Follow Your Heart

04 03 jane digby 1Today is the birthday of Jane Elizabeth Digby who was born in 1807 in Dorset. She was the daughter of a British naval commander and her grandfather was an earl, so she had a privileged upbringing as a member of the English aristocracy. At seventeen, she married Edward Law, 2nd Baron of Ellenborough, but things did not go smoothly. Jane’s life would be one filled with scandal and adventure. She would marry four times and have a string of lovers which included two kings, (the second king was the son of the first king), a Greek brigand general and a Syrian sheik.

When Jane married the baron, they thought they were in love, but they weren’t. They had one child, Arthur who died shortly before his second birthday. Edward was away an awful lot and she was left alone to amuse herself. She had an affair, first with her cousin and then with Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg who was then attaché to the Austrian Embassy in London. Affairs amongst the aristocracy was pretty normal, but Jane and Felix weren’t very discreet and her husband found out about it. Then Jane became pregnant with Felix’s child. Divorce was, at that time, a very difficult thing that required the permission of Parliament and probably Ellenborough planned just to cast off his errant wife and hide her away in the country while everyone forgot about it. Jane had other ideas though. Much against the advice of her friends and family, she took off after Felix. Jane gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, in Basel, Switzerland in 1829 and her husband started divorce proceedings. This caused such a scandal that the story appeared on the front page of The Times.

Her relationship with Felix soon went sour. He refused to marry her because, as a Catholic, he couldn’t marry a divorced woman. They had another child, also called Felix, who lived for only a few weeks and the Prince abandoned her. She had three failed relationships, two dead children and was unable to return to her home country because of the scandal. At the age of just twenty-three, things weren’t going well for Jane. She moved to Munich where she caught the attention of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her affair with the King didn’t last long and she began a relationship with a German baron called Karl von Venningan. Soon, she found herself pregnant again. She travelled to Palermo in Italy to give birth, hoping to avoid the disrepute that bearing yet another illegitimate child would bring her. Her new son was left temporarily with a foster family and her daughter was in the care of Felix’s sister. She decided to make the best of things and married von Venningan in 1833, though she didn’t much love him. They had a second child, Bertha, in 1834. But guess what? Jane got bored and had an affair.

04 03 jane digby 2Spyridon Theotokis was a Greek count. When von Venningan found out about their relationship he challenged Theotokis to a duel and won. Theotokis was only wounded but von Venningan felt honour was satisfied and Jane left for France with her new lover, leaving her children behind. She converted to the Greek Orthodox religion and they were married in 1841, before her divorce from von Venningan was finalised. Their only son, Leonidas, was born in 1840. Again, the marriage didn’t go well. Spyridon took to drinking and spending time with other women and then, in 1846, their son was killed when he fell from a balcony. Meanwhile, Jane had begun an affair with King Otto of Greece who, as I mentioned previously, was the son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. This did not go down well with Otto’s wife Amelie.

Jane and Spyridon were divorced in 1846 and that was when Jane took up with Christodoulos Hatzipetros, a brigand general who had been instrumental in freeing Greece from Ottoman rule. This was another snub to Amelie as she had her eye on him herself. Jane was queen of his brigand army, riding horses, hunting in the mountains, living in caves. It gave her a taste for adventure. But the she caught him cheating on her with her maid. She left him, but kept the maid.

By now she had decided that men were more trouble that they were worth. She had become fascinated with the story of Queen Zenobia, who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. Like Hester Stanhope before her, Jane decided she wanted to see the ruined city of Palmyra in Syria. In Damascus, she changed to an Arabic style of dress which was more suitable for the five day journey across the desert to Palmyra. On the way she met Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab who saved her when they were, inevitably, attacked by bandits along the way. She was forty-six, he was twenty years younger than her. She was an English aristocrat, he was a Bedouin who usually lived in tents in the desert. They fell in love and were married. The marriage lasted until her death, twenty-eight years later.

Jane built a beautiful house in Damascus where they spent six months of each year. The other six months they spent nomadic style in the desert. Jane learned Arabic and eventually acted as a guide to European travellers who didn’t speak the language. So she probably met every diplomat, every royal visitor, every archaeologist that passed through Syria. Among her friends was fellow adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton who I wrote about back in October. She died in Damascus at the age of seventy-four. Her husband marked her grave with a block of pink limestone brought from the ruins of Palmyra. He wrote her name on it in Arabic in charcoal and had it carved into the stone.

Choose Life

10 20 richard burtonToday I am celebrating the life of Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian adventurer and all round embracer of everything that life had to offer. He was born in Devon in 1821 and died on this day in 1890 in Trieste. He packed an astonishing amount of living into his sixty-nine years. He was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, Orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, linguist, poet, fencer, diplomat and spy. He travelled extensively through Asia, Africa and the Americas and spoke at least twenty-nine languages.

His family were pretty nomadic sort of people and while he was young he travelled with them through England, France and Italy and he quickly picked up French, Italian, Neapolitan and Latin. He attended Trinity College, Oxford where he studied Arabic and also learned falconry and fencing. Burton got into trouble almost straight away for challenging a fellow student to a duel for mocking his moustache. He was eventually expelled permanently and he went to India to join the army.

10 20 mizra abdullahIn India he picked up several more languages and became very interested in Indian customs and religious practices. He was considered rather unusual by his army comrades, and was accused of ‘going native’. He even kept a number of monkeys, in the hope that he could learn their language too. When he was sent to survey the province of Sindh, he began to disguise himself and call himself Mizra Abdullah, he managed to fool both locals and his fellow officers. That is when he first became a spy. I don’t know much about what he did because it was a secret. But I do know he was sent to infiltrate a male brothel in Karachi, that was attended by British soldiers, to find out what was going on. Everyone was shocked by the detailed report he produced and thought, perhaps correctly, that he must have been a participant in the practices he described.

10 20 in arabic dressIn the 1850s he undertook several journeys on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. He went in disguise on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. He also visited the city of Harar, in what is now Ethiopia, which no European had ever entered. After that he was wounded when his camp was attacked by 200 Somali warriors. One of the other officers was killed, a Lieutenant Speke was wounded in eleven places and Burton had a spear thrust through his face. He managed to escape, but with the spear sticking in through one cheek and out the other.

This did not put him off. It didn’t put Lieutenant Speke off either. In 1856 the pair set off in search of the source of the Nile, which was rumoured to spring from a large lake in the African Interior. It was an awful journey. They had most of their surveying equipment stolen and were horribly afflicted by tropical diseases. By the time they reached Lake Tanganyika in 1858 Speke was temporarily blinded and Burton could not walk. The source of the Nile was not even there. Speke later went on to discover it by himself at Lake Victoria after the two quarrelled and separated. As well as his geographical observations, Burton made extensive notes on the language, customs and even sexual practices of the tribes he met with.

In 1861 he married his fiancée, Isabel Arundell and almost immediately left for four years in West Africa. They were reunited in 1865 and spent four years together in Brazil, except for the times when he went to visit a war in Paraguay. Then he was posted to Damascus as consul. It was a troubled time and there was a lot of animosity between Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations. He did his best to smooth things over. It can’t have worked too well, because at one point he was attacked by a hoard of armed horsemen and camel riders sent by the Governor of Syria. He said: “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me.” In 1872 he was posted to Trieste in Austria-Hungary, which he found dull by comparison, but it left him with more time to write and travel.

10 20 kama sutraIn 1863 he had co-founded the Anthropological Society of London, with the intention of providing fellow travellers with information that would give them: “…curious information on social and sexual matters.” For all his adventuring, he is probably best known now as the man who provided the unexpurgated version of ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ To these he added his own extensive footnotes exploring the nature of sexuality in the Orient. He wrote a particularly long passage about homosexuality. He also published the first translations into English of the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden. The explicit content of these books was terribly shocking to Victorian Society and they would have fallen foul of the Obscene Publications Act, had they not been published privately and by subscription.

There has been some speculation over whether or not he indulged in the acts he described either during or after his extensive travels. He seems like the sort of person who grabbed life with both hands, so I think he probably did and good for him. We’ll never know for sure though as his wife, who was a staunch Catholic, burned all his papers shortly after his death including a new translation of The Perfumed Garden. It was a great loss to his biographers, but she believed she was protecting his reputation.