MARTIN'S LIFE of Edward FitzGerald -- best- known for his version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam -- adds some interesting new details drawn from the Terhune edition of his letters without greatly altering the portrait of this curious man. Born in Suffolk, the seventh of eight children of very wealthy parents, Edward grew up under the care of nannies and tutors customary in that period. Martin offers no evidence that FitzGerald's childhood in this lively nursery was unusually lonely or that loneliness was "inevitable for the child of a marriage in the process of dissolution."
His parents were never legally separated; but, having produced eight children in 10 years, his mother may well have felt that she had done her part. Country life in Suffolk bored her. A year after Edward's birth, her already large fortune was increased by a bequest of s700,000, and she set up a splendid London house in Portland Place where she entertained painters, authors, musicians, actors and architects. She had her box at the opera, and became a generous patron of the arts. When Edward was 7, she took the whole family to France for two years. The children were soon as familiar with French as English. The boys had lessons in fencing and dancing. At the theatre and in frequent visits to the Louvre, Edward acquired his lifelong love of drama and painting. Martin's charge that Mrs. FitzGerald was not "a good mother" is certainly exaggerated.
In 1818 Edward and his two brothers were sent to an excellent boarding school at Bury St. Edmunds. During his eight happy years there, he was well grounded in Latin and Greek and also given an unusual amount of English composition, which formed the basis of the easy style of his letters. He read Scott's novels as they came out. Several of his school friends -- William B. Donne, John Spedding, and John Kemble -- went on with him to Cambridge. Nothing new is added here about his undergraduate years. He lived, not in Trinity College, but in lodgings across King's Parade. He played the piano well and was active in a musical group called the Camus Society. Most of his friends were those he had known at Bury. Though Thackeray had been his contemporary, FitzGerald did not know him until a few weeks before taking his degree in 1830. They became good friends at once. Tennyson he did not meet until 1831, and they were not intimate until several years later.
After leaving Cambridge FitzGerald was called on by his mother to escort her to the opera and, during the season, to assist at her ostentatious dinner parties in London or Brighton. Unless Parliament was in session, his father stayed in the country. Hating the social life forced upon him, Edward refused to live with his mother in Portland Place, but kept his own rooms in a shabby house in Charlotte Street. All his life he enjoyed being untidy. His clothes, though made by expensive tailors, were sloppy to the point of affectation. His room was always a welter of confusion with books, pictures, music, and pipes lying about everywhere. Though half a dozen houses belonging to the family were at his disposal, he much preferred living in a rented room, in some farmer's cottage or over a shop in the market place, close to common life, yet remote from it. Of his family (all married but him) only his sister Eleanor held a warm place in his affections. For 30 years her house at Geldestone, Norfolk, was his real home. He would get off the Norwich coach without warning, walk across the grass, and announce his arrival with a few bars of Handel on the piano. He was very fond of her 10 children and left the bulk of his estate to them.
With no definite purpose in life, not even earning a living, "the longer FitzGerald was out of Cambridge, the more pressing became his need for a central core to his life." He found it in a series of intense emotional attachments to younger men. The first of these was William Browne, a handsome 16-year-old boy he met at Tenby in 1834, the son of a prosperous businessman at Bedford, who had been alderman and mayor. Except for rebellion from his father's plans, Browne shared none of FitzGerald's interests. He liked to fish and shoot and hunt; he never read a book unless required to; he cared little for music. Yet for 25 years he filled the central core of FitzGerald's life. Only seven years Browne's senior, Fitzgerald enjoyed playing "teacher-cum-surrogate father." He sat beside the younger man for hours while he fished and kept a horse at Bedford to ride with him. Effusive praise of this "jolly boy" bored FitzGerald's correspondents, none of whom liked Browne. Conceding that it is impossible to be precise about their relations, Martin declares that "any name except love would surely falsify them." He concludes that "there is no absolute proof that FitzGerald had any physical relations in his entire life." Browne's marriage in 1844 was a severe blow, which Fitzgerald eased by taking a mortgage on a house and land for the couple.
The death of FitzGerald's mother in 1855, though he scarcely mentions it in his letters, was the most poignantly felt loss in his life. As she grew older, he had spent more and more time with her in London, at Brighton, and in her lovely house at Ham. Gout had forced her to give up her great yellow carriage with its four matched black horses. But, glittering with diamonds and pearls, she still presided at huge dinner parties and "maintained her special, occasionally embarrassing, admiration" of writers and musicians. She left an estate of some million pounds -- s50,000 to each of the younger children and the rest to the eldest son John. Her husband had died three years before.Though for some years they had lived separate lives, their marriage was no worse than many of that time. Martin's suggestion that its example was responsible for the disaster of Edward's own marriage in 1856 is absurd.
When his old friend Bernard Barton was on his deathbed, FitzGerald promised to look after his only child Lucy. Seven years later, for reasons still not explained, he was persuaded that to carry out his promise he must marry this tall, raw- boned, 48-year-old woman, so heavy-featured as to look quite masculine, and with a deep unpleasant voice. His friends protested in vain. Browne very sensibly advised giving Lucy an allowance. But FitzGerald could not be dissuaded. At the ceremony in November 1856, he refused to wear any but his usual untidy clothes and a slouch hat. During the wedding breakfast his only recorded remark was a refusal of blancmange: "Ugh! congealed bridesmaid." After a few horrible months, Lucy agreed to a separation with a settlement of s300 a year.
BROWNE'S DEATH from a riding accident in 1859 was a dreadful shock to FitzGerald. He took lodgings at Lowestoft, where for months he would walk along the shore at night, "longing for some fellow to accost me who might give some promise of filling up a very vacant place in my heart." Naturally he became the butt of innuendoes for the sailors, who called him "Dotty." In 1863 he bought a fine yacht on which he spent the summers cruising along the coast. Through his captain he met Posh Fletcher, a tall, strong, handsome fisherman, 25 years old, who for a while filled Browne's place in FitzGerald's life. As with his earlier affairs, his friends could see nothing in Posh to explain FitzGerald's infatuation. He bought him a lugger and went into partnership with him as a herring fisherman. But Posh's dishonesty was so gross that, in spite of his affection, FitzGerald had to part company with him.
A more important if less emotional young friend was Edward Cowell, a clerk at Ipswich, whom he met in 1844. With no help but the local grammar school, Cowell had acquired an extraordinary knowledge of languages. At 14 he had taught himself Persian, and some of his translations were published in the Asiatic Journal. He discussed Greek texts with FitzGerald and taught him Persian. At 21 he married, and his wife, recognizing his talents, urged him to take a degree at Oxford. Against FitzGerald's objections, Cowell became an undergraduate and took his degree in 1854. Eventually he became the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge.
In the Bodleian Library Cowell found a manuscript of Omar Khayy,am's Rub,aiy,at, of which he sent FitzGerald a transcript. During the troubled years after his mother's death and his marriage, FizGerald worked on the quatrains, not so much translating them as taking images for poems of his own. In 1858 he sent 75 of them to Fraser's Magazine. A full year later, when it had not appeared, he recalled the manuscript, had 250 copies printed, and sent most of them to Quaritch, the London bookseller, to publish. Almost none were sold, and soon the pamphlets were put in the bargain box at a penny each. In 1861 Swinburne and Rossetti got copies, and word of The Rub,aiy,at went round the literary circles. But the book was not reviewed, and the remaining copies of it were disposed of as waste paper. Not until 1868 was a second edition published. Charles Eliot Norton wrote an article on it for the North American Review of October 1869, the first critical account of the book. Soon the quatrains were being quoted everywhere.
Americans after the Civil War were learning to live with their dead.
For those who husbanded the Golden grain,
And those who flung it to the winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again. After 40 years of attack by the temperance movement they were ready to
. . fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and future Fears:
To-morrow! -- Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n thousand Years. The opulent Gilded Age was burgeoning, ready to
. . . take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum. Largely to supply the American demand, Quaritch published a third edition in 1872 and a fourth in 1879, like the others revised by FitzGerald, though his name appears on none of them. Martin seriously underestimates the effect of Norton's article in making The Rubaiyat widely known.
There is no intimation in the biography that With Friends Possessed means anything more than Shakespeare meant in his sonnet: having friends. It may well describe the many correspondents to whom FitzGerald wrote all his life. Yet as we read this fascinating account of his strange infatuations, we wonder wheththe relations with Browne and Posh Fletcher were not really possessions in the biblical sense.