Famous Marriages Richard Burton and Isabel Arundell Part 1

About the marriage between British explorer Richard Burton and Isabel Arundell, history of their courtship and proposal.


Richard Burton and Isabel Arundell

Courtship: Richard Burton, the great 19th-century British explorer, linguist, Orientalist, and author, was on his way to fame when he met his future bride, Isabel Arundell, in Boulogne, France, in 1851.

He was 30, she was 20. He was eccentric, a rake, a fighter, "Ruffian Dick" to his friends, an agnostic with an abiding interest in the philosophies and erotic literatures of the East. He was also impecunious, on half-pay from the army of the East India Company.

She was the strictly brought-up daughter of an aristocratic Catholic family belonging to the cream of British society. She was just "out" from her first season, her head full of romantic notions. She was snobbish and extremely pious.

Even their meeting sounds implausible. Isabel, tall, rather plump, with pretty dark blond hair and blue eyes, was walking with her sister on the Boulogne ramparts. Burton passed them, wearing a shaggy black coat and carrying his stick over his shoulder. His roving eyes were black and piercing. A black mustache, hiding a somewhat ruthless mouth, decorated a handsome face turned brown by the Indian sun. Despite his careless appearance, he projected a strange magnetism.

He turned to stare at the pretty girls. Isabel trembled under his gaze. "That man will marry me," she told her sister.

The next day he returned with a piece of chalk and wrote on the wall: "May I speak to you?"

Isabel picked up the chalk and replied: "No, mother will be angry."

Later they met at the British colony's dances in Boulogne. When Isabel heard his name, she was struck dumb. Years before, a Gypsy named Hagar Burton had told her she would bear the name of that Gypsy tribe, would fulfill her destiny wandering in strange lands, and would keep her eye fixed on her "polar star." Isabel fell deeply in love with Richard Burton.

The Arundells returned to England. For the next four years, Isabel did not see Richard again. He was off exploring in Somaliland and visiting the forbidden city of Mecca.

One day she was reading in London's Botanic Gardens when he appeared before her. They talked of his adventures. She told him she had read all his books. "I would I were a man, Captain Burton," she said, "that I might have done such things as you have!"

Proposal: Each day for two weeks they met in the Botanic Gardens. Then Richard embraced her and asked if she would give up civilization for him; not immediately, but when he returned from the expedition he was going to lead, for the Royal Geographic Society, to the lake regions of central Africa. He hoped to solve the age-old mystery of the source of the Nile.

Isabel did not need to think twice. "I would rather have a tent and a crust with you than be queen of all the world," she answered. "And so I say now: Yes, yes, yes!" They kissed passionately and agreed to keep their engagement a secret till he returned.

Before his departure, Burton tried but failed to win over Isabel's mother, who detested him. Her father was already under his spell.

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