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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.