Approaching Constantinople as a gateway to the east: Henrietta Liston, Lady Anne Blunt and the making of an explorer

An essay by Professor Donna Landry

Donna Landry

Professor Emeritus of the University of Kent, Donna Landry is a literary and cultural historian of East-West exchanges and a founding member of 'The Evliya Çelebi Ride and Way Project' to establish a UNESCO-approved equestrian Cultural Route in Western Anatolia, part of the Via Eurasia.

If Henrietta Liston's sojourn in the Ottoman empire enabled the burgeoning of her botanical knowledge and collections, Lady Anne Blunt's (1837-1917) arrival there marked the beginning of her fascination with Eastern travel. Lady Anne's career as an explorer, travel writer, horse breeder, painter and political campaigner began in Constantinople in 1873.

In June 1869, Anne Isabella Noel King, daughter of William King, 1st Earl of Lovelace, and Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet, married the junior diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922). He resigned from the service in December of that year, and inherited the family estates in Sussex when his elder brother Francis died in 1872. [See note 1] Anne's mother Ada Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician who collaborated with Charles Babbage on his 'Difference Machine' while inventing a system for betting on racehorses, and is credited with being the first computer programmer. [See note 2] Anne was sent by her grandmother Lady Byron to John Ruskin to study art; she was also tutored by Ruskin's protégé, Tom Boys, who was 'one of the finest engravers of the day', and whose documentary influence in her line drawings and watercolours is apparent alongside the interest in colour we might associate with Ruskin. [See note 3] Anne also played the violin, owning for many years a 1721 Stradivarius. [See note 4] The Blunts would become famous for their journeys in Greater Syria and Arabia, for supporting Egyptian nationalism, Irish Home Rule, and Indian independence, and for founding the Crabbet Arabian stud. By breeding purebred Arabian horses in England the Blunts initiated a global trade that continues to this day. [See note 5] Their shared interest in horses and equestrianism led them to the Ottoman empire in the first place.

During 10 years at the Foreign Office, Wilfrid came to know Constantinople, befriending a number of embassy staff, having served with them elsewhere, including Robert Henry Hildyard, embassy attaché. The ambassador, Sir Henry Elliott, and Lady Elliott welcomed the Blunts, first at the embassy in Pera and later at the British summer residence in Therapia (Tarabya) on the Bosphorus, where the embassy relocated every May. Here the Blunts pitched their tent in preparation for their camping expedition on horseback, the first of many such journeys. When they arrived on 1st May, Wilfrid was ill with pneumonia. After calling at the embassy, he took to his bed at Missirie's hotel, the Grand Hotel d'Angleterre in Pera. Two days later, Anne went to pay her respects:

'Today it was settled that I must go & call on Lady Elliot at the Embassy, so at 2 o'clock Mr Hildyard came to accompany me there. I found Lady Elliot at home & she was very pleasant, & kindly about whether she could help us in any way. The Elliots inhabit a house which joins on to the Embassy garden as the Embassy itself is still under repair — it had been burnt in the great fire so that only its shell was left. After my visit to Lady Elliot I went with Mr Hildyard to see the garden & the lovely view from it over the old turkish cemetery & the golden horn, & beyond it, Stamboul. Mr Hughes was riding on an arab horse in the garden.' [See note 6]

The scene was set for the Blunts to acquire their first horse of Arab breeding, be tutored in Ottoman Turkish by Thomas Fiott Hughes, the Oriental secretary, and learn Ottoman ways from the embassy physician, Dr Edward Dalzel Dickson, who cured Wilfrid. Reflecting back on 1873, Wilfrid wrote:

'This worthy old man [Dickson was then 68; he died in 1900 aged 95; see note 7], who had already at that time been some thirty-five years in Turkey, had become thoroughly orientalised and possessed a wider experience and more complete knowledge of all things Ottoman than perhaps any other Englishman then living. He had, moreover, a loyal sympathy with the people among whom he had so long lived, and retained with it a very high integrity and sense of old-fashioned English honour, which made him the most capable and reliable witness possible in regard to events which had come under his notice.' [See note 8]

Dickson can be credited with imparting to the Blunts the first spark of that 'loyal sympathy with the people among whom he had so long lived' that would soon distinguish both Wilfrid and Anne.

'Dr Dickson came in the evening. The conversation became exciting for it was about the state of Turkey, & each person said what he would do if he were grand vizir. I said nothing, being, as a woman, unable to imagine being in such a position of command. Dr Dickson said he should do nothing at all. Wilfrid said he should cut off the heads of all turks who had been in any European country, & should rescue the capitulations — Dr Dickson also related to us an adventure of his in Armenia with the Koords.' [See note 9]

The ground was being prepared for Anne to unlearn gendered reticence. Five years later she will recommend:

'If [the Ottoman government] would limit themselves to abolishing corruption and bribery and not try to introduce European habits and ways of life such for instance as macademised roads and complicated systems of drainage — if they would let alone everything except what is actually unjust and wrong, these countries require nothing more … All these whitewashings … are not of the least use to the inhabitants of the country.' [See note 10]

Anne will adopt an anticolonial stance as fervent as Wilfrid's, taking her cue from 'the inhabitants of the country', and condemning both British and Ottoman imperialism on their behalf. By August 1883, she would report hearing in London the Liberal MP John Bright speak well about India, followed by 'Mr Lal Malum Ghose who also speaks remarkably well — & who was most cheered when he asked if we wished to create another Ireland in India'. [See note 11] In October of that year, she would condemn the tea planters she met on board ship to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), while she was sailing with Wilfrid to pay a visit of solidarity to Colonel Ahmad Urabi and the other Egyptian nationalists who had been exiled there, as 'taken all round, about the worst lot of English people I have ever seen — & if these are to be the type by which we are known in Eastern countries then I say that the sooner British dominion abroad is smashed up the better'. [See note 12]

Edward Said regarded Wilfrid as the exception amongst those known for their 'intensely personal' encounters with the East in that they all '(except Blunt)' expressed, in 'the final analysis', 'the traditional Western hostility to and fear of the Orient'. [See note 13] Priyamvada Gopal claims that 'more significant' still is the way that Wilfrid 'ended up bearing faithful witness to the unfolding of one of the first major anticolonial revolutions in Africa and Asia, and learning from it — moving from an early Orientalism with idealizing tendencies to studying Islam in more substantive ways, and then finally being politicized by anticolonial Egyptian thought'.[See note 14] Presumably because he was unaware of her unpublished writings, Said ignored Anne. [See note 15] Had he read her diaries, he would certainly have made an exception of her as well.

Like her grandfather Byron, she was drawn to the East. Her Orientalism was of the 'positive' kind. [See note 16] According to her diary entry of 5 May, 1873:

'I was more delighted with the city of Constantinople than with any town I have ever seen. Indeed no place ever made so great an impression on me. It is a fine sight to look down on the water, & the hills covered with houses & trees & minarets, & the air has some quality which makes everything look a beautiful colour! But it is absurd to try to describe it, even to try & give an idea of the little I have seen of it. The crowds of people, the strange dresses, the unknown tongues, the noises — it is all wonderful & I am quite astonished in the evening when I think over the delight it has been to me to see all these things.' [See note 17]

The cosmopolitan mixture, the sheer intensity and variety of the city, exert a powerful appeal. Five years later, arriving in Syria, she finds it 'strange how gloomy thoughts vanish as one sets foot in Asia'. [See note 18] There is also humility regarding what she does not know, a respect for unknown tongues. Anne knew Latin, spoke French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swiss 'patois', and was soon an accomplished Arabist, learning several dialects. [See note 19] As she wrote of not having Persian during travels into Iran in 1879: 'Travelling without knowing the language, is like walking with one's eyes shut'; it makes it very difficult to 'make friends'. [See note 20]

Anne was also struck by how, once in Ottoman territory:

'The forests look beautiful, in spite of the dull weather, the trees are all just coming into leaf, & the thorn-trees covered with flowers. These forests seem to me to be the ideal of what forests ought to be, the live trees, the dead ones, the young & the old all left to live the natural life or die the natural death of trees.' [See note 21]

This different relationship with the natural world proved compelling. In Constantinople she was struck, as many travellers have been, by the presence of street dogs:

'I was so miserable about Wilfrid's illness when we arrived that I did not put down how the very first thing I noticed in Constantinople was the race of dogs, I had been always wishing to see the dogs of this city. Some are very goodlooking & I should like to take one away if we could get one.' [See note 22]

Unlike Lady Anne, Henrietta Liston had been distinctly unimpressed by the city's street dogs: 'You cannot walk during the day without taking infinite pains to avoid trampling on sleeping dogs and litters of puppies. They lie thickly strewed in your path, and seldom bark through the day, but for that forbearance they take amply vengeances during the night' (p. 219).

Anne and Wilfrid do not acquire a Turkish dog, but they did purchase horses. Turkeycock was the name Wilfrid gave to the 'little iron grey horse' he bought for £20 and would ship home. 'Much delighted' with him on first sight, Anne noticed he 'has got beautiful feet & legs & a handsome neck'. [See note 23]

Wilfrid described Turkeycock as an Arab, 'more or less', and 'the far fore-runner of the Crabbet Arabian Stud — a valiant beast who had carried me the journey through, in colour grey, and with the characteristics of Arabian blood, if not a pure Kehailan'. [See note 24]

The six weeks the Blunts spent 'wandering in the hills', 'away from beaten tracks' and seeing 'Turkish peasant life' [See note 25] began with a plan to climb 'Mount Olympus' (Uludağ) near Bursa, the same excursion Henrietta and Robert Liston had undertaken in June 1814.

'We made a plan for going to Broussa & up Mount Olympus, where, I don't know at what height, there is a place that wd. do to encamp in. There is a lake full of trout, plenty of grass, in short all that cd. be wished for to make it pleasant to spend a week there.' [See note 26]

Lady Anne, like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu before her, expected to be able to ride whatever the circumstances. Both women travelled with side-saddles. [See note 27] For a less committed horsewoman like Henrietta, climbing Uludağ meant riding astride for the first time: 'I found that to go with anything like ease or comfort I must mount 'á la Turque' — that is to say, astride on a Turkish saddle, which rising very high before and behind, cannot be used in any other way' (p.273). Henrietta managed it, of course.


Note 1

Elizabeth Longford, 'A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt' (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1979); H V F Winstone, 'Lady Anne Blunt: A Biography' (London: Barzan, 2003).

Note 2

Winstone, 'Lady Anne Blunt', 24-25, 38-39, 59-62; Lisa McCracken Lacy, 'Lady Anne Blunt in the Middle East: Politics, Travel and the Idea of Empire' (London: I B Tauris, 2018), 6-7.

Note 3

Winstone, 'Lady Anne Blunt', 44.

Note 4

Lacy, Anne Blunt in the Middle East, 7 and 206, note 30, gives an account of the subsequent and recent history of this celebrated instrument.

Note 5

Rosemary Archer, Colin Pearson, and Cecil Covey, 'The Crabbet Arabian Stud, Its History and Influence' (Northleach, Cheltenham: Alexander Heriot, 1978) and Margaret E Derry, 'Bred for Perfection: Shorthorn Cattle, Collies, and Arabian Horses since 1800' (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Note 6

Lady Anne Blunt, British Library Additional Manuscript 53845 (21 March to 5 May, 1873), 119-120. Hereafter AINB.

Note 7

Obituary for Dr. Edward Dalzel Dickson, 'The British Medical Journal' (1900), 1: 1267.

Note 8

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, 'Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt: Being a Personal Narrative of Events' (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907), 52. Hereafter WSB.

Note 9

AINB, BL Add. Ms.53845, 120-121.

Note 10

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53896, 8 December 1878; quoted in Lacy, Anne Blunt, 2.

Note 11

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53922, 1st August 1883, 14.

Note 12

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53926, 14 October, 1883, 18-19.

Note 13

Edward W Said, 'Orientalism' (1978; London: Penguin, 1995), 237.

Note 14

Priyamvada Gopal, 'Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent' (London: Verso, 2020), 137.

Note 15

Billie Melman pronounced Lady Anne ‘the least ethnocentric’ of women travellers; 'Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918'. 'Sexuality, Religion and Work' (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 276-305. If Said had read the unpublished writings, Lacy asks, would he 'have noted Lady Anne's similarly egalitarian or cosmopolitan point of view? Would two exceptions to Said's argument have lessened the force of his argument?'; 'Anne Blunt in the Middle East', 3, 204 note 10. Anne must count as one 'among the marginalized non-male voices’ alluded to by Gopal, whose recovery 'is work that lies ahead of us'; Gopal, 'Insurgent', 37.

Note 16

Orientalism is not synonymous with 'negative', as opposed to 'positive', images of the Orient. The power of Orientalism as a discourse stems 'from its power to construct the very object it speaks about and from its power to produce a regime of truth about the Other and thereby establish the identity and the power of the Subject that speaks about it'; Meyda Yeğenoğlu, 'Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 81-82, 89-90.

Note 17

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53845, 124-25.

Note 18

AINB, 'A Pilgrimage to Nejd: The Cradle of the Arab Race; A Visit to the Court of the Arab Emir, and "Our Persian Campaign"' (John Murray, 1881; rpt. London: Century, 1985), 1.

Note 19

Lacy, 'Anne Blunt in the Middle East', 7; Lady Wentworth {Judith Blunt Lytton, the Blunts' daughter and only surviving child], 'The Authentic Arabian Horse and His Descendants: Three Voices Concerning the Horses of Arabia -- Tradition (Nejd, Inner East), Romantic Fable (Islam), The Outside World of the West', 3rd edn. (1945; 1962; London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979), 73.

Note 20

AINB, 'Pilgrimage', 483.

Note 21

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53845, 87-88.

Note 22

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53845, 127.

Note 23

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53846, 8.

Note 24

Archer, Pearson and Covey, 'Crabbet', 32.

Note 25

WSB, 'Secret History', 5.

Note 26

AINB, BL Add.Ms.53845, 123-124.

Note 27

Donna Landry, 'Horsy and Persistently Queer: Imperialism, Feminism, and Bestiality', Textual Practice 15: 3 (November 2001): 467-485.

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