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
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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