The Major Burton Biographies

Because I see little value in differentiating the two, this list includes biographies of both Richard and Isabel Burton, individual and joint. I have also limited this list to standalone, full-length biographies, skipping the many works which focus only partially on Burton and the various encyclopedia-type entries. Some of these alternate biographies contain material of interest and will be listed in a separate, forthcoming effort.

Autobiographical Sketch

Richard F. Burton, 1852

Autobiographical material from Burton is rare, so it is interesting that the earliest contribution to published Burton biography is from Burton himself. In this “postscript” to Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, Burton went into some detail about his life and then approximately ten year military career. Nearly everything we know about his service in India is wrapped up in these 18 slim pages, and much stew has been made from these small oysters, particularly by Edward Rice.

8-Page Biography

Unknown Authors & Editor, ca. 1866

This very brief biographical collection (Penzer 212, Casada 339) was probably privately printed for Isabel's use, perhaps in one of her attempts to win Burton a position or recognition, and consists of three previously published life sketches.

A Short Sketch of the Career of Captain Richard F. Burton

“An Old Oxonian” (Alfred Bate Richards), 1880

A Sketch of the Career of Richard F. Burton

Alfred Bate Richards, Andrew Wilson & St. Clair Baddeley, 1886

This early biography has a peculiar history. The original pamphlet of some 90 pages was written and assembled from other sources by Richards, who names himself only as “An Old Oxonian” on the title page. That page further proclaims that the contents are “Collected from 'men of eminence'; from Captain and Mrs. Burton's own works; from the press, from personal knowledge, and other reliable sources.” Indeed, the last fourteen pages or so are Burton's above autobiographical sketch.

Richards died in July 1876 and thus the material from late 1876 to 1879 must have been added by another writer, who is neither noted nor credited. It is not known why there was a four-year delay in the publication of the sketch, but many likely reasons may be supposed.

The 1886 edition is a slightly extended re-issue of the 1880 sketch. The original Richards biography is extended (from 1879 to 1886), as is the list of Burton's published works. There are now three authors credited, with notes as to the eras which each's contribution covers. Wilson is now credited for adding the few paragraphs updating the account to 1879, and Baddeley competed the update to 1886. It would appear that Wilson wrote the original update when the pamphlet was first published, standing in silently for the then-pseudonymous and deceased Richards, and Baddeley further updated the material for the 1886 edition, standing in for both Richards and Wilson — the latter having died in 1881. (Although it might appear this publication carried a death jinx, it is well to note that Baddeley survived until 1946 and the eminent age of 90.)

(Note: There is some confusion over Richards' middle name. It appears on the second pamphlet, in Penzer, in Casada and nearly everywhere else in Burton literature as “Bates.” The name is well-established to be actually “Bate.”)

Richard F. Burton, KCMG: His Early, Private and Public Life

Francis Hitchman, 1887 (2 volumes)

The only significant biography written during Burton's life and with at least his nominal input and oversight. The first volume was subsumed almost verbatim by Isabel for the first volume of her Life.

The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, K.C.M.G., F.R.G.S.

Isabel Burton, 1893 (2 volumes)

Very nearly all we know of Burton's life, especially the thirty years after marrying Isabel, comes from this huge, fawning if not hagiographic, irregularly edited biography... known widely as the Life. Isabel worked from many of Burton's original notes, journals and papers while writing it, and then burned many if not most of those materials. Had she fairly condensed Burton's own notes into the book, it would be less of a catastrophe. However, it has become clear in the ensuing century that Isabel heavily filtered and slanted her use of the material in a misguided attempt to “purify” and protect her husband's reputation for posterity.

There is a vast amount to be said about all aspects of this biography's content and genesis, far too much to even summarize here. However, we are lucky to have this distorted account from the closest-ever confidante of Burton; better a flawed portrait against which to triangulate with other information (such as that from Burton's own books) than no biographical “core” at all. The book's enormous length and very irregular editing work in favor of the modern student; Isabel dumped in or left in many things that are at odds with her goal of a sanitized portrait and thus useful for mapping the lost portions.

The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton

Isabel Burton & W.H. Wilkins, 1897 (2 volumes)

Isabel's own biography, partially written by herself, completed and edited (for certain values of "edited") by Wilkins after her death. It is a great hodgepodge of material, some (particularly later material) almost wholly unedited and subsequently more interesting than a more polished work might have been. It contains frequent contradictions of minor fact, with a date or a place or another detail being different on two close pages. As with the Life, the raw material left in place contains as much of interest as the edited content.

The True Life of Capt. Sir Richard F. Burton K.C.M.G., F.R.G.S. Etc.

Georgiana M. Stisted, 1897

And so the trouble begins, at least insofar as the general public knew. According to various accounts, some portion of the Burton family — from all of them down to just Georgiana, daughter of Burton's sister Maria — were incensed by both Isabel's actions after Burton's death and her insistence on his final conversion to Catholicism. Certainly all but one stayed away from the London funeral, and there is no doubt that Isabel's actions and claims offended their deeply-held Anglican beliefs. The complete title page credit is “Written by his niece Georgiana M. Stisted with the authority and approval of the Burton family.” Although the sweeping nature of that statement has been called into question, it does neatly frame her intent as author.

The biography is almost wholly derived from prior published accounts and contains only a few anecdotes and recollections of new value. It is worth reading for the absolutely acidulous writing as Georgiana misses no opportunity to contradict Isabel's claims and to degrade and dismiss both her and Catholicism. Some of her passages are horrifyingly hilarious; see the quote near the top of the tomb page for an example.

The Life of Sir Richard Burton

Thomas Wright, 1906 (2 volumes)

Almost as confounding as Stisted's work, Wright's biography contains quite a bit of new material gleaned from Burton's contemporaries but works throughout from the position that Burton was something of a literary fraud. From the introduction to the last pages, Wright accuses Burton of having plagiarized the Arabian Nights from Payne's translation and generally implies that none of Burton's translations are original. (While noting that this debate still continues to some degree, the modern consensus is that Burton did no such thing, however much he may have referenced Payne and the other prior translators of each work. Burton is rightly hailed as a master translator by all who have come since; some of his translations still stand as the definitive versions in English.)

The Real Sir Richard Burton

Walter Phelps Dodge, 1907

A short biography with little that is new or not otherwise derived from the prior biographies. Interesting because it is the first "counterbiography" that defends Burton against the accusations of Stisted and Wright.

The First Hiatus: 1907-1931

After a nearly continuous stream of biographies of varying quality and agenda, the flow comes to a halt after Dodge for almost twenty-five years. By the time the effort is renewed, nearly everyone who knew Burton personally had died, and biographers were forced to work with written materials and second-hand accounts.

I have acquired four of the next five biographies but have only read them selectively so far; I will add more complete summaries as I read more closely. By most accounts these takes are uniformly short and derivative, adding nothing to the body of information. None are available online at this time.

Burton, Arabian Nights Adventurer

Fairfax Downey, 1931

Downey's biography is the first real break from the stuffy Victorianism of the first round of portraits. For one thing, it is much shorter than all of its predecessors. It is also written with a light touch and a good leavening of dry humor.

These good points are at the expense of content; Downey skims lightly over Burton's life and activities. A reader with no prior knowledge would gain no idea how deep and complex some of these events actually were, nor any notion of the supporting events that Downey omits altogether. Nor does it add anything new to the mix, drawing entirely from the prior biographies with leavening of observations from Burton's published works.

This biography makes an entertaining reading for a reader fully versed in Burton's history by one of the meatier works, but in the end it stands more as a fine and amusing biographical sketch than a biography.

Richard Burton, Explorer

Hugh J. Schonfield, 1936

Very rare; only a single, very expensive used copy could be located. (Don't expect a review here any time soon.) Schonfield was a “Nazarene Jew” (that is, a Jew who believes in the holy aspects of Jesus) who appears to be best known for his later (1960s) books on early Christianity and the life of Jesus.

Burton of Arabia: The Life Story of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Seton Dearden, 1937

A limited biography focusing on Burton's travels to Mecca and Central Africa. Readily available in used copies. Dearden wrote a revised edition that appeared in 1953 under the title Arabian Knight: A Study of Sir Richard Burton. This revision was written after Dearden coincidentally spent much time assigned in the Middle East during WWII. Both editions appear to be of identical size and page count; what changes or additional material may be in the second version are not known.

The first edition is available in reprint form from Kessinger Publishing, but at a price higher than most good used copies. Reviews of both editions to be included soon.

Sir Richard Burton's Wife

Jean Burton, 1941

The second biography that attempts to counter the many slurs and misrepresentations of both Isabel and Richard Burton by Stisted, Wright and other minor biographers. Although it is nominally a biography of Isabel — the first, excepting her autobiography — it perforce covers as much of Burton's life as Isabel's. It contains little not derived from Isabel's autobiography and other published works.

Jean Burton was an American biographer, primarily of women, who claimed Burton as a “collateral ancestor.” She does not appear to be in any way closely related to the family of Richard Burton. Most of her books appeared in the 1940s, but little else is known about her. She may also have been a Broadway actress around 1925-1937 (or this may be a simple confusion of common names).

The Second Hiatus: 1941-1962

Again the flow of Burton biographies came to a halt, this time for more than twenty years. Because of copyright restrictions, none of the following books are available in online form (at least, not legitimately, and I do not endorse web piracy). All are readily available in used, and sometimes new form.

That Blackguard Burton!

Cover of Bercovici's That Blackguard Burton!

Alfred Bercovici, 1962

A fictionalized and sensational pseudo-biography by a writer of a number of similar works and little else. Given that Bercovici was a writer and publisher in New York, he may have been aware of the forthcoming Farwell and Edwardes books and seen an opportunity to scoop the market. No account of this book finds the smallest positive thing to say; Casada, for example, says it is “an unabashedly lurid effort which takes considerable liberties with the facts.”

I have a copy at hand but have been unable to read more than a dozen pages of its wretched novelized content. In fact, the cover itself is so lurid I was embarrassed to be seen carrying it; I reproduce it here only to substantiate my opinion.

The title is apparently derived from a quote in Downey's 1931 biography, which is itself an unattributed quote of unknown origin. Burton is referred to as a blackguard (pronounced, incidentally, "blag'ard" and defined as a thoroughly unprincipled person, scoundrel or foulmouth) in a number of places in the early biographies.

Dedicated students of Burton who work their way through the biographies of varying quality are invited to look up this image from time to time, to remind themselves that what they are reading could be much worse.

Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Byron Farwell, 1963

This is in many ways the finest Burton biography to date and was the first sensible, well-researched and balanced effort to appear. It is relatively compact and not without its limitations (primarily in that it is based entirely on Burton's own writings), but if a recommendation must be made for a single volume, this is the one. Highly readable and with few major omissions or inaccuracies.

Despite this good overall rating, I found myself struck, on rereading it for the first time in several years, by how depressing and negative Farwell's portrait is. He takes care to list as many of Burton's mistakes and misjudgements as possible, holding up each for a detailed, rueful analysis. Were it not for his infrequent passages of overall praise and admiration, it would be easy to come away from this biography with the idea that Burton was nothing more than a brilliant incompetent who attempted much and achieved little. It does not matter that there is a grain of truth in this, or that most later biographers give Burton a pass on all but his most egregious miscalculations; Farwell's mournful harping adds little to his otherwise fine portrait of the man.

Death Rides a Camel: A Biography of Sir Richard Burton

“Allen Edwardes,” 1963

The second junk biography of Burton to appear within a year, oddly bracketing one of the best. Casada's evaluation is worth reproducing at length: “[A reviewer] says that this work 'can hardly be taken as serious biography.' He is too kind. Edwardes promises [...] to present Burton 'without fig leaf or codpiece'. In reality what he presents is trash. This is a splendid case study of a work which should never have seen the light of day.”

The byline is a pseudonym, possibly for a prolific writer best known for his 1960s books on sexuality, psychedelia and mental mysticism. Enough said; let's move on.

The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton

Fawn M. [McKay] Brodie, 1967

A thoughtful and well-researched biography and one of the first of the 20th Century to add new material to the published list, but not without flaws. Brodie's Mormon heritage shows in her treatment of his visit to Utah in 1862 (as it does, much more strongly, in her annotations to an edition of The City of the Saints). This is no fatal flaw but needs to be kept in mind while evaluating her take.

Brodie is also a proponent of psychohistory, an approach that attempts to evaluate the psychological underpinnings of historical events. Debate on this technique is ongoing, but one major consensus is that attempting to analyze pre-Freudian personalities in a post-Freudian world is an exercise in futility. Brodie does indeed psychoanalyze Burton, to questionable conclusions. Her infamous final chapter all but claims Burton's drive came from a streak of latent homosexuality. Although others have picked up this idea and worked it further, its use here has generally aged and dated the text and probably added nothing of value to an understanding of Burton.

Read with a discerning eye, though, this is an excellent biograpy in many respects.

The memorable title comes from a letter Burton wrote H. Monckton Milnes in 1863, explaining why he was undertaking yet another difficult and dangerous expedition into Central Africa. “I ask myself 'Why?' and the only echo is 'damned fool... the Devil drives.”

The Third Hiatus: 1967-1990

The Farwell and Brodie biographies did such an admirable job between them that again the field was left untended for almost twenty-five years. It is to these biographers' credit that the field had, for the first time, solid and balanced works on which others could progress in different directions, rather than merely trying to find new scraps to fold into another telling of the well-known tale.

Then came 1990 and the centenary of Burton's death, which sparked another round of interest that continues to this day.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

Edward Rice, 1990

Rice's massive biography, larger perhaps than even the various early Lives, was a New York Times bestseller and did much to spark popular interest in Burton in the early 1990s. Rice read Burton comprehensively and visited many of the places of significance in his travels, and his biography weighs in favorably in many respects. He pointedly dismisses Brodie's psychohistorical approach and in general steers things back to a more traditional fact-based model.

However, Rice is obsessed throughout with Burton's search for religious understanding, or “gnosis,” as he encapsulates it, and stretches a great deal of the account out of shape in his effort to focus on this aspect. It is almost certainly true that Burton had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding and sought answers in every religion within his reach, but Rice clearly overstates the case.

Rice also makes a vast amount of stew from the small oyster of Burton's account of his India service (as outlined in the Falconry postscript listed above) and implies that Burton was an active spy for much of his Army career and perhaps most of his life. Overall, far too much of this work is interpolation, guesswork and supposition, and Rice does not adequately distinguish fact from fill-in. In the end, Rice contributes little to the body of knowledge except supposition and questions — questions most biographers have asked but in the absence of data have wisely refrained from answering.

Burton: Snow Upon the Desert

Frank McLynn, 1990

Far less widely read and more difficult to obtain than Rice's work, this biography deserves closer attention. I have read only selections from it thus far and will update this entry when I am finished with it entirely.

McLynn continues, even refines the practice of excoriating Isabel for her foolish, mistaken actions and shortsightedness, which may have laid the groundwork for Lovell's contrary interpretation.

(McLynn followed this work with another the next year that focused on Burton's travels in the Americas. It is too narrowly focused to be included on this list of full-length biographies.)

A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton

Mary S. Lovell, 1998

Gavan Tredoux has called this “the best archival biography” and while that description might be slightly opaque, there is no question that Lovell's effort produced a valuable addition to the biographical literature. For one thing, she had access to several collections of Burton material overlooked or unavailable to prior biographers, including the first unrestricted access to the paramount Quentin Keynes collection. She also must be credited with rediscovering a huge trove of forgotten Burton material in the Trowbridge collection — some seven boxes of “Isabel Burton” material in the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge, all unclassified and unindexed and apparently never before examined.

Lovell is also to be credited for fully combining the lives and biographies of Richard and Isabel. While it is possible to tell Burton's story with differentiated references to Isabel, the result will be incomplete... and, for good or bad, Isabel was so influenced by Burton from such a young age that it is not possible to tell her story as something distinct from that of her “earthly god and king.”

That said, Lovell tends to skim over Burton's very real faults, to the detriment of presenting a fully rounded portrait. She also tries much too hard to explain and excuse Isabel, minimizing her obvious faults and attempting to justify actions that, in the end, are not explicable in wholly rational terms. Isabel was a complex person with as many real faults and failings as her husband, and no amount of excusing can smooth over the oddities. Isabel's actions, particularly those in the years after Burton's death, need to be explored and presented without attempting to excuse and rationalize every mistake made.

The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World

Dane Kennedy, 2005

This book is here included with some reservations. It is not a proper biography, but is extensively biographical, a collection of analytic biographical/historical essays examining Burton in each of several roles. A fascinating and valuable addition to the literature but very much a secondary source.

Page Updated 2008-08-21


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