A review of another biography of that tiresome poser, Lady Hester Stanhope, sent me back to Kinglake’s Eothen and the account of the visit he paid the Queen of the Desert, who dwelt in tents (as he found she didn’t) and reigned over wandering Arabs (which wasn’t the case either).
A review of another biography of that tiresome poser, Lady Hester Stanhope, sent me back to Kinglake’s Eothen and the account of the visit he paid the Queen of the Desert, who dwelt in tents (as he found she didn’t) and reigned over wandering Arabs (which wasn’t the case either). No doubt Lady Hester’s admirers find Kinglake intolerable, but his interview with her is a masterpiece of ironic writing.
His desire to meet her, he explains, was first excited because she had been a childhood friend of his mother, who would moreover be ‘sadly sorry’ if he didn’t trouble himself to call on her. But there was a more urgent interest:
It was said that the woman was now acknowledged as an inspired being by the people of the Mountains, and it was even hinted with horror that she claimed to be more than a prophet.
So indeed it appeared:
For hours and hours this wondrous white woman poured forth her speech, for the most part concerning sacred and profane mysteries; but, every now and then, she would stay the lofty flight, and swoop down upon the world again; whenever this happened, I was interested in her conversation.
This is characteristic of Kinglake’s method. No need to say that much of the time the woman was a bore, spouting pretentious nonsense; sufficient to remark that from time to time her conversation was interesting. No modern master of the hostile interview could do it better.
Lady Hester recounted a striking incident when she was apparently about to be attacked by hostile horsemen. Kinglake tells us that
Her face at the time was covered with the yashmack, according to Eastern usage, but at the moment when the foremost of the horsemen had all but reached her with their spears, she stood up in her stirrups, withdrew the yashmack that veiled the terrors of her countenance, waved her arm slowly and disdainfully, and cried out with a loud voice ‘Avaunt!’ The horsemen recoiled from her glance.
Splendid stuff, you will agree, especially the description of the yashmack veiling the terrors of her countenance, but Kinglake mischievously goes one better in his footnote:
She spoke it, I daresay, in English; the words would not be the less effective for being spoken in an unknown tongue. Lady Hester, I believe, never learnt to speak Arabic with a perfect accent.
Jonathan Raban, in an appreciative introduction to a 1982 edition of Eothen, described this ‘comic set-piece’ as ‘a cad’s tale, in which the malicious arrogance of the young man matches, point for point, the outrageous posturing of Miledi’.This is fair comment. Eothen (the title, described by Kinglake as ‘I hope, the only hard word to be found in the book’ ,means ‘from the East’, ‘Eos’ being the dawn) ‘needs to be read,’ Raban says, ‘with more subtlety than most readers have brought to it in the past. It is a very slippery book.’
It’s in part a record of a journey in the Levant, but Kinglake is more interested in his own response to his experiences than in the experience itself. More exactly, he is interested in the responses of the narrator he has constructed who is not absolutely to be identified with the author. Raban thinks this narrator has the ‘sensibility of someone who is a close blood-relative of Flashman’, but he is perhaps better regarded as one of the last of the Regency dandies, rather like the young Disraeli. His tone is always cool and superior. Nothing is permitted to impress him, not even outbreaks of plague.
There is charm too. Take, for instance, his account of Osman Effendi whom he knew in Cairo. His history was ‘a curious one’ and his name misleading, for ‘he was a Scotchman born’. He was taken prisoner and ‘according to Mahometan custom, the alternative of Death or the Koran was offered to him; he did not choose Death’. Later he ‘gave a sincere pledge of his sincere alienation from Christianity by keeping a couple of wives’. Nevertheless his nationality was ‘inextinguishable’ — ‘in vain had he suffered captivity, conversion, circumcision’. ‘The joy of his heart’ was in his bookshelves, and the books were ‘thoroughbred Scotch — the Edinburgh this, the Edinburgh that — and above all, I recollect that he prided himself upon the Edinburgh Cabinet Library’.At the end of the next paragraph we are casually told, ‘He died’.
Not a book for every day — but then how few are. A book redolent of a sense of European superiority, natural doubtless for an early 19th-century product of Eton and Trinity, Cambridge, but which — we must all surely agree now — is grotesque, baseless, and confoundedly improper; a callous book that finds in poverty, ignorance and suffering, material for the exercise of wit; shocking really. It must be evidence of a deplorable character that I find it so enjoyable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008