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Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), the explorer, writer, sexologist, and linguist, has not lacked biographers. Three decades ago, Graham Greene hailed the eleventh account of his life as “by far the best, and surely the final, biography.” In a competition for inaccurate prophecy, this could be a winner. Since Fawn Brodie’s The Devil Drives appeared in 1967, there have been at least six further Lives, culminating (for the moment) in Mary Lovell’s vast dual biography of Burton and his wife, Isabel. No comparable figure, not even T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), has received so much attention.

What is the main attraction of a man who, as a relation of Mary Lovell observed, was not even “the famous” Richard Burton, a man who in his professional careers never advanced beyond the rank of captain in the Indian Army and consul in Damascus? The author gives an answer in an epigraph when she quotes Alan Moorehead (who elsewhere memorably described Burton as “an orchestra without a conductor”):

He was one of those men in whom nature runs riot; she endows him with not one or two but twenty different talents, all of them far beyond the average, and then withholds the one ingredient that might have brought them to perfection—a sense of balance and direction….

Genius and failure, scandal and exoticism, are important components in British popular biography. Readers might prefer not to confront these in the flesh, but they love to contemplate them from their armchairs: Byron and Shelley, however dangerous when alive, are more engrossing than revered and well-rewarded sages like Scott and Tennyson. Similarly, they might distrust the un-English Englishman, the one who goes native and speaks foreign languages and breaks every convention. But he’s good company, when dead and safely ensconced between the covers of a book, on winter evenings by the fireside. And few people are better company than Burton, the Englishman who never felt at home in England, the Victorian whose vision and achievement were Victorian but who raged against the claustrophobic prudery of his era.

Burton began his career as a subaltern in the Indian Army in 1842 and soon established a reputation as a brilliant linguist: by the end of his life he had learned twenty-nine languages and twelve dialects, ranging from Swahili to Hindustani. He also embarked on the research and observation that later made him a pioneer in both anthropology and sexology. In India, too, he discovered his talent for disguise, adopting the role of Mirza Abdullah of Bushire, swearing by his beard and learning the appropriate mannerisms so that he could pass as a merchant from the Persian Gulf. He could thus pursue his anthropological research while carrying out his duties as an intelligence agent in the bazaars of western India.

This aptitude, however, eventually caused his downfall. In 1845 Sir Charles Napier, the conqueror of Sindh, asked Burton to investigate a rumor that Karachi possessed three homosexual brothels. With customary thoroughness, his subordinate spent many evenings in these places and compiled an extremely detailed report about the prices and practices of the inmates and their clients. The report was meant to be secret but, after Napier’s departure, it was read by officials who believed that only a homosexual could have so diligently procured such data. Although Burton was not dismissed from the service, his army career was ruined, and in 1849 he left India.

Four years later, after writing several books on the subcontinent, he reappeared as Mirza Abdullah, intent on traveling across Arabia and entering the forbidden city of Mecca. To reduce the risk of detection, he had himself circumcised but, worried that his old persona was a little too grand for a pilgrim, he soon transformed himself into a wandering dervish. Before leaving Cairo, however, he changed his identity again, assuming the role of Abdullah Khan, a swaggering Pathan born in India and educated in Rangoon. In this guise he penetrated Mecca, became a hajji, and later wrote one of the greatest books on Arabia, the Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. As Edward Said has pointed out, no other man so convincingly wrote about the Orient from the “knowledge acquired about the Orient by living there, actually seeing it firsthand, truly trying to see Oriental life from the viewpoint of a person immersed in it.”1

In 1854 Hajji Abdullah reappeared in Somaliland, where he became the first European to enter Harar, another forbidden Muslim city, without losing his life. Afterward he resumed his English identity, taking part in an exploratory foray into East Africa, where he was wounded, and trying without success to fight in the Crimean War. In 1856 he became unofficially engaged to Isabel Arundell but soon left her to pursue that great Victorian dream, an expedition in quest of the source of the Nile. Years later, musing on his life as an explorer, he wrote: “Starting in a hollowed log of wood—some thousand miles up a river, with an infinitesimal prospect of returning! I ask myself ‘Why?’ and the only echo is ‘damned fool!… The Devil drives.”’2

On the immense trek from Zanzibar, Burton studied African dialects and sexual customs, subjects of no interest to his companion, John Hanning Speke, whose main passion was the slaughter of any animal or bird within range of his guns; Burton, who didn’t like hunting himself, recorded with disgust how Speke once massacred a herd of hippopotamus. Both men were almost continuously ill, racked by malarial fevers, and often unable to walk, but they struggled on to become the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika. On the way back Speke made an independent excursion to the north and, after rejoining his companion, triumphantly informed him of his discovery of the Nile’s source at a lake he had named Victoria.

Burton was skeptical of the claim, partly because Speke was a poor geographer—according to one of his calculations, the Nile flowed uphill for ninety miles—and partly because his exploration of the area had been so hasty. Speke never forgave him. On their return voyage he promised Burton, who was forced by illness to remain at Aden, that he would wait in England for his recovery so that they could jointly describe their discoveries to the Royal Geographical Society. In London, however, he broke his word, claimed all the credit for the expedition himself, and was immediately offered funds for a new one. It was not until after his death, however, that his discovery—which Mary Lovell calls “a lucky guess”—was proved right.

Sick, eclipsed, and disappointed, Burton now returned to the fiancée he had abandoned nearly three years earlier. But her mother refused to consent to their marriage, telling Isabel she would rather see her in a coffin than married to “that Captain Burton,” and he rushed off to Salt Lake City, where he was predictably fascinated by Mormon polygamy, and wrote a book called City of the Saints. On his return Isabel decided to defy her mother and marry the man regarded by Dr. Livingstone as a “ruffian,” a “scoundrel,” and a “blackguard”—a view shared by many contemporaries. There followed what she described as “seven months of uninterrupted bliss,” though Burton spent most evenings drinking with friends and coming “home with the milk in the morning”—before her husband went off as consul to Fernando Po, a Spanish island off West Africa which was so unhealthy that she had to stay at home. Three years of studying the tribes on that side of the continent were succeeded by four more in Brazil, where Isabel was allowed to accompany him, followed by his appointment as consul in Damascus in 1869.

The return to the Middle East, with the desert and the bazaars and “the melodious chant of the Muezzin,” delighted Burton. He should have stayed there for the rest of his life, studying, writing, exploring, reincarnating Mirza Abdullah and his beard for as long as he wished. But he and his dogmatically Catholic wife had a talent for antagonism, and they made various important enemies, including the British ambassador at Constantinople, the Turkish governor of Syria, and several Jewish moneylenders in Damascus. They were also involved in a dangerous skirmish with a large crowd of Christians in Nazareth. While little of this seems to have been Burton’s fault, he was dismissed from the post in 1871 and transferred to the consulate in Trieste, where he remained—although often on leave in distant countries—until his death in 1890.

The Burtons rented an apartment in the Adriatic port 120 steps above the street—to protect them from “old women of both sexes”—and, virtually unencumbered by consular duties, settled down to a life of writing and translation. At the beginning, while Isabel was compiling her Inner Life of Syria, her husband was trying to satiate his curiosity by learning Russian and modern Greek, writing a book on Iceland, and studying new courses of chemistry and botany. He grumbled that Trieste was “not half large enough to hold” him and asked to return to Asia. But eventually he came to like the city, where he produced his last and most notorious works, his annotated translations of Oriental erotica. Since his years in India, he had railed against Western ignorance of sex: once he had claimed that Indian mistresses never loved their British lovers because they were left unsatisfied by Western techniques (or lack of them). Now he seemed to have acquired the laudable ambition of educating the British about sex and demonstrating how they could enjoy their love lives if they discarded prudery and studied Eastern precepts.

Burton’s principal achievement of these years was his remarkable, sixteen-volume translation of the Arabian Nights, to which he added, in the form of essays and footnotes, his vast accumulation of knowledge of the sexuality of different peoples. The purpose was not of course entirely educational. Curiosity, or prurience, incited him to describe every aspect of sex he had ever heard of, even “the habit of the Egyptian fellahs of copulating with the crocodile.” He also wrote a long treatise on pederasty, compiling in the process a geography of sodomy, which he believed to be climatic and territorial rather than racial, stretching in a belt from Portugal to China. At his death he was working on a new edition of the Arabic erotic manual The Perfumed Garden.

Isabel’s great moment of notoriety came during and after her husband’s death. As he lay unconscious, she insisted that a priest should administer the last sacraments, even though Burton was not a Catholic, and within days of his death she burned many of his papers, including the manuscript of The Perfumed Garden. Later she justified herself by pointing out that the executors of Turner’s will had burned some of the painter’s inferior work after his death.

Burton’s life makes a good story, and, as Graham Greene indicated long ago, it has already been well told. Mary Lovell tells it well too, in a readable narrative of great verve and passion. Her prose is a little breathless, perhaps, and a little overcolored also; she can put half a paint-box into a couple of sentences. When Isabel arrives in Beirut, for instance, we are invited to survey a “turquoise sky” above a “cobalt sea” washing “gently on to yellow sand,” while “whitewashed villas” crawl up “verdant hillsides towards dark green pine forests.”

  1. 1

    Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978), pp. 194-197.

  2. 2

    Fawn M. Brodie, The Devil Drives (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967), p. 15.

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