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  Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926), by Eric Kennington, 1921 Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926), by Eric Kennington, 1921
Doughty, Charles Montagu (1843–1926), explorer, travel writer, and poet, was born on 19 August 1843 at Theberton Hall, Leiston, Suffolk, the younger of two sons of the Revd Charles Montagu Doughty (1798–1850), landowner, and his wife, Frederica (d. 1843), daughter of the Hon. Frederick Hotham, prebendary of Rochester and rector of Dennington, Suffolk, and granddaughter of Beaumont, second Baron Hotham. Charles Hotham Montagu Doughty-Wylie, killed while leading a heroic charge at Gallipoli, was the son of his elder brother. Although he was a minor poet, Doughty was the most important British explorer of Arabia and one of Britain's greatest travel writers.

Early life and education

The future Arabian explorer was so weak-looking at birth that his father had him baptized immediately, but in manhood Doughty was ‘tall and strongly, though not heavily built, with aquiline features and a thick beard which was reddish in early and middle life’, according to W. D. Hogarth (DNB). Within a few months of his birth his mother passed away, and when he was six his father also died, leaving Charles and his brother, Henry, in the care of an uncle, Frederick Goodwin Doughty, of Martlesham Hall, Suffolk. In school at Laleham and at Elstree, he had the reputation of being shy but too good a fighter to be bullied by the other boys. He was prepared at the Beach House School, Portsmouth, for a career in the Royal Navy, but in 1856 he was rejected owing to a slight speech impediment. His later interest in the oral poetic traditions of England and Arabia may owe something to this fact. He then left the school and spent some time with a private tutor in France. His report to the British Association's meeting in Cambridge in 1862 on the flint implements that he had excavated at Hoxne attests to his growing interest in geology and archaeology.

Doughty matriculated as a pensioner at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1861, but he transferred in 1863 to Downing College, which was more sympathetic to his geological interests and more liberal regarding attendance at lectures and chapel. He demonstrated a rugged independence during 1863–4 when he spent nine months lodging with farmers and gamekeepers while conducting the first investigation of two remote Norwegian glaciers. He reported the results to the British Association in 1864 (and published a pamphlet, On the Jöstedal-brae Glaciers in Norway, with some General Remarks, and a Plate, in 1866). In 1865 he placed second in the second class of the natural sciences tripos, failing to achieve a higher result because of an inability (or refusal) to structure the wealth of details at his command. His masterpiece, Travels in Arabia deserta (1888), would display a similarly unstructured approach to the vast amount of material that it contains. In 1866 he returned to Caius to take his degree. A fellow student at Downing recalled him as ‘rather shy and quiet but very polite’ (Hogarth, 6), outward qualities that masked a fierce determination to accomplish whatever goals he set himself.

After graduation in 1865, Doughty began studying older English literature—especially the works of Chaucer and Spenser, as well as Teutonic languages, as a means of readying himself for the writing of an epic of early Britain, intended as a patriotic substitute for his lost naval career. He hoped to reinvigorate what he regarded as a decayed Victorian English language by means of a poetic revival of earlier linguistic forms. The depreciation of his family's investments during this time left him with little money, and when he decided to travel to enhance the experience he felt necessary for writing his poem, it was as a poor student.

In 1870–71 Doughty studied Dutch in Leiden and spent some time in Louvain, and then moved southward to Provence and Italy. A manuscript diary now in the Gonville and Caius College Library records his presence at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1872, an event described retrospectively with great power in Arabia deserta. He went on to north Africa and Spain, back to Italy, and then, in 1874, to Greece. There he decided to extend his journey eastward, and visited the holy sites of Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, as well as the city of Damascus. In the autumn of 1874 he left the Holy Land via al-‘Arish and spent some time in Egypt. He then took a three-month camel journey through the Sinai peninsula beginning about February 1875, a trip described in a brief report to the Royal Geographical Society of Austria, in Arabia deserta retrospectively, and, nearly half a century later, in the poem Mansoul (1920), where he stresses its hardships. Leaving Sinai in the north-east, he arrived at Ma’an and Nabataean Petra, in what is now Jordan, in May 1875. Here he heard of the Nabataean inscriptions at Medain Salih and nearby Hejr, and resolved to return to make impressions of them, as he tells us in the opening section of Arabia deserta.

Travels in Arabia deserta

In Damascus Doughty found that neither the British Association nor the Royal Geographical Society was willing to fund his proposed trip to Medain Salih, but he decided to make the journey anyway after studying Arabic for a year. Despite a refusal of passport documents from the British and Turkish authorities in Damascus, Doughty, now using the name Khalil, ‘clothed as a Syrian of simple fortune’ (Doughty, 1.4) and equipped with a few medicines to sell, embarked on the trip southward with the pilgrim caravan on 10 November 1876. He planned only a relatively brief stay in Medain Salih and the surrounding area, but he would end up wandering in Arabia for almost two years.

Travels in Arabia deserta records in more than one thousand pages of painstaking detail—much of which has been verified by later travellers—the course of Doughty's travels. The danger inherent in these wanderings was exacerbated by his lack of travel documents, by the Russo-Turkish War (which was perceived in Arabia as a Christian–Muslim conflict), and by his open admission of his Christianity and straightforward criticism of elements of Islamic culture that he did not like, such as polygamy and slavery. It did not help that he uttered these criticisms while remaining dependent upon the Arabs for hospitality and even food, but Doughty was convinced that truth may walk through the world unharmed, and he may have proved that point. The Arabs responded at some times with wry acceptance of his differences with them, and at others with passionate defences of their point of view or with overt hostility. Doughty's honest record of these debates (which he did not always win, and in which he often appears tactless) remains of great anthropological value. His various adventures, in the order in which he gives them in Arabia deserta, include the initial journey with the pilgrim caravan to the way station at Medain Salih, described in almost Chaucerian terms; a stay of several months with the Bedouin nearby, during which time an illness prevented him from joining a caravan to the Red Sea port al-Wajh and thereby leaving Arabia; a visit to Mohammed ibn Rashid, ruler of northern Arabia, who is described like a figure in a Shakespearian tragedy; an enforced stay at Khaybar, where a corrupt Turkish commandant, who almost appears to be a villain in a Gothic novel, made Doughty a prisoner for several months; a near escape from a riot at Buraydah; relief and good company at ‘Unayzah until he was expelled; a physically dangerous episode close to Mecca, during the climax of which Doughty handed his pistol, butt first, to one of his assailants, as if challenging him to shoot him; relief and well-being at Ta‘if as a guest of the sherif of Mecca; and a final miraculous emergence on the beach at Jiddah on the Red Sea on 2 August 1878. Doughty appears almost a religious martyr toward the end of his adventure, when
The tunic was rent on my back, my mantle was old and torn; the hair was grown down under my kerchief to the shoulders, and the beard fallen and unkempt; I had bloodshot eyes, half blinded, and the scorched skin was cracked to the quick upon my face. (Doughty, 2.506)
Yet in spite of his suffering and his criticism of the Arabs, Doughty states at least three times in his book that the Bedouin way of life is the best in the world, and that after living with the Bedouin one ‘will have all his life after a feeling of the desert’ (ibid., 2.450). And Doughty's trials (many of which he caused himself) during this journey resulted in increased self-awareness, as he wrote in 1886: ‘I am by nature self-willed, headstrong, and fierce with opponents, but my better reason and suffering in the world have bridled these faults and in part extinguished them’ (Hogarth, 113).

Doughty left Jiddah on a ship bound for India, where he rested in a hospital, recovering from the exhaustion, ophthalmia, and bilharzia he had contracted in Arabia. While in Bombay, he read to the Royal Asiatic Society branch a paper on his journey, which was published in its journal for 1878. He made his way to England, and published his geographical results in the German periodical Globus in 1880–81. He addressed the Royal Geographical Society in 1883, and his paper was printed in its Proceedings for July 1884, but only after a struggle over his unique English style, which Doughty refused to have edited. He wrote to the society's assistant secretary, H. W. Bates, that ‘as an English Scholar I will never submit to have my language of the best times turned into the misery of today—that were unworthy of me’ (Hogarth, 108–9).

Doughty's records of the Nabataean documents from Medain Salih and al-‘Ala were edited by Ernest Renan and published in 1884 by the French Académie des Inscriptions as Documents épigraphiques recueillis dans le nord de l'Arabie. Scholars of the Nabataeans then as now have praised Doughty's contributions in the warmest terms. Indeed, Travels in Arabia deserta, on which Doughty laboured from 1879 to 1884 and which he continued correcting until its publication in 1888, is an unrivalled encyclopaedia of knowledge about all aspects of nineteenth-century and earlier Arabia. In a notable contemporary review in Academy, Sir Richard Francis Burton praised the book's scientific knowledge and its style (‘pleasant for its reminiscences of the days when English was not vulgarised and Americanised’), although he felt that Doughty's forbearing attitude toward the Arabs reflected poorly on English honour. So reliable was the book's anthropology of the Bedouin peoples and its topography, that British intelligence mined it for information during the First and Second World wars. Doughty's contributions to all areas of Arabian knowledge continue to be praised by scholars. His principal geographical achievement was to confirm ‘that the Wady er-Rummah system drains a large area, and definitely to the east’, but his main contribution may well be the description of the land use, economy, and other features of the forty-odd settlements that he visited, according to geographer J. M. Wagstaff (Tabachnick, Explorations, 135, 145). His book is one of many sources that describe nineteenth-century Arabian history, but ‘no single work paints an overall picture of nineteenth-century Arabian society that tells us more’, according to historian Bayly Winder (ibid., 198). Geologists Reginald Shagam and Carol Faul state that, unlike some other contemporary geologists, Doughty ‘failed to use the concept of faulting and he did not perceive the mass balance problem posed by the Dead Sea area’, but on the other hand they find that ‘his observation and mapping of the areas he travelled are correct’ with few exceptions (ibid., 183, 172).

Not the least of Doughty's achievements is the style of Arabia deserta, one of the few truly bilingual British literary works. Walt Taylor has shown the degree to which Arabic and older English permeate Doughty's text, and Annette McCormick has demonstrated how Doughty's syntax was influenced by English translations of the Hebrew Bible. Because of the book's style, which ideally demands knowledge of older English and a Semitic language on the part of the reader, four commercial presses turned it down before Cambridge University Press agreed to publish it. Even that press recommended that Doughty's language be revised, but fortunately Doughty resisted all such attempts. As Professor Robert Fernea writes, ‘With a knowledge of Arabic the connotative meanings of the dialogues become almost unsettling because unlike other contemporary ethnographic attempts one really seems to hear Arabs speaking’ (Tabachnick, Explorations, 217).

In its authenticity, originality, and power, Doughty's English–Arabic style rivals the work of other Victorian prose masters such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Pater. Poet Robert Bridges quickly recognized Arabia deserta's uniqueness, and it was one of William Morris's favourite books toward the end of his life. W. B. Yeats, who read the work three times, may have based his desert poetry, including ‘The second coming’, on it. T. S. Eliot disliked Doughty's poetry, but found Arabia deserta a ‘great work’ (Eliot, 58). D. H. Lawrence, Leonard Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Herbert Read, Wyndham Lewis, Edwin Muir, Henry Green, Rex Warner, V. S. Pritchett, and the American writer Walker Percy were among the other literary admirers of Doughty's masterpiece. An abridgement was issued in 1908 under the title Wanderings in Arabia, and the selections Passages from ‘Arabia deserta’ appeared in 1931. Philip O'Brien's descriptive bibliography includes French, German, Hebrew, and Swedish translations (Tabachnick, Explorations, 223–53). Unfortunately Doughty burned the manuscript of his great work in his garden, feeling that it was a digression from his poetry and of little value; but the notebooks are held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, while the ‘word notes’—slips of paper on which he wrote synonyms for and associations with words that interested him—are in the Caius College Library.

Later life and poetic career

Doughty's life after Arabia was devoted to his family and to poetry that has not lasted. He married Caroline Amelia (b. 1861/2), daughter of General Sir William Montagu Scott McMurdo, on 7 October 1886. In 1892 a daughter, (Susan) Dorothy, was born, and in 1894 a second, Frederica Gertrude (Freda), followed. In 1900 his slim, clichéd volume of patriotic verse, Under Arms, intended to reinforce patriotic zeal for the South African War, was privately printed. In 1906–7 The Dawn in Britain, his long-meditated epic of early Britain, was published by Duckworth. This 30,000-line poem in six volumes had a mixed reception, and has since lapsed from memory outside pockets of isolated enthusiasts. This is because Doughty was unable to create convincing characters from imagination; he succeeded in Arabia deserta because he was describing genuine people. Adam Cast Forth, a ‘sacred drama’ based on a Muslim legend about Adam and Eve, is perhaps his sole imaginative work to achieve aesthetic success, but only because it convincingly recreates his desert sufferings. Doughty's science fiction dramas, The Cliffs (1909) and The Clouds (1912), predicted the First World War and the use of the submarine, airship, mine, torpedo, and other technical developments. But the poetic quality of these works never rises above stilted archaic dialogue and coincidental and vague plot structure, and they show that Doughty could react to an imagined attack on Great Britain with no less fanaticism than he often attributes to the Arabs in Arabia deserta. The Titans (1916), dealing with a time before Adam and Eve when giants and men battled for control of the earth, fails to come to life, and Mansoul (1920; rev. edn, 1923), which was Doughty's own favourite work, is a neo-medieval dream vision in which the poet as Minimus describes an underworld journey marred by simplistic philosophical speculation and overt and incongruous attacks on the Kaiser.

Visitors to the household speak of the calm outer life enjoyed by Doughty, but his wife never liked the bloody battle scenes from The Dawn in Britain and his other poems, which he would declaim aloud to her. There is indeed a contradiction in the poetry between Doughty's proclaimed love of humanity and his bloodthirsty attraction to patriotic gore. Moreover, in the poetry there is no counter-voice to modify Doughty's sometimes extreme opinions, while in Arabia deserta the Arab characters vigorously challenge them. A brief memoir by Edmund Gosse, dated 23 June 1914, records, tellingly, that toward the end of his life Doughty seemed at once very shy and very fierce.

Doughty eventually achieved recognition in the form of the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1912), honorary degrees from both Oxford (1908) and Cambridge (1920), membership of the British Academy (1922), and warm admiration from the youthful (but not the older) T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence was instrumental in reviving Arabia deserta in 1921, and he described Doughty's masterpiece best when he called it ‘a book not like other books, but something particular, a bible of its kind’ (Lawrence, 17). Doughty received an inheritance in 1923 around the same time that his shareholdings fortuitously appreciated, but until then he and his family were often in difficult financial circumstances. He died on 20 January 1926 at Sissinghurst, Kent, after having moved there from Eastbourne in 1923, and was cremated at Golders Green. Charles Montagu Doughty is gone, but the staunch, stubbornly honest, and all-too-human hero Khalil will live for ever in the pages of Travels in Arabia deserta.

Stephen E. Tabachnick


D. G. Hogarth, The life of Charles M. Doughty (1928) · C. M. Doughty, Travels in Arabia deserta (1888) · T. E. Lawrence, ‘Introduction’, in C. M. Doughty, Travels in Arabia deserta, new edn (1933) · DNB · Gon. & Caius Cam., Doughty MSS · private information (2004) · S. E. Tabachnick, ed., Explorations in Doughty's ‘Arabia deserta’ (1987) · S. E. Tabachnick, Charles Doughty (1981) · W. Taylor, Doughty's English (1939) · R. F. Burton, ‘Mr. Doughty's travels in Arabia’, The Academy (28 July 1888), 47–8 · R. M. Robbins, ‘The word notes of C. M. Doughty’, Agenda, 18/2 (1980), 78–98 · A. McCormick, ‘Hebrew parallelism in Doughty's Travels in Arabia deserta’, Studies in Comparative Literature [ed. W. McNeir], Humanities ser., 11 (1962), 29–46 · T. S. Eliot, ‘Contemporary English prose’, Vanity Fair [New York], 20/5 (1923), 51–98 · S. B. Bushrui, ‘Yeats's Arabic interests’, In excited reverie: a centenary tribute to William Butler Yeats, 1865–1939, ed. A. N. Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross (1965), 280–314 · M. Morris, introduction, in The collected works of William Morris, ed. M. Morris, 8 (New York, 1966) · P. F. Mattheisen, ‘Gosse's candid “snapshots”’, Victorian Studies, 8 (1964–5), 329–54 · H. Scott, K. Mason, and M. Marshall, Western Arabia and the Red sea (1946) · Burke, Gen. GB (1937) · m. cert. · d. cert. [Frederica Doughty]


FM Cam., notebooks relating to Arabian travels, corresp., and papers · Gon. & Caius Cam., papers · Ransom HRC, letters · RGS, Arabian travel journal |  Hunt. L., letters to Sir Richard F. Burton · RGS, corresp. with Royal Geographical Society


E. Kennington, pastel drawing, 1921, NPG [see illus.] · T. Spicer-Simson, bronze medallion, 1923, Golders Green crematorium; repro. in Hogarth, Life · F. Dodd, drypoint, NPG · oils, Downing College, Cambridge; by one of Doughty's daughters · photograph, repro. in C. M. Doughty, Travels in Arabia deserta, new edn (1936) · photographs, Downing College, Cambridge · photographs, repro. in Hogarth, Life

Wealth at death  

£4691 8s. 3d.: administration with will, 11 May 1926, CGPLA Eng. & Wales