the book as he likes, but let him give him due praise first. I am certain Mr. Lucas would do this if he knew us. Please ask him yourself for me. I am, yours sincerely and obliged,

Laura maintains that Friswell, though he sympathized with Burton, would not have approved of polygamy, but Isabel was hard to resist:

"… he was evidently prevailed upon to do what he could, for there is an entry in his diary to this effect: "Sat up and wrote defence of Captain Burton."

A recurring theme of the Burtons’ self-conception makes an early appearance here: the one in which Richard does not receive the recognition he deserves, a position which he later compared to “a blaze of light without a focus”; that is, a light with nothing to reflect off:

'In another long letter Mrs. Burton says: "I enclose my wrongs in nine separate papers." In another she speaks of her husband having served his country "for twenty-nine years without pension, and it refuses to pay £15,000 owing to him."'

The Friswells appear to have been admitted to the Burtons’ inner circle, and roped into Isabel’s enthusiasm for the spirit-rapping mania that had swept from America to England in the early 1850s:

"FERNANDO Po, Feb. 19, 1862.
Excuse my not answering your note.  The fact is I have just returned from an exploring ascent of the Cameroon Mountains.
I send you a peculiar pipe of Ashantee make; I should judge it to be steatite, and hope that you will keep it as a small souvenir. Accept my best thanks for all your kindness.
Yours truly, RICHARD F. BURTON.

DEAR MR. FRISWELL,-I am glad you like the pipe.  I am sure you have nothing to thank us for, and we owe you so much.  I would rather come any day but Good Friday, and shall be just as pleased to see you and your wife as ever so many guests.  I rather want another talk about spirit-rapping.
Believe me, yours sincerely, ISABEL BURTON."

Friswell helped with the preparation of Stone Talk for publication.  In return Burton dedicated the book to “the author of The Gentle Life .. who has endeavoured … to instill spirit and character” even though the contents of Stone Talk are “ungentle and ungenteel”.  In The Gentle Life, Friswell advises women to accept their ancillary but subordinate position in the world; and, returning the favour, approvingly quotes Burton on the sexlessness of the female warriors of Dahomey.[9]

Burton and Friswell, along with Justin McCarthy, George Sala, Artemus Ward and others, were members of a literary club which met in a hotel in Fleet Street around the time that Stone Talk was written, which is why there are references to Fleet Street in it.  According to McCarthy

There was a literary club which used to meet in a Fleet Street Hotel.  I am sorry to say I have forgotten the name of the club, and I do not know whether it still exists or has passed into nothingness. George Augustus Sala was one of its members, and so were William Black and Tom Hood and Hain Friswell, and many other old friends of mine belonged to it. It was there that I first met Richard Burton.

This was almost certainly the Savage Club, although another candidate is the Cannibal Club, an offshoot of the Anthropological Society; Burton was active in both the Society and the Cannibal Club.  However, McCarthy is clearly referring to the Savage Club: unlike the Cannibal Club, it was a literary club, all of the men he mentions were known to be members, and for several years after 1863 it met at Gordon’s Hotel in Covent Garden, close to Fleet Street.  Some of the members published occasional collections of essays, The Savage Club Papers (1867,1868), which have brief descriptions of the history of the club, and include pieces by Friswell, McCarthy, Sala, and Tom Hood.  Sala later sued Friswell successfully for libel when Friswell attributed to Sala some “very questionable literary matter”, as Tinsley put it. 

James Hain Friswell

The Savage Club regulars styled themselves after Dr. Johnson’s literary set, and named the club after one of Johnson’s famous Lives, the poet and murderer Richard Savage.  The actor Henry Irving was a prominent member and, from Bram Stoker’s Reminiscences of Henry Irving, we know that Irving and Burton were old friends.  Of course, this assumes that Justin McCarthy was not confusing different clubs - there is no record of Burton having been a formal member of the Savage Club, though he may have been a guest.

McCarthy later claimed, in his Reminiscences, that Burton was very different in those Fleet Street days at the club, whichever one it was: “a man of domineering presence and almost overbearing manners”.  He was “dark, swarthy, loud-voiced, self-asserting, bearing down all argument and all contradiction with a vehement self-reliance which had something almost fierce in it”.[10]  The club may have provided the tone and atmosphere of Stone Talk: caustic, witty, irreverent, vulgar, pretentious, and learned.  The topics, ranging from classical to contemporary, political to personal, are the stuff of rambling club conversations, as they evolve from banter to invective; friendly at the start, then hostile; evolving from measured to reckless.  Burton liked that kind of mixture; characteristically, he added footnotes.

Although Burton distributed Stone Talk widely to the periodicals, it was noticed by very few reviewers,  The publisher, Hardwicke, wrote to Burton, advising him that “people are afraid to tackle it … I would advise that somebody pitch it hot and strong in some of the papers and that might, possibly, give it a stir.  I am afraid it is too sensible and strong to sell … .”[11]  In the end, Isabel probably got most of the copies back from the journals they were sent to, but she missed at least one.  There was a brief mention by John Westland Marston in The Athenaeum:[12]

Stone Talk &c. by Frank Baker, D. O. N. (Hardwicke) is judiciously provided with marginal explanations of the text.  We learn from a prose note at the beginning that “Dr. Polyglott, Ph.D., drinks with a certain No-shire squire.”  Their conviviality extends to the small hours.  We are disposed to think that the 3,675 lines before us were all penned under its merry influence.[13]

Burton assiduously tracked reviews of his books (his personal copies are full of clippings) but was rarely discouraged by them.  After all, other books of poetry reviewed in this issue of The Athenaeum included ‘Homely Pictures in Verse’ by John Young, which was given ‘warm approval’. 

Advertisement in The Times, January 19, 1865

The review copy of Stone Talk used by The Athenaeum survives to this day, and was in the Quentin Keynes collection of Burtoniana.[14]  Keynes’ copy, since sold, contains a letter dated March 10, 1865, addressed to “Mr. Dixon”, who was almost certainly William Hepworth Dixon, editor of The Athenaeum and a friend of Burton’s.  [15]

March 10 / 36 Manchester St. / My Dear Dixon / A friend / of mine has just been perpetrating / a neat article in a small / volume called Stone Talk. / Can you give him, as he / deserves, the cut-up proper? / How are you off for Nile / Basins? / Yours truly / Richd F. Burton

Hepworth Dixon made a trip to the Mormon territories in 1866, carrying a letter of introduction to Brigham Young from Burton.[16]  The Scottish novelist James Grant (not to be confused with Speke’s companion James Augustus Grant) must have avoided Isabel’s recall too, since he quotes a verse from Stone Talk in his novel One of the Six Hundred.[17]

Just seven copies of Stone Talk were sold, at the retail price of 5s. (the publisher’s price was 3s. 7d.). [18]  Aside from buying back those in the hands of booksellers, and recalling them from the journals, Isabel also recalled them from the clubs they had been sent to, including Burton’s own club, the Athenaeum, and the Arts, Oriental, Reform, Carlton, United Services, Junior Service, Conservative, and Athenaeum clubs; so that the book is hard to find now except in specialist research libraries.  There are copies of the original in the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, London Library, the Library of Congress, and thirteen of the major university libraries in the U.S.  There are actually two different versions of the book in circulation.  One version has the errata page, the other does not.  The copy held by the British Library, for example, does not have the errata page.

Like all Burton books, Stone Talk is now highly collectable, and prices have been bid up to fantastic heights  In 2007 a dealer offered a first edition, in its original cloth binding, for $18,500.  Re-backed copies have been known to fetch $7,000 or more.  Again like many other Burton books, Stone Talk has been collected more energetically than it has been read - it is not unusual to find carefully preserved copies of Burton’s books with uncut pages.  Norman Penzer, an early Burton collector and devotee, described it in his now standard bibliography as “blank verse”, a gross mistake repeated later by Byron Farwell: it is actually rhyming doggerel.[19]  .


The Sutro typescript transcript of 1940

There has been just one reissue of Stone Talk, by the California State Library at Sutro, in 1940.[20]  A transcription in typescript, based on an original copy held by Sutro, it is more widely available in U.S. libraries, and includes the errata sheet.  This was funded as a WPA project, with a new introduction by Charles Donald O’Malley, who appears to have owned an original copy: [21]

‘There is a letter from the publishers in the author's copy which states that the papers afraid to criticize the work. "I am afraid," the letter continues, "it is too sensible and strong to sell.  Mild evangelical slang is the stuff for the present market . . ."’

The Christensen Fund bought Burton’s surviving personal library from the Royal Anthropological Institute in the 1980s and deposited the whole collection at the Huntington Library in California.  Two of Burton’s personal copies of Stone Talk have survived, and are in the collection at the Huntington.  Apparently these copies are heavily annotated, in one copy by Burton himself, and in another by Isabel, indicating that he planned a second edition.  Perhaps a new edition of Stone Talk will one day be issued, incorporating Burton’s corrections.  Although he produced many travel volumes and translations, Stone Talk and the more well-known Kasidah are Burton’s only works of imaginative fiction.

Gavan Tredoux
November, 2007.

[1] Colour page images of Stone Talk were kindly provided by Richard Leveson.

[2] Isabel Burton, Life (London: Chapman & Hall, 1893), pp. 392-3.  ‘Jemmy’ was Isabel’s pet name for Burton, “for some reason which I cannot explain.”

[3] From “Zooelectricity”, an archaic term for animal magnetism, i.e. hypnosis; ‘Zoo’ was Burton’s pet name for Isabel.

[4] Tinsley, Random Recollections of an Old Publisher (London: Simkin, 1900) Vol. 1: 158.

[5] This was probably the wound from a spear thrust through Burton’s jaw, acquired in Somaliland in 1855.

[6] Laura Friswell In the Sixties and Seventies (Boston: Herbert Turner, 1906): 46-7.

[7] Laura Hain Friswell, James Hain Friswell: a Memoir (London: George Redway, 1898): 95-8.

[8] Laura Hain Friswell, James Hain Friswell: a Memoir (London: George Redway, 1898):  95-8.

[9] James Hain Friswell, The Gentle Life (London: Sampson & Low, 1870): 94. 

[10] Justin McCarthy, Reminiscences Vol. II (New York: Harper, 1899): 285.

[11] Letter from Hardwicke in Burton’s copy of Stone Talk in the Huntingdon Library, cited by Mary Lovell in A Rage To Live (New York: Norton, 1998): 850.

[12] There may well have been other reviews of Stone Talk, but the indexes of Victorian Periodicals have very spotty coverage, especially for dates that far back.

[13] The Athenaeum, No. 1952 (March 25,1865): 421.

[14] Since dispersed by public auction in 2004 after the death of Quentin Keynes, though the manuscripts not on sale have been deposited at the British Library.  This copy is referenced by Lovell, op cit.

[15] An image of this short letter is reproduced in the Christies Catalogue The Quentin Keynes Collection Part I (2004): 243.

[16] The MS of this letter, dated Sep. 10 1866, is held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale.

[17] James Grant One of the Six Hundred (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1875): 155.

[18] Lovell, A Rage To Live (New York: Norton, 1998), citing the Hardwicke letter mentioned above.

[19] Norman Penzer, An Annotated bibliography of Sir Richard Francis Burton (London: A. M Philpot, 1923): 77; and Byron Farwell Burton (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963): 244

[20] Stone Talk California State Library, Sutro.  Occasional Papers. Reprint Series. no. 24.  86 leaves, 28cm.  With a new introduction by Charles Donald O’Malley.

[21] O’Malley, ibid, introduction.