July 21, 2014

'A splendid and provoking enigma'

A review  ... with romantic ruminations

Mary S. Lovell

This biography of Richard and Isabel Burton is one of my all-time favourites and one of the few books that I have read more than once and will most likely read again at some stage.

I’ll have to admit a huge history-crush on Sir Richard Francis Burton (not that Welsh actor bloke who married Elizabeth Taylor) and if reverse reincarnation were possible I’d put myself in line to be his wife, Isabel – although I probably would try and change some of her less attractive qualities!

Burton, the polymath and fiercely intellectual renegade adventurer, explorer, duellist, scholar, linguist, and diplomat, was both celebrated and reviled in his own lifetime but there is something about him that remains timeless and charismatic even though he died in 1890. As the author Alan Moorehead describes him, he was, and still is today, ‘a splendid and provoking enigma’.

The cover of the book in my possession shows this photograph. The biography has had various other covers in further editions, but this is the best as it has an immediacy and informality unlike most stiffly-posed photos of the Victorian era.

From photo album belonging to Isabel Burton

Apparently it was taken in Madeira in 1863 two years after the couple were married and on what they considered to be their real honeymoon. The way that Burton sets his intensity at the camera while his wife turns to the side says a great deal. Isabel is perhaps trying to ignore the glare of publicity attached to her marriage to a man who was fast proving to be one of the most controversial figures of his day, while her husband issues a defiant eye-to-eye challenge to whoever is watching him and manages to keep the look steady throughout the long exposure time.

Extraordinarily handsome when he was young, with black hair, his trademark droopy moustache and penetrating dark eyes, the infamous facial scar that he suffered after he was impaled with a javelin through the cheeks by a Somali warrior in 1855 just added to his swashbuckling, piratical appearance. The most famous portrait showing the scar being this one by Frederick Leighton in 1872:

The original is at the National Portrait Gallery

Apart from his famous expeditions to Mecca when he disguised himself as an Arab, his adventures in Sindh, his search for the source of the Nile in company with John Hanning Speke, and numerous other travels in the United States and in South America, Burton is also largely remembered for his scandalous research into sexuality and his translations of the 1001 Arabian Nights and of course the Kama Sutra which has led to much speculation as to his own private practices and inclinations. I have read a number of other biographies of Burton and I still believe that Mary S. Lovell presents the best arguments and conclusions on that topic. 

Initially, Isabel does not seem a likely match for Burton, being an ordinary, albeit spirited, young woman, a lifelong devout Catholic likely to be at odds with anyone who had an open mind about morals and religion. Burton could have had his pick of any beautiful woman with the dynamism to match wits with him, but Isabel rose to the challenge. She was made of steely stuff and proved she would do anything and everything to get her man and to keep him and their partnership became legendary.

The biography tells a tale which sounds apocryphal but apparently was verified by Burton himself in that when she was a young girl a gypsy (curiously enough with the surname of Burton) cast Isabel’s horoscope in Romany. It summed up very accurately all that Isabel’s life would be, that when she met the man of her destiny they would become “One soul in two bodies in life or death, never long apart” and it ended with these words “ Show this to the man you take for your husband. [signed] Hagar Burton.”

Isabel had many suitors but rejected them all. She had written down in great detail the man for whom she was waiting and, although she had never met him, it reads like an exact description of Burton, both physically and in character, and she said she would sacrifice everything for him. If he did not come into her life, she would become a nun. And then came the day she was walking with her sister on the promenade at Boulogne when the man of her dreams walked towards her. Their eyes met and Isabel said, it was as “if he saw into my soul”. She turned to her sister and said, “that is the man that will marry me”.

In any other less-competent hands, this could almost sound like romantic tosh, but author Lovell describes the encounter so well that you have to believe it and like all good professional researchers and authors, she backs it up with credible sources. She also sets straight the myth that Isabel burnt all the great man’s papers after his death – yes, she did destroy some, but for her own considered and logical reasons.

Burton aficionados have created a number of websites for him over the years, but many of them seem quickly to become defunct for odd reasons. Someone of psychic bent might detect a touch of otherworldly interference in this which is not without its possibilities given Burton’s “lifelong fascination with the possibility of unknown influences, talismans, potions and magical power” and his sheer force of personality that seems have transcended our earthly realm and can affect people alive today.

Burton and his wife lie in a unique tent-shaped mausoleum in St Mary’s Churchyard, Mortlake, Surrey, that has a rear window with a ladder that lets you peer in. There is much about it on this most recent website created by James Giffordin which he mentions the strange disappearing photograph and the movement of certain objects. The most recent photos taken this year can be found here.

There are, of course, practical explanations for this, but even if there aren’t any I wouldn’t be surprised either. There is certainly something eerie and slightly vampirish (for want of another word) about the tomb of the Burtons – with its exotic camel bells, pots, lanterns, decayed floral tributes, flaking angelic paintings, candles, rosaries and crucifix  ... it wouldn’t take much of a twist of imagination to detect that the lid of Burton’s steel coffin is slightly off kilter. He is there and yet he is not. He is one of those rare and extraordinary human beings who belongs to us all and to the ages.

5 stars

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