10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 47

The fierce couple: Richard and Isabel

Christopher Ondaatje

A RAGE TO LIVE: A BIOGRAPHY OF RICHARD AND ISABEL BURTON by Mary S. Lovell Little, Brown, ,E25, pp. 928

One of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home, one feels once more happy.

Richard Burton, Zanzibar Richard and Isabel Burton's story is one of the great stories of the Victorian era. More than an adventurer and a scholar, Burton was an anthropologist, a prolific writer and a linguist fluent in 29 languages.

After seven years in Sindh with the British East India Company, he was the first European to enter the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina, following which, with John Hanning Speke, he dis- covered Lake Tanganyika in a controver- sial, much documented search for the source of the Nile.

His wife, the aristocratic and staunchly Catholic Isabel Arundell, was an indepen- dent-minded, fiercely loyal woman who married Burton despite his notorious repu- tation.

I want to live ... I want a wild, roving, vagabond life . . . 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.

Isabel Burton, letter to her mother

Isabel was of considerable assistance to Burton in his many biographies and trans- lations, and her act of burning Burton's Papers following his death in 1890 is per- ceived as one of the worst literary crimes of the 19th century.

Mary Lovell is a masterly researcher and has written a masterly and comprehensive book. Of course there have been many Burton biographies and much has also been written about Isabel, but this is one of the best, as well as the first joint biography and the first to include material from the Arundell Papers (which have been lodged at the Wiltshire record office in Trow- bridge) — an extraordinary omission, now corrected.

The Trowbridge material enables Mary Lovell to claim, with justification, that Isabel did not burn and destroy all Burton's papers in an act of literary vandalism. In fact, the surviving Burton papers consti- tute one of the largest collections of papers 'to come down from that age of diary burners'.

Further research on Miss Lovell's part has unearthed considerable unpub- lished material which proves that Burton, far from being a practising homosexual, had a number of heterosexual affairs and loved Isabel in a romantic and physical sense. Miss Lovell does also rely on existing Burton bibliography, but has avoided making her scholarly and readable book a mere re-hash of previous biogra- phies.

It is true that Isabel destroyed Burton's translation of The Scented Garden, an Arab guide to love-making. Her motive might well have been to protect Burton's reputa- An affectionate caricature of Isabel by Richard Burton, with himself as the lion, c. 1871 tion, as Miss Lovell believes. But it is my opinion that manuscripts, diaries, notes and other edited work were destroyed as much to protect her own name as her hus- band's. She was a collaborator. The couple were editorial partners. Much of Burton's work was edited by Isabel, and her correc- tions, notes and changes must have been all over his papers. We know, for example, that there were several different editions of the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night and that it was Isabel who inherited the copyright and controlled publication. We know too that Burton's notes for the notorious Karachi Papers on the boy broth- els of Karachi (mentioned in Nights and a document which certainly helped to end Burton's enigmatic army career) would almost certainly also have been destroyed. They have never been found. Nevertheless, anyone curious enough to wade through the Terminal Essay in Volume Ten of The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night will find everything and more that could possi- bly have been written on the subject. It is all there in graphic detail.

About Burton's sexual nature there is lit- tle doubt. He was a curious adventurer, a voyeur and a committed diarist, not a devi- ate, although one cannot help but assume that he sampled many of the delights of 'Le Vice' while in India. He certainly wrote about its practices and games with undis- guised interest.

If there is one criticism I have of Miss Lovell's biography, it is of her almost dis- missive treatment of John Hanning Speke, who admittedly had many failings. Indeed, following his discovery of Lake Victoria in 1858, Speke even accused Burton of trying to poison him and thus claim the discovery for himself alone — a ludicrous accusation. Also, Speke's mean-spirited attitude to James Augustus Grant at the end of their phenomenally successful 1860-63 East African expedition prevented the latter from accompanying him on the final short stretch to Ripon Falls (which, incidentally, still exists and still carries the same name, although almost totally submerged by Owen Falls Dam, some miles downstream from the start of the Victoria Nile). Burton's anthropological, linguistic and lit- erary accomplishments are legion, but of the two men, Burton and Speke, there is little doubt that Speke was by far the greater explorer. Despite a short life, tragically curtailed, his achievements attest to this — as do those of Henry Morton Stanley, whose biography Burton, urged by Isabel, planned to write. But, alas, it was too late. He died almost immediately after completing The Scented Garden.

A Rage to Live is a big book, a readable, lovingly researched exploration of the par- allel lives of this controversial couple. As Miss Lovell herself admits, she did not see first-hand many of the places where Richard Burton wandered, nor has she exposed herself to any of the unexpected discoveries of safari (a word Burton intro- duced into the English language). Had she done so, she would have given us a rare insight into the character of her hero and his loyal wife, who often followed Burton's command to 'pay, pack and follow'. She is well qualified to write about this experi- ence.

The ability to become totally absorbed into another culture was Burton's true genius, and the process of doing so was his true adventure. It is only by immersing oneself into the restless depths of that pro- cess that one might find the answer to the riddle of Richard Burton. The devil drives!

Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Sindh Revisited and A Journey fo the Source of the Nile.