A rage to live : a biography of Richard and Isabel Burton

by Mary S. Lovell

Hardcover, 1998




London : Little, Brown, 1998.


Richard Burton was a brilliant, charismatic man - a unique blend of erudite scholar and daring adventurer. Fluent in twenty-nine languages, he found it easy to pass himself off as a native, thereby gaining unique insight into societies otherwise closed to Western scrutiny. He followed service as an intelligence officer in India by a daring penetration of the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina disguised as a pilgrim. He was the first European to enter the forbidden African city of Harar, and discovered Lake Tanganyika in his search for the source of the Nile. His fascination with, and research into, the intimate customs of ethnic races (which would eventually culminate in his brilliant Kama Sutra) earned him a racy reputation in that age of sexual repression. Little surprise, then, that Isabel Arundell's aristocratic mother objected to her daughter's marriage to this most notorious of figures. Isabel, however, was a spirited, independent-minded woman and was also deeply, passionately in love with Richard. Against all expectations but their own, the Burtons enjoyed a remarkably successful marriage.… (more)

Media reviews

The Free Library
There can be few Victorian personalities as complex as Sir Richard Burton - English explorer who with John Speke was the first European to explore Lake Tanganyika (1821-1890) the explorer, linguist, scholar and author, and few lives as colourful.

This is one reason that he has become a favourite
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subject for biographers, but none previously have paid more than passing attention to his marriage to Isabel. On the face of it, they seemed an ill suited couple - he the raffish raff·ish, hard drinking, buccaneering whose single minded determination to make a name for himself won him as many enemies as admirers - she the quiet, shy, self-effacing, very model of Victorian womanhood.

But on the evidence uncovered by author Mary Lovell's research, Isabel was herself a women of adventurous spirit. Passionately in love with Burton from the moment she set eyes on him six years before their marriage in 1861, she also had the ability to curb many of her husband's self-destructive impulses.

Burton's life was inextricably tied up with adventure and exploration. Born in 1821, he spent his childhood in France and Italy before enroling at Trinity College, Oxford to study Arabic. Language was to be an abiding interest. He was to master 29 different ones in his lifetime.

He left University for military service in India, where he continued his language studies and undertook a secret report on brothels for Charles Napier (sexual habits and mores were another lifetime interest), and other intelligence missions. Having been passed over for promotion following various reprimands, Burton took sick leave and planned a solo expedition to Arabia and Mecca disguised as a Persian scholar - he knew that as an infidel he would be executed if he were detected in the Holy City.

Following this successful journey, he planned another to the Horn of Africa, to the forbidden city of Harar (present day Ethiopia) accompanied by Speke.

He was lucky to survive this journey, his party being attacked on their return at Berbera. Burton received a terrible wound with a spear that passed through his cheek and impaled in his jaw, leaving him scarred for life. He was also diagnosed with syphilis.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member john.cooper
This is the third biography that I have read of the 19th century explorer, adventurer, linguist, scholar, and Satan’s body double Richard Francis Burton, and it is by far the best. (Yes, Burton, who was tall, broad-shouldered, intimidating, and very dark, often shocked others with his
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Mephistophelean look; it didn’t help that Burton liked to shock.) As a young officer in British India, Burton learned several of the native languages and was able to pass, in the service of intelligence, as a traveling trader. However, when he was sent to report upon the boy-brothels of Karachi, his report was altogether too objective and candid for the Army and Foreign Office, permanently blighting his career. Leaving India, he went to Arabia, becoming the first Westerner to successfully complete the pilgrimage to Mecca—again in disguise; and he followed this with a major expedition to Africa that narrowly missed discovering the source of the Nile. Between these travels, he went to America and met Brigham Young.

Biographer Lovell found seven boxes of previously unknown letters and documents belonging to Isabel, Burton’s intrepid wife. These allowed her to correct several errors in earlier, otherwise excellent, biographies, most notably that of Fawn Brodie, and paint a fairer picture of Isabel, who previously was best known to history as the villainess who burned Burton’s papers and unpublished manuscripts after his death. Lovell gives this act its proper context, showing that the destruction was much less than has been thought, and that it resulted far less from prudery (Burton was the translator of the Kama Sutra, the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, and other works whose publication would probably have led to his prosecution for obscenity) than from a desire to preserve her husband’s legacy against profiteers and exploiters. She also weaves Isabel properly into the story of Burton’s life, showing how staunchly this daughter of privilege endured hardships and took on adventures infinitely beyond what might have been expected of her.

Burton was larger than life, and greatly misunderstood. He did not know how to curry favor and did not care to, and he loved to tell exaggerated stories portraying himself as a ruthless killer and libertine, when the truth was that he never killed except in self-defense—in fact, almost alone among his class, he loathed hunting—and he often went out of his way to protect the helpless. By giving his marriage new attention and examining his life through the perspective of Isabel’s newly discovered papers, Lovell gives a much more fully rounded picture of Burton’s life, both private and public.
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LibraryThing member poulantik
a huge biography of one of the most exciting Victorian explorers and linguists. He was the first Englishman to enter Mekka )in disguise)
LibraryThing member PatsyMurray
Carefully researched, this biography of Richard and Isabel Burton is an exciting, fast-paced read, if a tad too long. She mounts a strong defense of Isabel, refuting the claim that Isabel's Catholicism led her to burn all of Richard's papers. You see an Isabel who was highly intelligent and a
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masterful horsewoman willing to face all types of physical danger to be with her beloved husband. Lovell has also written a biography of Jane Digby who became Isabel's friend when the couple lived in Damascus and I plan to read that now as well. The two women chose to follow their own path rather than conform and so they led extraordinary lives. This biography provides much insight into what life was like in many parts of the world during the Victorian age. Anyone interested in Victorian explorations, global politics, and social and sexual mores will find this book well worth their time.
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Local notes

Signed by author. Dust jacket covered.


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