Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Isabel Burton / Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton,

 Isabel Burton was the daughter of Hon. Henry Raymond Arundell (1799–1886) of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, nephew of James Everard Arundell (1785–1834), 10th Baron Arundell of Wardour. Her mother, Eliza, was the sister of Robert Tolver Gerard (1808–1887), 13th Baronet of Bryn, Lancashire, and 1st Baron Gerard of Bryn.

Isabel was one of eleven children born into the House of Wardour, a respected and well-to-do Roman Catholic family in England. She grew up enmeshed in London society and attended the convent of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, where she excelled as a writer and in theological studies.

During the Crimean War, Isabel was refused three times in her quest to be a 'Nightingale nurse' and instead set up an group of 150 like-minded women from Catholic families known as the Stella Club to assist the wives and children of soldiers who had married without permission and for whom the army took no responsibility. Such women and children were often in dire circumstances at home. Isabel and her group went into the slums of London, against the advice of police, to distribute assistance.

While on a school trip to Boulogne, she first met her future husband, Richard Burton, whom she claims to have fallen in love with immediately, though it would be another four years until their courtship began, and ten years until their marriage. Because of her strict Catholic background, her relationship with Burton caused strains within her family and she ultimately married him against the wishes of her parents. This was to be a major source of pain for her as the years progressed.

She was an intelligent, resourceful and devout woman, but is always seen in the shadow of her husband, one of the most famous of all Victorians. She was a strong supporter and advocate for her husband and assisted him on many of his most significant writings. He has credited her with being his most ardent supporter. He encouraged her to write and she wrote a number of books, including among them a history of their travels in Syria and Palestine, as well as an autobiography, published posthumously. Some scholars believe that Burton himself wrote under her name, though it is unclear.

She is perhaps best known for burning some of his papers and manuscripts after his death, including his revised translation of The Perfumed Garden, which was to be called The Scented Garden, and of which the largest part consisted of the usually unpublished final chapter dealing with pederasty, plus Burton's extensive (and comprehensive) notes on the subject.

In an appendix to her unfinished autobiography, her posthumous collaborator William Henry Wilkins pointed out that she had a first offer of £6,000 for the manuscript, and moreover that she need never have disclosed her actions at all, or blamed them on her husband. He further claimed that she acted from a sincere belief that "out of a thousand men who read the work, 15 would read it in the scientific spirit in which it was written, and the other 985 solely for filth's sake", and feared that publication would blight, not her husband's worldly reputation – for his interest in the subject was notorious – but, by tempting others to sin, his prospects in the world to come.

From her home in Baker Street she made regular visits to her husband's tomb in Mortlake and on one of these visits she noticed that a small cottage behind the churchyard was available for rent. She had a name-plate made for "Our cottage" and planted roses, ivy and honeysuckle round the front door. She now needed morphine injections to help her cope with the pain of the cancer, but she was determined to republish 34 of Richard's works in a memorial edition. In only eight months she finished the two-volume biography of Richard, The Life of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, which was published on 11 July 1893.

  Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton,

By 1895, Isabel was having difficulty in walking and, in the summer, a bout of influenza and a bad attack of abdominal pain meant that she was unable to progress very far on her own autobiography. So she contacted W.H. Wilkins and asked him to help her when she was able to return to the project. Wilkins's book, The Romance of Isabel Burton, was published in 1897.
In September 1895 Isabel moved to Eastbourne until the following March. She died in London on 22 March.

Her body and that of her husband lie in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Church Mortlake in south west London, in an elaborate tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent which she designed. The coffins of Sir Richard and Lady Burton can be seen through a window at the rear of the tent, which can be accessed via a short fixed ladder. Next to the lady chapel in the church there is a memorial stained-glass window to Sir Richard, erected by Lady Isabel.

January 17, 1999

'A Wild, Roving, Vagabond Life'
That's what Isabel Burton wanted, and Sir Richard gave it to her.

Sir Richard Burton (1821-90) -- explorer, scholar, ethnologist, linguist, translator, eroticist -- was, of all the eminent Victorians, the one most gifted at attracting and keeping enemies. Not just any enemies either: an alarming number of his particularly unbalanced contemporaries took up as a duty the job of hating him, dedicating their lives to getting him. His only major competitor in the odium limelight was his wife. Isabel (who was 10 years younger and outlived him by 6 years), a practiced officious meddler and irritant to the important during her husband's life, saved her best shot for after his death: legend has it that she burned her husband's papers (diaries, manuscripts) at his death in a frenzy of bluenosed righteousness and then, worse, mounted a tireless but absurd defense of her literary and cultural crime. As a result, Isabel magnetized the well-oiled detestation not only of the poet Swinburne and a host of her contemporaries but of nearly every scholar and certainly every biographer since. What a couple. Her husband seems to have combined the least attractive traits of Mike Tyson, Oliver North and Larry Flynt; she of Tipper Gore, Leona Helmsley and Tonya Harding. This, anyhow, is the received view.

Until now. Mary S. Lovell, the author of biographies of Jane Digby, Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham, opens her book by telling us that the one thing we all know about Isabel, that she was a literary arsonist, is wrong. She started a fire, certainly, and some of Burton's letters, along with one important manuscript, were in it; but much, including his diaries, was not. More significant, she was not a mindless hysteric, Lovell shows, but a competent and judicious woman who knew what she was doing. What she was doing was protecting her husband's reputation from his enemies and from the publishers of pornography she felt were sure to get his latest scholarly erotica (''The Scented Garden'') into the wrong hands -- those who sought erotic pleasure.

There is much new material in ''A Rage to Live,'' an extraordinary biography, and at least as much writing that is clever and persuasive as there is special pleading, as much that is moving as is silly. Trying to write the biographies of two people who lived much of their lives before they were together and, after that, were very often not together for long periods involves Lovell in a lot of straddling and even more wild hopping back and forth: but let us turn now from the pleasant salons of London to the dark jungles of Africa, from the tinkle of laughing voices to the roar of panthers. Still, Lovell convinces me that we have made a set of serious blunders in understanding Isabel, the marriage, Burton and the accomplishments of both people.

It is not an easy job to suggest that any two human beings are happy for any length of time, much less marshal evidence that will persuade the jaded that the Burtons' life together was ''a mutual joy,'' beneficial to both. Lovell shows that Isabel was, without doubt, a powerful and courageous woman who could swim with the sharks and fence; act as collaborator, editor and literary agent; ride and shoot and treat rattlesnake bites; get herself and Burton presented to the Queen and asked to dine with the Prime Minister; write and think. It is hardly to our credit that we have so readily constructed Isabel as another of those shrews-married-to-genius: ignorant, intolerant and -- oh, it's a shame he got married at all! Anyhow, now we have little choice but to see that we were wrong altogether and that as a consequence Isabel, her husband and the whole era are more complex and sometimes lovelier than we supposed.

The main events of Burton's life are well known but still difficult to keep track of, encompass or even believe. Lovell tells this sweeping story with clarity and efficiency, and with a partisan bias that is sometimes vigorously intelligent and sometimes just vigorous. She says, for instance, that she has ''unearthed a great deal of previously unpublished material which demonstrates that Burton was heterosexual,'' not homosexual, not ''crypto-homosexual,'' not ''bisexual'' or any other invention foisted on him by biographers ready to apply ''some fashionable psychiatric spin to increase readership.'' She pursues this line with evident but mysterious pride: ''I am absolutely certain . . . that there is no historical evidence to support the theory that Burton was homosexual.''

What a very odd claim. It's hard to know what would count for ''evidence'' with someone confident she has scoured the past; and she will not listen to anyone pointing to Burton's obsessive writings on homosexuality and on pederasty, his comments on the pretty-boy ''blue eyes and blond hair'' and ''childlike simplicity'' of John Hanning Speke, the explorer of Africa, or Burton's rushing about Africa measuring men's penises. Nonsense! Lovell snorts; Burton was simply a scholar, interested in everything, ''all aspects of sexual anthropology, and the more bizarre the act the greater was his interest.'' Biographers would be better served asking more calmly questions that matter and that expose less ominously their own ignorance.

However, the material on Burton is generally solid and secure, judicious and sometimes even wry. Lovell admires Burton immoderately, but she recognizes she is hugging a porcupine. The man known during his younger days in India as Ruffian Dick -- and later as a murderer, impostor, betrayer, pornographer, atheist (or Muslim), sexual adventurer and, hang it all, no gentleman -- was certainly hampered by a reputation he also carefully cultivated, in no small part by lying or by telling wild stories about himself and allowing others to believe them. Lovell shows that he also made mistakes, and she is almost too quick to spot plots against him; but this was a man who loved to detect boobies, toadies, frauds and then tell them (and others) about his discoveries.

He was astonishingly gifted and did not put a bushel over those shining gifts: ''It is not my fault,'' he wrote in one of his prefaces, ''if I am better educated than my fellows.'' Doubtless not, but it's not the sort of approach calculated to win our hearts. He struck (and that's the right word) his contemporaries as violence about to happen: as a youth, he ran his fencing foil through the back of his brother's mouth and bashed his violin over his music master's head. He so hated the idea of entering the church that he got himself rusticated from Oxford with noisy parties and widely distributed caricatures of dons and tutors, along with defiance of rules that stopped just short of busted skulls. He didn't stop there, though he did not, Lovell thinks, get himself caught and castrated, murder natives left and right, involve himself in countless duels with jealous husbands or eat a cabin boy. He just delighted in the fact that others thought so.

Burton lived by trying to stun and stupefy all around him, and he nearly stupefies this biographer. Lovell does have superb narrative gifts, and she makes this life, which would be interesting even if told by a colleague of mine who can make ''Oedipus Tyrannus'' sound humdrum, exciting. Burton, after all, not only was part of the ''Great Game'' of espionage in India but fought in the Crimean War, launched several bold and controversial African explorations, became a principal figure in the battle over the source of the Nile and, disguised as an Arab merchant-magician-dervish-fortuneteller, managed to penetrate the forbidden city of Mecca. He served the Foreign Office in posts in West Africa, Brazil and Syria, and made important trips (recorded in important books) to many other spots, including Iceland and the United States.

He knew about 30 languages and innumerable difficult dialects, and his ethnological, linguistic and geographical work was tireless and brilliant. He published nearly 40 volumes on his explorations alone, along with grammars and volumes of folklore; he produced unexpurgated translations of Eastern erotica: ''The Arabian Nights,'' ''The Kama Sutra'' and ''The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui,'' thus charting a collision course with the National Vigilance Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He seems to have lived every minute restlessly and with unrelaxed pugnacity, on the watch for something new to learn and somebody new to offend. Lovell gives this part of her story a generous and uncluttered airing.

But it is with Isabel, the woman who became at least as unpopular as her husband, that Lovell is most eloquent and persuasive. She has indeed unearthed new material, and she uses it to build a new Isabel, one who is as resolutely tactless as her husband but also as courageous, defiant and smart. This new Isabel will not strike many as down-home likable, but I do not see how anyone can now judge her easily or harshly. Lovell finds her admirable, and so do I: she faced arduous challenges and even harder decisions, and she charged into them with the extraordinary gumption of a woman who knew how to bully and how to be loyal. Isabel knew from the start that she was destined to marry Burton, partly because she was sickened by the ordinary mild lot of women and was athirst for something much riskier and partly because a Gypsy fortuneteller had forecast that she was destined to marry one who had the name of the Gypsy tribe, and that name was -- ta-dah! -- Burton.

Isabel was, for all her tough-minded independence, somewhat wackily superstitious, and not just when it came to Gypsy queens. She loved to be hypnotized, insisted that Richard could call to her from across great distances, felt herself to be both psychic and clairvoyant, and held fast to dreams and omens. She was, in this light, someone ''who had strayed from the Middle Ages,'' as her husband affectionately put it. Her premarital musings about Burton -- ''he unites the wild, lawless creature and the gentleman'' -- sound like Isabella Linton dribbling on about Heathcliff, and we might expect a similar rude awakening. However, it turns out that Isabel knows Burton and knows herself: ''I wish I were a man. If I were I would be Richard Burton; but, being only a woman, I would be Richard Burton's wife.'' There is no doubt that she worshiped him, but she did not so much submit herself to him as unite with him in doing what she wanted to do all along: find perilous adventure in the jungles and deserts, in the polite social world and in the life of the mind. She wanted, she said, ''a wild, roving, vagabond life,'' and Burton had it to give to her.

Lovell is perhaps overenthusiastic in assuring us that all parts of this marriage, including the sexual part, were terrific. Just because they shared an ''intimate dialogue'' and Burton (unquestionably) had an ''interest in erotic techniques'' might not lead us to conclude that it was ''likely that their sex life was both mutually satisfying and continuously interesting.'' I am happy that Lovell generously supposes so, but maybe she has secrets on this not revealed to me.

More important, Lovell's new material shows that without question Isabel worked closely with Burton, and not just as a scribe or researcher. She was his editor, agent and often his co-author. It was largely this partnership that led to her unpopularity, as she went about, with her customary dash, plugging and defending his works and reputation. She was determined to get him knighted, and did. She was also on the alert to see that he received credit, was never viewed uncharitably and was seen always by everyone ''in the same uncritical light'' that she threw on her beloved. In this, she was not only less successful but managed to make herself thorny and obnoxious to many. Even here, however, Lovell brilliantly shows how her defects were the reflexes of her large, openhearted strengths.

Lovell writes with a zeal that seems to ring right out of Isabel herself. This biography is both admirably scholarly and, now and then, engagingly reckless. Lovell has transformed our view of the Burtons and their accomplishments, but she has not kept her own crotchets under a very short rein. For one thing, the biography is not a book you will wish longer. Lovell laments the fact that she had to lose a third of what she wanted to put in to make this wallowing volume less obese; she will be alone in her wailing. She falls so deeply in love with this couple -- an amiable but decisive failing -- that she can become frenzied in her admiration: certainly Burton was not ''possibly unique among his English contemporaries'' in believing that married women should ''enjoy the sexual act as well as the man,'' and it does not seem to me that ''it was generally accepted, even by his enemies, that he had 'the best mind of his generation.' ''

This doting zeal can lead Lovell often to become zanily defensive. She notes that Burton rarely mentions his mother at all, but that doesn't mean he didn't love her. Oh, no: ''That he loved his mother, as he loved all his family, is beyond question.'' You get the feeling you'd better not question it or Lovell might aim her own fencing foil at the back of your mouth. Nor can you defend Speke, who comes across here as surely the most repellent man of his century or any other. The fact that Burton wrote so openly about his own heavy drinking may not, in itself, ''discount . . . any unhealthy dependence on alcohol,'' and I don't know if it's much of a defense of his bigoted comments on Africans to note that he was, after all, bigoted about lots of things. Is it really necessary to ask, ''Who can blame them?'' when Richard and Isabel cheer at the news that an old enemy has been assassinated? And is it comely to bristle at the common report that Isabel was fat? ''At 11 stones (154 lbs.) she was hardly seriously overweight for her height.''

Such obsessions now and then detract Lovell from telling us what we need to know: Burton is plopped into the middle of the Crimean War without so much as a how-de-do about what that war is all about. Worse, there are some errors that somebody should have caught: there are no 28,000-foot peaks in the Andes; Oscar Wilde was not convicted under the Obscene Publications Act.

But even the errors are amiable, as is Lovell's identification with Isabel's grief. She enters into Isabel's designs for Richard's tomb, a tentlike mausoleum, equipped with ''festoons of camel bells'' to provide the sort of ''tinkling,'' she said, that would make it seem just like the desert. Grieving widows cannot be criticized on matters of taste, but Lovell probably didn't have to entitle her penultimate chapter ''Last Tinkle of the Camel Bell'' or report on Isabel's own funeral quite so evocatively: ''Above the voices of the priest and the choir . . . strings of camel bells tinkled gaily in the brisk spring breeze.'' I find myself admiring Isabel almost as much as I admire Lovell; but I wouldn't want either of them in charge of my funeral arrangements. I have just told Mrs. K.: no camel bells.

James R. Kincaid, the Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University of Southern California, is the author of ''Annoying the Victorians'' and ''Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting.''

No comments: