Sir Richard Francis Burton
Sir Richard Francis Burton; drawing by David Levine

In high school a friend and I sometimes managed to get hold of the various volumes of The Arabian Nights in the privately printed translation by Richard Burton. There we found greater wonders than any in “Aladdin and His Lamp” and other expurgated or inauthentic examples of oriental story that had reached us as children. In Burton’s “Terminal Essay” to the Nights, when we had the luck to get it also, were still better things, true things in plain prose with a minimum of Latin. How is it possible for a sodomite Moslem Prince to force a Christian missionary against his will and the strong resistance instinctively put up by his sphincter muscle? Burton could tell us: by the judicious use of a tent peg. Not that we had really wondered about such things. Burton’s charm was that he set the questions as well as answered them, enlarging our curiosity even while he satisfied it—the perfect pedagogue. There was much also in the “Terminal Essay” to inflame the anti-Victorian passions we were beginning to feel. The Victorian age, Burton said, was “saturated with cant and hypocrisy.” But I doubt that we knew anything about the other adventures for which he had once been famous: his pilgrimage, in Moslem disguise, to Mecca; his expedition to the still more forbidden city of Harrar; his discovery of Lake Tanganyika, an exploit that inspired Livingstone and Stanley and helped to clear up the ancient mystery surrounding the sources of the Nile. It seems unlikely that we knew how very recently he had died (in 1890).

A revival of Burton in all his aspects appears a possibility at present. His translations of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, those cheerful excursions into sexual physiology, have begun to circulate, the former in paper-back. Three new accounts of his career have come out in the last two years. Two of them, That Blackguard Burton, by Alfred Bercovici, and Death Rides a Camel, by Allen Edwardes, are potboilers; but the third, Burton, by Byron Farwell, is a thorough and conscientious book, chiefly factual, seldom reflective. Probably the writers and publishers responsible for these books think of Burton as a timely subject. Is he by some chance to be taken as a spiritual ancestor of the many who at present, and with reason, seek to accomplish a moral revolution, a “breakthrough” into greater personal autonomy and sexual freedom? Possibly. There are old photographs of Burton—dark, beetle-browed, his left cheek deeply scarred where a Somali warrior had put a spear through it, his gaze intensified by what is surely the Evil Eye, his moustaches six inches long and good for twirling. Such photographs suggest those sometimes reproduced on the jackets of books by our scarier contemporaries, their faces bearded, sweaty, hostile, furrowed with existential woe.

On the whole, though, it is a question whether Burton is an ancestor anyone would want to claim. On Mr. Farwell’s evidence, he was a compulsive egocentric whose arrogance and xenophobia surpassed even those of the Baron de Charlus. Whether Burton was as large a bundle of vices as Proust’s character was is not clear from this book, to which Mr. Farwell, an IBM executive stationed in Switzerland, brings an innocence that is in remarkable contrast to its subject (the book, unfortunately, is also innocent of footnotes). But rumors abound, flowing chiefly no doubt from such writings of Burton’s as the “Terminal Essay,” with its luxuriant account of the history and techniques of sodomy. And just as there can be no doubt that he “tried everything,” so there is no doubt that his sexual interests were connected with, and largely subordinate to, his sadistic ones. Charlus merely liked to snub his inferiors and be beaten with chains. Burton’s writings show him to have been fascinated with forms of torture, with the surgical processes of circumcision and castration, both of males and females; with the art of scalping as practiced by American Indians; with the size of the genitals of males and females and the degree of satisfaction or its opposite implied by their size (he was a great measurer of the organs of obliging natives). What makes him so difficult a hero, however, is not his sexuality, hot or cold, but his insensate truculence, as of a human weapon in perpetual readiness to deliver. As such he provides a very good show. An extreme case of the aberrant Victorian, he can greatly fascinate, if nothing else. If there was ever an unlovable rogue before the heroes of The Ginger Man and Look Back in Anger it was Richard Burton.

It all began, possibly, when, aged about six, he was taken by the headmaster of his French school to watch the guillotining of a criminal. He seems to have remembered this and left some record of it, for Mr. Farwell is able to recount the incident in some detail. Anyway, Burton’s career as a voyeur of the lurid and exotic was in motion. His parents were well born and fairly well-to-do and chose to lead a wandering life on the continent: Tours, Blois, Pisa, Siena, Rome, etc. In Naples, Burton, aged fifteen, was collecting for burial the corpses of cholera victims in the streets and noting the curious phosphorescence they gave off at night. Later, an officer in the Bombay Native Infantry, he was inspecting male brothels in Sind and submitting to the army authorities a report on ways and means (boys cost more than eunuchs). The report was unsolicited and unwelcome. A man that interested in vice was assumed to be vicious himself in those pre-Kinsey days. Future promotions for Burton were delayed, but lengthy leaves of absence were granted him several times.


His absences bring us to another side of him. They were usually granted that he might pursue his study of oriental languages. This was a subject of great utility to the invading British, and Burton had a genius and a passion for it. His delight in any learning acquired on his own was extreme—he had despised Oxford during a brief stay there and had got himself expelled. He was among the chief of the Victorian autodidacts just as he was among the most formidable eccentrics of the time, and the two roles were perhaps in his case related. “Eccentricity is, in fact, practical madness,” Mr. V.S. Pritchett has said; it is resorted to “by those who are secretly up to something shameful or stupid or muddleheaded. And in England most of us are.” Burton was muddle-headed but not stupid. His instinct of self-concealment, if he had one, took the form of a sheltering bravado which was in turn inseparable from his public personality. It earned him the nicknames of “Ruffian Dick” and “The White Negro” among his army messmates in India. At home he was to enjoy the friendship of Milnes, Swinburne, Frederick Hankey, and other participants in, or connoisseurs of, le vice anglais (the phrase was used by Burton for sodomy and later by Mr. Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony for sadism). Thus his eccentricity was not in any simple sense a stratagem of self-concealment. It expressed, at least in part, an organic independence of English manners. This sense of independence had been fostered by the long years he spent abroad as child and boy, years prolonged in substance by the ceaseless changes of residence and the ever larger opportunities for graver and graver mischief (whores, swordplay, pyromania, attempted descents into the crater of Vesuvius).

Burton, it seems, reacted against his English origins in proportion as his feckless English parents proved incapable of controlling him and his younger brother (later beaten into lifelong idiocy by natives during an elephant hunt in India). England, Burton maintained, was hopelessly “lower class”; Oxford, apart from the gypsies camped in Bagley Wood, was dull. His expressed detestation of England seems to have exceeded in intensity any possible cause except one: an inverted nostalgia, the will to defy what he had been deprived of. Perhaps this was the secret which he sought to disguise by his “practical madness.” If so, the disguise was almost literal. His dark looks were alarmingly conspicuous in England and gave rise to suspicions that he had gypsy blood.

His love of learning was genuine, whatever its causes. True, the rage for collecting facts and impressions was, with him, indiscriminate. Tolstoy says of Vronsky when, self-exiled in Florence with Anna Karenina, Vronsky begins to be bored: “He was a sensible man and a Russian and could not merely go around looking at things like an Englishman.” The titles of his 29-odd books give an idea of the variety of things looked at by Burton: they range from Etruscan Bologna: A Study to Falconry in the Valley of the Indus to A Glance at the “Passion Play.” Yet he was the opposite of an idle tourist. His travelling and looking were forms of participation in the community life of places other than England, places of his own choosing. He learned languages by taking native mistresses or, possibly, minions; he perfected them by assuming native disguises and setting up as a shopkeeper in the souks. In India once he acquired several monkeys, dressed a female of the troupe in silks and pearl earrings, and lived among them all as with a wife and family, meanwhile studying monkey language. He attained high rank among the adherents of Sufism, an esoteric Islamic sect.

Not that Burton seems to have enjoyed foreign places and peoples. On the contrary. Only among the desert Bedouins was he the utopian traveler. He admired the Bedouins for their “radiant innate idealism,” their feudal grace, discipline, and pride of clan. Even so, he left it to Doughty to celebrate the Bedouins in a masterpiece, Arabia Deserta. For the rest he was as fault-finding a traveler as Sterne’s Smellfungus, viewing native “filth” and “corruption” with the eye of European superiority. On the American plains he was disappointed because the Indians, failing to attack, robbed him of the chance to kill some. In his later years, as an explorer and a consular officer in West Africa (he eventually left the army for the foreign office), Burton served imperialism as shrewdly as his divided soul would permit. To the King of Dahomey he took presents from Queen Victoria, calming the King’s annoyance at her failure to include a carriage drawn by white chargers.


Such were the contradictions that worked like madness in the brain of this England-hating Englishman. No doubt they hampered him at just the moment when he might have won real glory at home and ended up—where his wife tried unsuccessfully to install him after his death—in a Westminster Abbey tomb. The moment came when he reached Tanganyika after incredible toils and dangers. There he halted, overcome with more than fatigue: with hatred for his bearers and his fellow explorer, John Hanning Speke. Thus Speke could continue north on his own and become the sole discoverer of Lake Victoria, a really important prize. Speke’s exploit caused the honors to be split between them; and Burton’s quarrels with Speke, and Speke’s later suicide, left the biggest trophies for Livingstone and Stanley. There were advantages to working. as Livingstone and Stanley did, for the glory of God or England or both. Burton could really only work for his divided soul. Thus East Africa failed him, as the army had, and his role declined to that of a consular officer in minor posts: Fernando Po, Santos in Brazil, Damascus, Trieste. Even in these places his energy and curiosity remained intact, until, confined chiefly to England, he would interrupt his insular excursions to look at—for example—a mushroom farm.

Meanwhile, Mr. Farwell’s reader, who has been panting after Burton through many crowded pages, undergoes a sharp reversal of feeling. He grows as bored with it all as Vronsky was in Florence. At first Burton’s curiosity set Burton in violent motion across the world; and to the reader, as doubtless to Burton, the world looked like an infinitely capacious and inviting stage for those gratuitous prowls. But the same world has ended by resembling some place of dull confinement wherein Burton is forever and vainly “kicking against the pricks.” (The phrase is his.) His talent for vaporizing romance was equaled only by his talent for shrinking space.

But Burton’s adventures had come to include less strenuous kinds. There was his marriage and there were his translations, notably of the Arabian Nights.

Writing came easy to him. His numerous books tended to expand into garrulous monologues interrupted by garrulous footnotes. Or so I gather from what Mr. Farwell says about them and from the little I have read of them myself. Sometimes the prose lights up and a scene materializes out of the mists diffused by his insistent personality. Curiously, though, the voice seems frequently to be not his own. Usually it is the voice of some great Victorian gusher, Carlyle or Ruskin, caught at the moment of its thinnest flow. The voice scolds, as Henry James said Ruskin often did, “like an angry governess.” Burton is always passing sentence; his court is in continual session; nothing is too insignificant to escape judgment even when the judgment is favorable: “says Bacon with his normal sound sense.” Thus, rebel though he is, Burton reproduces and magnifies the worst fault of Victorian writing, its sententiousness. But sometimes the voice is that of a Persian poet, or, more happily, of Homer: the fleets of covered wagons he saw on a trip to the Mormon country were, “these long winding trains, in early morning like lines of white cranes trooping slowly over the prairies” (quoted by Mr. Farwell). My own “judgments” on his books are tentative and may be misleading. There could be better books in the Burton canon than those I have seen. His Arabian Nights was momentous for other reasons than its prose, whose somewhat labored archaisms align it with the Lang, Leaf and Myers Iliad rather than the selective and inventive archaism of Arabic Deserta. Burton doubtless cribbed from John Payne’s translation (1882-84) as Mr. Joseph Campbell charges in his Portable Arabian Nights and as Mr. Farwell admits. Still, Burton’s version was inconclusive, unexpurgated. Through his courage and that of his associates in the Kamashastra Society, an informal organization of eroticists, it reached a large public. The “Terminal Essay,” re-read in middle age, remains a magnificent monument to curiosity.

His marriage to Isabel Arundell proved more durable than his monkey household. It was nevertheless a curious affair. She was the conventionally brought up daughter of a Catholic family which had been in England since the Conquest. While still a young girl, she says, she had been told by a gypsy that she would marry a very dark man named Burton. Still quite young, she met Richard Burton during one of his brief stays in Europe and was instantly smitten. After many years and few meetings and despite her mother’s objections she married him. Her persistence, which had probably brought about the marriage in the first place, made it last. There is little evidence that Isabel was interesting except for the extremes to which she carried both her romantic silliness and her pious prudery. Her “Rules For My Guidance As a Wife” still survive. One rule reads: “Attend much to his creature comforts; allow smoking or anything else; for if you do not, somebody else will.” If nothing else united this odd pair it was the capacity of each of them to embrace wildly antithetical impulses. Isabel probably drew strength from the tradition of the innocent girl who marries a rake to reform him. Perhaps Burton wanted at last to be reformed, a little.

Once married, he tried to maintain a partly separate existence as a consul in West Africa. This failing, he accepted Isabel’s constant companionship, giving few signs of discomfort. As for Isabel, she was pained by his erotomania but she allowed it as she did smoking—so long as he remained alive. Possibly it was through her efforts that his achievements were finally recognized by the Queen and he became Sir Richard. A rancorous lone wolf in so many instances, he was capable of great good nature with a few individuals. Stanley, one of these, wrote of him, “What a grand man! One of the great ones in England he might have been, if he had not been cursed with cynicism.” He loved his parents, whose restlessness he had inherited and made a fantastic career of. Immediately following his death, Isabel signalized the triumph of Patient Grizzel over Ruffian Dick by burning all his papers. The task took her several days and the news of it made a scandal in London. She saw him buried in the graveyard of a Catholic church in Mortlake, a dingy London suburb. Over his grave she ordered erected a mass of marble carved to look like an Arab tent.

May every breakthrough artist of our time have as fitting a tomb. Yet Burton seems to me to have been our spiritual ancestor in only one respect and that a negative one. With him, as with some of us some of the time, the conquest of personal autonomy and sexual freedom was accompanied by a ferocious and boring egotism. Too much autonomy made him a kind of automaton of aggression and animal courage. The spectacle presented by his life, although certainly unique in the ingenuity of its wildness, and as “fabulous,” almost, as The Arabian Nights itself, tends in the long run to make for weariness insofar as it doesn’t make for laughs. It is now easy to see that he was not, alas, a free spirit, any more than Charlus is, and that he was not really in advance of his time but behind it. Burton was a displaced Regency Beau, an admirable type when not displaced, as he was, in Victorian England. As it was, his hatred of Victorian England was fatally balanced by his desire to be a part of it on his own terms. As it was, the energy, confidence, curiousity, and courage of the age were his in sizable amounts, together with still more of its brutality and self-importance. He embodied all this with stunning finality and so remains interesting.

This Issue

April 16, 1964