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.”

Ms. Lovell is a wide-ranging writer whose previous books include biographies of two scandalous English ladies (Beryl Markham and Lady Jane Digby), as well as works on cats and hunting (she was once a Master of Foxhounds) and the Boys Book of Boats. But she is not always reliable on less racy or less homely aspects of British and Anglo-Indian history. She announces, for example, that “the political landscape of eastern Europe… was largely responsible for Disraeli’s decision to resign the premiership in August 1876” and adds that he was over seventy at the time and “could not take the continued stress.” In fact he remained prime minister until April 1880, when he resigned after being defeated by Gladstone in an election. Perhaps she was confused by the fact that he had changed his name to Beaconsfield and led the government from the House of Lords.

The author also indulges in some fairly standard stereotyping of the English. We are told that Kipling produced a “fascinating canon of Boys Own adventure stories” (strange, then, that he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), that “the English (not the Scots or Welsh) have always mistrusted cleverness” (not surprising, then, that they went on selecting such fools as Gladstone and Disraeli as prime minister), that most “middle-class Englishmen regarded hunting and shooting as a raison d’être” (Bonar Law, a very middle-class prime minister, was unable even to recognize a pheasant), and that, Englishmen being what they are, Burton may have been “unique” among them “in his conviction that a successful marriage or partnership required the woman to enjoy the sexual act as well as the man.”

“It is not the purpose of this book,” declares Lovell, “to draw attention to specific inaccuracies contained in previous biographies….” And indeed she goes out of her way to describe the accounts by Frank McLynn3 and the late Fawn Brodie as “excellent books” and “first-class studies.” Why she should say this about McLynn’s is a mystery, because seldom can two biographies have taken such opposite positions as her defense of Burton and Isabel and his criticism of both of them. Were it not for the same anecdotes, indeed, one might think they were writing about different people. Nevertheless, if the purpose of the book is not to score points, it is to demonstrate that Brodie, McLynn, and other detractors of the Burtons are wrong in their interpretations of character and events. And the main weapon in her passionate defense of the couple is her “discovery of numerous new primary documents,” notably seven boxes of Isabel’s papers at the Wiltshire Record Office. Ms. Lovell is not coy about her success in this respect, revealing details to us of her “plan of campaign,” the “first discipline” of her research, how she “surmised” this and “ascertained” that. Throughout the book we are reminded of documents to which she has had unique access and which have never been published.

Armed with her discoveries, she goes into action and pronounces that Isabel was almost faultless. Instead of being “a silly and ill-educated woman,” she was clever, brave, loyal, and resourceful. Only in middle age did she become a little arrogant and intolerant, acquiring the habit of hitting Asians with her riding whip when she caught them mistreating animals. (On her visit to Bombay she had a man arrested for pulling a cow’s tail.) As for the days of notoriety, Lovell claims that far fewer documents perished than has previously been believed, while she excuses the giving of extreme unction on the ground that two years earlier Isabel had baptized Burton at Cannes as he was having a heart attack (a rite that he could not afterward recall). In any case she was not trying to gain another soul for her church but ensuring that their bodies could be buried together on Earth while their souls met up in Heaven.

Burton’s faults are admitted to have been more numerous. He offended girls’ mothers, he shocked people with his stories, his arrogance made him enemies. But his unpopularity was largely undeserved, the result of unscrupulous intriguers jealous of his talents. Although he claimed to have committed all the sins in the Decalogue, he was a sheep in wolf’s clothing who teased people with exaggerated talk of his iniquities. Ms. Lovell dismisses the more serious allegations with brisk defensiveness: the charge that he gambled away his inheritance on a Mississippi riverboat—“There is no evidence that Richard ever gambled”; the charge that he drank too heavily—“The fact that he wrote about it so openly probably discounts any unhealthy dependence on alcohol”; the charge that he was homosexual—“I am absolutely certain…that there is no historical evidence to support the theory that Burton was homosexual.” (Later this is repeated in an italicized scream—“There is no historical evidence.”)

Parts of Lovell’s case are convincing. Burton’s reputation was damaged by envious conspirators; the Mississippi gambling story is quite insubstantial; Isabel was certainly not stupid (not that many people now think she was: Fawn Brodie wrote of “her lively intelligence, zest for adventure, capacity for adaptation, and even talent for writing”4 ). But the insistence of the defense is wearying and its stridency in itself is enough to raise doubts. Despite all the talk of new documents, the case rests more on assertion than on evidence. With the exception of one matter of minor significance—her revelation that Brodie mistook a satire for a serious diary—Lovell’s claims for originality are unimpressive.

One of the book’s chief purposes is to show that the Burtons’ marriage was happy and sexy, and to do this the author has to address the allegations about his homosexuality. Here is an example of how she deals with this debate. On page 297, in the course of a discussion on Burton and Speke, she writes, “There is even the surprising—serious—claim (based on psychoanalytical deduction), that their relationship was homosexual.” She then directs us to a source reference, where she states, “Both Fawn Brodie and Frank McLynn (op. cit.)…examine the relationship using psychoanalytical methods, and conclude a homosexual relationship.” No page numbers are provided, but a trawl through both books reveals nothing of the kind. McLynn, who is no slouch at making sexual connections, speculates on an “unconscious homosexual attraction initially drawing Speke and Burton together,” and later writes, “A repressed homosexual himself, Speke seemed to sense that the unconscious bond between himself and Burton was sexual.”5

For her part, Brodie merely wrote about the two men’s “comradeship and mutual affection” in the first year of the expedition, and later on described how in England “Speke went on to accuse Burton, first, of cheating—where he himself was guilty—and second, of homosexual behaviour, something which Speke may unconsciously have been attracted to himself.”6 An unconscious bond, therefore, repressed homosexuality (on Speke’s part), but nothing to suggest—let alone “conclude”—a homosexual relationship.

Assertion, coupled with reference to new evidence, is the method used to bludgeon us into accepting that the Burtons’ marriage was a romantic success. Much emphasis is laid on his heterosexuality and sexual skills. “Richard had lost his virginity as a teenager in Italy,” Lovell writes, “and was thereafter an enthusiastic exponent of the art of love-making.” “Surviving, previously unpublished letters…, added to the testimony of close friends,” indicate, “quite simply, that Richard married Isabel because he was in love with her.” A few pages further on, the “closest friends” are conjoined again with “previously unseen surviving correspondence” to suggest

that they enjoyed a warm and loving relationship. Further, given this close relationship, the intensely intimate dialogue they shared, Isabel’s consistent worship and Burton’s interest in erotic techniques, it seems likely that their sex life was both mutually satisfying and continuously interesting…. It is inconceivable that a man of passion such as Burton, and a passionate woman such as Isabel, could have lived together so happily as they clearly did if the most intimate part of their relationship had been unsatisfactory.

The logic and the psychology of this passage seem equally bewildering. Because a woman worshiped a man, and that man liked pornographic manuals, we are asked to deduce that their sex life was “continuously interesting”! Leaving that aside for the moment, let us return to the text and the references in search of evidence for this sexy marriage. A source note to the “warm and loving relationship” might be expected to refer to the “previously unseen surviving correspondence” that is used in the same sentence to advance the claim. In fact it mentions no source but merely asserts that Lovell is able to verify Isabel’s statements in general and gives, as an example, a story about reading The Times when snowed in in Yorkshire.

As for the “previously unpublished letters” about Burton being in love, these reveal little apparently except that he always wrote to his wife as “my darling”—a form of address that is commonly used in Britain between couples even when their relationship is not particularly strong. Still more disappointing is the source note for this “previously unpublished” revelation, “Letters in QK [Quentin Keynes] collection…,” without dates. Thirty years ago, in her acknowledgments in The Devil Drives, Fawn Brodie declared that Keynes had been “most generous in letting me see his manuscripts….”

The “marriage worked,” insists Lovell. “What is more it worked wonderfully.” Yet no amount of insistence, no repetitive appeal to unpublished correspondence, can conceal the fact that Burton spent the first months of the marriage boozing in the evenings with his friends, that he then accepted a post where his wife couldn’t follow him, and that for the rest of his life he continued to go on long expeditions without her. There is no evidence for what he did in any bed anywhere at any time. His fascination with Karachi low life doesn’t make him a homosexual, nor does his knowledge of the Kama Sutra make him an “enthusiastic exponent of the art of love-making.” “Assuming he practised the substance of his writings,” says Lovell, Burton “was a skilled and sympathetic lover.” But why assume that? We don’t assume that military historians make good generals, or that stamp collectors will design pretty stamps.

Indeed, if there is any assuming to be done, I am more persuaded by those who assume the opposite. Frank McLynn may assume too much when he writes about Burton’s “abject failure as [a] heterosexual lover” in India, but he seems close to the truth with his opinion that the “scholarly researches and intense interest in sexology were more sublimation than complementarity.”7 Fawn Brodie took a similar line, suggesting that Burton’s claim that Englishmen were never loved by their Indian mistresses was also “a melancholy admission on his own part.” In her conclusion she indicated at least one of the reasons behind his obsession with sexology.

It was as if sheer quantity of facts about coital positions, permutations, aphrodisiacs and an infinitude of stories of love could somehow substitute for the act of loving or make up for the failure of sexuality in his own marriage. Married to a woman who could play skilfully at the role of wife, he came to accept her self-conscious and overpowering adoration as a substitute for sexuality. But he could not have been blind to the fundamental failure or to his own contribution to that failure—else he would not have fled so often from the marriage.8

While disputing a point with Brodie in this book, Lovell describes The Devil Drives as “arguably the finest modern work on Burton to date.” And it still is. Graham Greene’s prediction turned out to be false, but his judgment holds good.

This Issue

April 8, 1999