REVIEWS: Charles Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta
Introduction to 2008 reprinted edition in IB Taurus's collection of classic travel under the TPP (Tauris Parke Paperbacks) imprint
Wilfrid Thesinger annotated the saleroom catalogue which disposed of his lifelong collection of Arabian travel-books. Beside Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta, he commented, "No other book about Arabia can compare with this." T E Lawrence had previously written that it was a "book not like other books, but something particular of its kind". A judgement he made not just from the comfort of a desk but when he urged the War Office to print a lightweight edition to be supplied to all British troops assisting in the Arab Revolt. Amongst other great British explorers of Arabia such as David Hogarth, Wilfrid Blunt and Harry St John Philby (all men of determinedly independent if not a frankly contentious frame of mind) there was no dissension on this one point. Philby who wrote half a dozen books of his own about Arabia, declared that Doughty's travels were "the finest and most complete description of the old Arabia produced by anyone, his predecessors or his successors. I have studied the book on the spot, and I don't think I have ever been able to detect a flaw or a mistake in it." Hogarth would add, "Everything about Arabia seemed to be in the book, if only one read enough of it!" The Spectator declared that is "one of the greatest travel-books in literature. No other book of Arabian travel is comparable with Doughty's in romantic interest. Not since the Elizabethan voyagers has there been any parallel to it. It is a great story, told in a great manner, a masterpiece of style and a record of heroic doings." Their review was only superseded by that of the watchdog itself, the Times Literary Supplement, which declared that 'Mr Doughty's book is surely the supreme book of travel…it will be studied as long as travel-books have any attraction for mankind."
Charles Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta is most certainly a travel-book, that species of world literature that would achieve its most spectacular flowering in English. For a British travel book is not just the published diary of a journey of exploration, nor is it an historical narrative enlivened by a rigorous inspection of landscape, nor yet a guidebook to selected antiquities though it will freely borrow from all these different forms. It might also shave off into anthropology, art history and comparative mythology but it must also contain something of the narrator, their prejudices and exasperations, not just their powers of professional observation. For the journey must also chronicle an inner sensibility, a form of pilgrimage, that has succeeded in transforming the writer. The travel book is not a pure form, but from the Odyssey and Gilgamesh onwards, it has always been a multi-cultural fusion, a plum-pudding that draws from all the arts and sciences but to a personal and highly idiosyncratic formula.
Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta is just such a book. Without spoiling the plot and the pure sense of adventure that animates it (a common failing amongst introductions to famous books) Charles Doughty had a particular mission in mind. He wished to be an explorer, the first scholar-traveller to visit the ruined city of Medina Salih in the Arabian desert. To this end he travelled with a stack of blotting paper to make squinches of the inscriptions and a set of scientific instruments that enabled him to record elevation, temperature, longitude, latitude and make maps of the region. This he would achieve quite early on in his travels, sending these records back to the safe-keeping of the British Consulate in Damascus, before he continued the rest of his even more adventurous journey. Thus he was the first European scholar to visit Medina Salih and his record of the inscriptions that he found, positively indentified this 'lost city' of the Nabateans, a southern capital to the more famous Petra, 'that rose red city half as old as time". He was also able to report that Medina Salih was not composed of the seven ruined cities of the Arabic imagination, but was a city that had been formed from out of three oasis villages whose mud-brick houses had log since decayed to leave only the outlying rock-cut tombs as a remnant of it's past greatness and glory.
This was a considerable achievement in itself, most especially as Charles Doughty was no historian but an eccentric free-scholar who lived abroad in order to continue to study geology and early English poetry. He came from a long line of East Anglian squires, who had succeeded in preserving the size of their ancestral landholdings by encouraging their younger sons to earn their living through taking up one of the professions; either the navy, army, church or the law. Doughty could number amongst his ancestors and relations a colonial governor, a bishop, a judge and a general though the families chief leaning was towards a career in the Royal Navy where six Doughty's had achieved the rank of admiral. As a younger son, Charles was sent off at an early age to Beach House, a school near Portsmouth which specialised in preparing boys for entry into the Royal Navy. The death of his parents followed by the disposal of their family house (to cover his father's debts) further intensified this already bleak childhood. Charles became a loner, a shy boy who delighted in the company of old books and fossil hunting expeditions rather than the rough and tumble of boarding school life. Holidays were taken in the company of his elder brother, the pair of them farmed out to the households of a dutiful rota of aunts and cousins. His rejection by the Naval Board, on grounds of ill-health (which may have been more to do with his character than his physique) was a blow to his dignity and inherited sense of patriotic purpose from which Charles never fully recovered. Instead of serving as a midshipman he went up to Cambridge University to study natural history where the discoveries of Darwin and Lyell had effectively rent the cosy intellectual Anglican world asunder. He even moved to Downing College to escape the clerical loyalties still wrapped around the medieval quad of Caius, his first college.
He left Cambridge in 1865 with a few friends and an indifferent degree and then proceeded to make an 'unwise' investment which blew away a substantial proportion of his inheritance. There was however just enough for him to survive without a job and continue his studies in geology and early English poetry in and around the libraries of London and Oxford for another five years. Later he found that his inherited income could be stretched even further by living abroad. So between 1870 and 1875 he travelled the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, from Portugal to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, from Holland to the Sahara with his trunk full of books, staying for months at a time at one agreeable lodging house after another, before moving on. He proved himself a tough and resourceful traveller, passing through a revolution in France, the tale end of an anti-colonial insurrection in southern Algeria, the Carlist civil war in Spain without any desire to make a travel-book out of these experiences for his head was still filled with his grand plan for an epic poem rooted in his knowledge of the new eras being mapped out by geologists and natural historians. One of his many problems was that his personal loyalty had long since been pledged to the grand language of the 'believing' ancient past, to the English Bible, to Chaucer, Spenser (and though he denied such a 'modern' influence, to Milton). His powerful description of the eruption of Vesuvius (with which he would later enliven a journey across the lava-fields of the north Arabian desert) gives us a powerful indication into this creative but unpublished period of his life.
The turning point in these travels and his life as a writer, was a chance visit to Nabatean Petra, where the grandeur of the ruins was coupled by that of the barren hills (their geology lade-bare by the sun and desert winds) all indelibly mixed up with a Semitic culture of the surrounding Arab herdsmen that could have been taken straight out of the pages of the Bible. Doughty had unexpectedly stumbled across his mission. And the endlessly questing amateur traveller, always off after a new horizon, started to prepare himself with a truly professional zeal. He was a good linguist but transformed his slight command of the local language by an intense six-month study of written and spoken Arabic in Damascus. At the same time he started acclimatizing his body to the ordeal of the desert by accustoming himself to eat only local foods (milk, dates and barley-bread) and took long trips through the mountains and plateaux Syria and Lebanon to improve his camel handling (which he would never excel in) and stamina. He would spend twenty days in Maan chatting up Mahmud, a literate and well-travelled secretary who knew the northern desert whilst a chance meeting in the Syrian desert, with Muhammad Said Pasha an Ottoman officer (and a gentleman scholar like himself) unwittingly provided Doughty with his most sincere friend and his (unknown) but resolute protector. His sudden and over-enthusiastic attempts to interest British officialdom in his desert expedition ended with terse rejections from both the RGS in London, the Embassy in Istanbul and the Consulate in Damascus. So without official funding or support, Doughty at last settled down to learn a trade. He learned from the despised class of fast-talking Christian clothe-merchants in the covered markets of Damascus. For they had learned to supplement their income and to make friends amongst the Arab tribes of the desert by carrying a small stock of medicines, some laxatives, aphrodisiacs, painkillers (such as laudanum which is opium dissolved in spirits) as well as anti-malarials such as quinine. Thus equipped, Charles Doughty tagged onto the tale end of the pilgrimage convoy being led into the desert by his friend Muhammad Said Pasha. He lodged with the Persian pilgrims, who as Shiite Muslims, kept themselves to themselves at the rear of the caravan. Said Pasha could not give Doughty, a self-declared Christian 'doctor' travelling under the name of Khalil, formal permission to join a Muslim pilgrimage but nevertheless he turned an official blind eye to his presence. The rest of the story you can better read for yourself in the Travels though there are a few things that should yet be clarified.
Doughty made trouble for himself by refusing to pretend to be a Muslim (unlike Richard Burton who had travelled this route before him) and was proud throughout his travels to define himself as a Christian - even if (as we know) his education at Cambridge had put him outside the Anglican faith. So when he sounds 'off' against Islam, the reader must realise that he is criticising all organised religions, for throughout the book the false pieties of pompous men of pretension are relentlessly exposed and contrasted with practical instances of kindess, tolerance and charity. As he would later explain to his daughter, when she quizzed him about his lack of enthusiasm for church attendance, "I am always in Church."
We also know that the journal he made during his year-long journey across the desert consist of very brief notes. All reported conversation and poetical observation in the Travels were created years later - with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to throw doubt on his written record but to allow the reader to be aware that these experiences were sieved through for years afterwards, in order to extract the true essence of his adventure. The Travels would take Doughty nine years to write, and he would prove himself to be a typical nightmare-like first author who refused all the well-meaning attempts of his various friends, well-wishers, specialist historians of Arabia and editors to reduce his vast 600,000 word long work into something more accessible, as well as to calm-down the extraordinary language that he created for himself from a poetic fusion of Chaucer-Spenser and the unacknowledged Milton. The monumental first edition came out in two volumes in 1888 - for which he had to assist his exasperated publisher with a financial contribution. It was not until Edward Garnet (a publisher's reader for Duckworths who had written a very favourable review of this first edition) undertook to edit it down into the abridged second edition that it finally got the reviews and readers that it deserved. This edition known as Wanderings in Arabia (which came out in 1908) is the one which you hold in your hand today. Though arguably it was only the passionate championing by T E Lawrence at the height of his post-war fame that got Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta firmly established as a great classic. (Which may usefully be compared to the way that Bruce Chatwin would later raise Robert Byrons, The Road to Oxiana into the travel-book pantheon).
Doughty's curious archaic English will always succeed in repelling the casual reader from his book of Arabian travels. But after a few pages, the interested reader begins to absorb the "nay Sirs, nay Sirs, why fray ye our mares" with ease and starts to relish his language for the next instance of curiously-wrought beauty such as when he describes "her clay-built streets are again the blown dust of the wilderness." For it soon becomes apparent that Charles Doughty's ultimate purpose in writing was to somehow catch the beauty of the Arabic language and to record the humour, delight and poetry with which they express themselves. He found the Victorian English of his day an inadequate tool for the task with which to express the elemental dignity of these people ruled by oral traditions and the direct democracy of the tribal counsels. The hunt for ruins, new frontiers and tyrannical Emirs with which the book starts is very soon replaced by a new sort of hero, such as the lone Bedouin woman 'full of the godly humanity of the wilderness' who takes pity on an exhausted outcast traveller and declares "Be not sorrowful for I am thy mother's sister."
Many years later, he would return to the fringes of the desert to show his young bride the landscape, and the people who had changed his life. That had transformed him from a shy and reserved exile into a robust, determined and highly principled man, who survived the desert as much through his fluency in Arabic - combined with a quick wit and humour - as through any very slight skill he had with knife, revolver, money, camels or in his dealings with the powerful. At this stage of his life it was his habit to get up at dawn and greet his wife with flowers that he had freshly gathered from the grazing grounds of Arabia. No one can claim that Travels in Arabia Deserta are a straight forward or an easy read but it remains, in T.E. Lawrence's carefully chosen words, "the great picture book of nomad life."
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by Barnaby Rogerson