Books: Under the sheltering sky

God's Fugitive: a life of C M Doughty by Andrew Taylor HarperColllins, pounds 17.99, 350pp: Jan Morris rejoices that the greatest, and weirdest, desert traveller has emerged from the shadows

Wondrous comfort is it to encounter, after passage of long years, so marvellous clear and just a record of my own poor purposes, so as to exclaim, with the elvish Beduwy Ay Wellah, the sooth indeed!" Thus spake Charles Doughty, or might perhaps have spake, if he had lived another 73 years to read this admirable biography of himself. He was a testy, awkward but profoundly honourable man, and I'm sure that he would have recognised Andrew Taylor's large- scale portrait, warts and all, as fulfilling his own tenets of uncompromising truthfulness.

For Doughty's most difficult characteristic, as it appears from God's Fugitive, was a congenital inability to compromise - an obstinacy so defiantly Quixotic as to be almost manic. Born in 1843, he was an Anglican clergyman's son perpetually searching for religious truth. He was a wanderer in fanatically Islamic Arabia who never for a moment denied that he was a Christian (like walking through wartime England, Wilfred Thesiger has suggested, declaring himself a Nazi). He was an English patriot so unyielding as to be atavistic. He was a poet who despised all contemporary expressions of the English language, and continued throughout his life to write in an idiosyncratic and sometimes all but unintelligible pastiche of Chaucerian and Spenserian idiom.

None of his long epic poems are much read today, or ever were for that matter. Wilfred Blunt said he wrote the worst poetry of the 19th century, and in his Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound cattily asks W B Yeats: "Did we ever get to the end of Doughty:/ The Dawn in Britain? / Perhaps not..."

His one tremendous prose work, whose 600,000 words he himself defined as "only nominally prose," has found its proper place in the classic repertoire. To my mind, Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888) is not simply the best explorer's book ever written, but a work of art properly to be compared, as Taylor does here, with Joyce's Ulysses. It is a difficult, peculiar, self-conscious work but, in the long run, unforgettable.

Not that I have ever read it from cover to cover. Very few people have. But Bernard Shaw said you could open it and dip into it anywhere for the rest of your life, and I can confirm that. I bought my own copy at Steimatzky's bookshop in Jerusalem in 1947, and I have been dipping into it lovingly ever since, even setting one of its most lyrical passages to my own music to sing in the bath.

It is an acquired taste, though. Doughty resisted all attempts to edit his tortuously antique prose ("I had as soon the good sheriff had hanged me at Taif as to be made to speak so Middlesex-like") and when the book was first published, The Times said sniffily that its style "placed the work under a distinct disadvantage"; perhaps the least perceptive critique of a masterpiece ever written.

One of the great things about Andrew Taylor's book is that it brings clarity to Arabia Deserta. In particular, it makes plain the geographical course of the work. Shaw said of it that its descriptive powers "give you a vision and the feeling of anything from a bluebell to a thunderstorm," but so seductively rich and detailed is Doughty's narrative that it is often hard to remember just where the old boy has got to in his heroic meanderings through the desert.

Which way was Teyma from Medain Saleh? Was Boreyda north or south of Aneyza? Just where was this Hedjr he kept talking about? Taylor's stage- by-stage interpretation of the journey makes everything clear and demonstrates that,even if nobody else has read the great book all the way through, he certainly has.

He does far more, too, than merely elucidate the Doughty texts (for he has even read The Dawn in Britain!). He explores, affectionately but unsqueamishly, all aspects of the Doughty character. Most usefully, he reminds us that Doughty was not always an ancient sage (a few lines back I thoughtlessly called him "the old boy"). In fact, when he was in Arabia he was in his early thirties; it was only his beard and bearing that made him seem venerable.

Taylor shows us that, on the contrary, in some ways he never grew out of immaturity. His frustrated ambition to join the Navy, his uncertain career at Cambridge, his early archaeological enthusiasms and his first tentative journeys - all these, it seems, were first symptoms of "a pattern of evasion" that he was to follow always. He evaded everyday life, he evaded everyday vocabulary, he evaded conflict with his Arab tormentors and he tried unsuccessfully to evade the fundamental issue of his life: the unresolved challenge offered by science to religion, or reason to faith.

For all its majestic triumphs, it sounds a pathetic life. Taylor defines its later years as "thrashing about in age and confusion". Doughty was successfully married in middle age, and had two loving daughters, but he seldom sounds content.

The honours that were finally bestowed upon him came too late, his poetry was never greatly appreciated, and his romantic and patriotic nostalgia for what Taylor calls "the jingling world of chivalry" could hardly survive the tragic disillusionments of the First World War. Even some of his peers scorned him. It was Richard Burton who said of Doughty's Christ-like conduct in the desert, almost always turning the other cheek, that he could not for the life of him see "how the honoured name of England" could gain anything from the travels of such an Englishman.

But there were those who recognised genius when they saw it, and one was T E Lawrence. Poseur that he was, Lawrence was always true with Doughty, his master and perhaps his conscience. The only lies he told him were white lies, intended to comfort an old man, and his admiration for Arabia Deserta was sincere and unbounded, both as literature and as "the indispensable foundation of all true understanding of the desert". It was above all Lawrence who ensured that Doughty's final years were happy ones, embowered in fame, honorary degrees and reprints.

Andrew Taylor is another who, when the Doughty roll is called, will be numbered among the Just Men. God's Fugitive is a good and honest book, and I hope it will induce a new generation of bookbuyers to drop by their own Steimatzkys, and find themselves forever after whistling Doughty in the shower.

Jan Morris received the CBE in last week's Birthday Honours list

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape