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Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton Paperback – July 3, 1990
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Burton was born in 1821. He had an unconventional upbringing, and he turned out to be a very unconventional man. He was expelled from Oxford and then joined the Honourable East India Company. He loved to travel and observe humanity in all its anthropological diversity. His two most famous excursions were (a) to the forbidden cities of Mecca and Medina, where he went disguised as a Muslim Pathan from Afghanistan, and (b) into East Africa, where he was the first European to discover Lake Tanganyika and just missed being the first to discover Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile. His travels were facilitated by his linguistic skills; he could speak more than twenty-five languages. During his life he wrote and published thirty books and translated or edited another eleven, including what remains one of the leading translations of "The Arabian Nights." In his later years, he served as British Consul in such places as Fernando Po, Dahomey, Brazil, Damascus, and Trieste.
Farwell's BURTON covers the man in moderate detail. Burton's famous rivalry and feud with John Speke, who ended up being the European credited with the discovery of Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile, receives appropriate attention. (Burton was a proud, irascible man not given to diplomacy or tact, but Farwell finds Speke much more deficient as to character and honesty.) Farwell also covers well Burton's singular marriage to Isabel, who was almost as eccentric as was Burton. Farwell provides a brief discussion of most of Burton's books, as well as a more extensive and quite useful chapter on "The Arabian Nights".
Farwell's picture of Richard Burton is, I think, a balanced one. He honors the remarkable and admirable aspects of the man, but he does not gloss over Burton's many weaknesses. Farwell's Burton was a loner and often a rogue; he was sorely lacking as an administrator and commander; he was arrogant, headstrong, and inordinately restless; and he treated his wife poorly on numerous occasions. He expressed many opinions that strike most readers of today as abhorrent -- for example, that African Negroes were a decidedly inferior race, above Australian aborigines but below American Indians (whom Burton wanted to hunt and kill as a volunteer with the U.S. Army when he was in the American West in 1860); he thought monogamy unnatural and unwise, and the caste system "one of the most enlightened inventions of the civilized East"; he was a proponent of slavery and a supporter of the American Confederacy; and as regards the female sex he maintained that only white women are beautiful, something that, according to him, all races recognized.
On the other hand, some of Burton's generalizations are thought-provoking. For example, he wrote that "intellectual truth is eternally one [whereas] moral or sentimental truth is a geographical and chronological accident that varies with the individual." He was a life-long student of religions, and one of the conclusions he reached was that all revealed religions consist of three parts: "(1) A Cosmogony more or less absurd. (2) An historical sketch more or less falsified. (3) A system of morality more or less pure."
Author Farwell writes moderately well. The prose is typical of biographies of its era (it originally was published in 1963), although it now appears a tad old-fashioned. As one gets into the middle of the book, the writing is plodding at times and the account occasionally bogs down in details. While there are no footnotes, there is a serviceable bibliography. Farwell apparently read widely and did a fair amount of original research, uncovering tidbits about Burton that had not made it into previous biographies. The book's many details might be of interest to a Burton scholar or enthusiast, but for a general reader -- at least this general reader -- there are too many of them.
The other Burton biography I have read (almost ten years ago) is "Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton", by Edward Rice. It is a little more sensationalistic; it provides more background information on times, places, and people and focuses less on Burton himself; it gives less attention to the latter part of Burton's life and to Isabel Burton; but reading it, as I recall, is slightly easier than is true for Farwell's BURTON. In the end, I do not have a recommendation of one vis-á-vis the other.