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Books: Unvictorian Victorian

5 minute read

BURTON OF ARABIA—Seton Dearden— McBride ($3).

To Victorians for 50 years the career of six-foot, black-eyed, hot-headed Sir Richard Francis Burton seemed more fabulous than anything discovered, by present-day readers in T. E. Lawrence. But to plain readers today his name means next to nothing. Now, 30 years after the last serious biography of “England’s neglected genius,” readers are offered a well-written account of the greatest Orientalist of his day, speaker of over 20 languages, uncompromising enemy of Victorian conventions, first Englishman to enter Mecca, first to explore Somaliland, discoverer of Lake Tanganyika, famed swordsman, author of 40-odd books including a 15-volume translation in English. The result is a leading portrait in that gallery of “indomitable madmen who,” as Aldous Huxley says, “have made the British Empire and English literature the extraordinary things they are.”

Oldest son of an eccentric, forcibly retired Irish colonel who roamed over Europe for 30 years, Burton was seldom in school, toyed with his tutors by sitting on them or putting bullets through their hats. Intended for the Church, he arrived at Oxford not knowing the Lord’s Prayer, studied Arabic but not much else. When the news reached England that 13,000 British troops had been slaughtered in the Afghan Revolt, Burton packed up and went to India. Rapidly promoted to No. 1 secret agent under the great colonizer Napier, Burton turned in a too-realistic report on native vices which Napier’s successor sent on to Bombay as an effective way of removing a subordinate whose bawdy satirizing of army etiquette did not amuse him. Burton narrowly missed expulsion, returned to England, his health and morale shaky from overwork and official nagging, to find that his report had made him unsafe for polite society.

At fashionable Boulogne, Burton devoted himself to writing, swordsmanship and pretty women. Of farthest-reaching consequences was his bold self-introduction to tall, beautiful, 19-year-old Isabel Arundell, closely guarded daughter of an aristocratic English Catholic family. To his “painful” smile on the street one day she responded by whispering tremulously to her sister, “That man will marry me.” Afterwards she maneuvered a formal introduction, was quickly forgotten by Burton in his characteristically thorough plans for a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Disguised in turn as an Indian healer, a Persian Dervish, a Pathan, Burton escaped five bandit raids, performed the complicated Moslem rituals letter-perfect (a slip-up meant being crucified), did not return to England to capitalize on his fame or to refute a new assortment of rumors that he had robbed a Cairo post office and murdered an Arab who saw through his disguise. Instead he headed an expedition into unmapped Somaliland. succeeded where five previous attempts had failed in reaching Harar, saved himself by a feat of flattery from being killed. On another expedition into Somaliland, one of his officers was killed, two were badly wounded and Burton got a spear through his cheek.

Burton’s discovery of Lake Tanganyika in 1858 was his last big undertaking, met with incredible difficulties from the start. He was underfinanced, caravan mutinies and desertions were constant. On the last stages he was half-blinded and paralyzed by fever. Quarrels with his lieutenant John Hanning Speke, who went on alone to discover Victoria Nyanza, echoed for 20 years after. To escape them, Burton went to Salt Lake City to have a look at the Mormons. Brigham Young’s harem reminded him of a “large English hunting stable” and after a brief taste of the prevailing moral strictness he sailed for home. Between trips he had asked Isabel to marry him, had been put off only because of violent opposition from her mother. This time she said yes. Then began Isabel’s large-scale wire-pulling which resulted in Burton’s moving up through consular appointments until he came to Damascus, whence he was recalled for his blunt criticism of a cold-blooded Turkish governor, the ruthless usury of rich Jews, the intrigues of missionaries. His appointment at Trieste was his last.

Under the double lash of the British Army and Victorian conventions Burton had subsided only somewhat. Under Isabel’s expert management (“I have domesticated and tamed Richard a little,” she wrote) he broke out less often but no less lustily. In his last years at Trieste, an old man by now. Burton one day routed Isabel’s swanky afternoon circle of women by stalking into their midst, glowering, to display a manuscript titled A History of Farting.

With the publication of The Arabian Nights five years before his death in 1890, Burton became a literary sensation, was knighted by Queen Victoria—not for his embarrassingly faithful translation but for his explorations. His next effort, a translation of The Scented Garden, was to make “Mrs. Grundy howl.” But the storm he foresaw over its publication broke instead over Isabel when horrified litterateurs, among them Burton’s close crony Swinburne, learned that immediately after Burton’s death she had destroyed the manuscript along with his diaries for 40 years.

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