Burton Today

Although he died almost 120 years ago, Sir Richard Francis Burton remains with us today in many ways. There is his legacy of writings, much of which stems from his still-important explorations and travels. There is the “realia” he left behind for our examination. There is the ongoing interpretation by authors outside the scholarly bounds. And there is always his legacy as a unique and indomitable spirit.

Burton's writings and other literary legacy is well dealt with elsewhere on the site, and it is my aim to bring those writings into a realm of present-day appreciation and understanding.


Realia, in the terminology of the professional librarian or archivist, means physical items in a artist, writer or poet's collection other than representations of his or her writings, drawings, publications or the like — generally, physical material rather than intellectual. I am loosely extending the term to include items outside collections such as places, buildings and other items that are usually accorded their own categories.

Most Burton realia is in museums and private collections, but most places and some items are in one way or another publicly accessible. This section of the site will endeavor to catalog all Burton-related places that still exist and may be visited, as well as items in major museum and private collections.

The Burton Tomb

Richard and Isabel Burton are buried side by side in a stone tomb in the southern part of London. The tomb, whose design resembles an Arab tent, was chosen and built by Isabel after Richard's death in October 1890, and she joined him within it some four years later. For a variety of reasons, the tomb remains one of the most interesting and accessible items of Burton realia.

The Leighton Portrait

The most famous image of Burton by far, which graces the cover or interior plates of nearly every biography and other book written about Burton (as well as the entry page to this web site), is the oil portrait painted by Frederic Leighton in 1875, when Burton was 54. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Burton in Media

Burton has always exerted a fascination on writers, and there are any number of fictional references to him ranging from the naming of a ship to full-blown characterizations. Some of these appearances are utterly fictional and not intended to represent anything but a constructed reality; others are, at least on some level, intended to be taken as accurate, historical or biographically sound representations. The former need no formal examination, but few (I am tempted to say none) of the latter stand scrutiny.

The Riverworld Series (1971-1983)

Science fiction grand master Philip Jose Farmer created one of the most complete and enduring fictionalizations of Burton with his award-winning 1971 novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It is set on an unknown planet in the moderately far future, where all of humanity, some thirty billion individuals, has been simultaneously resurrected along the banks of an immense, world-circling river. The purpose of the resurrection and the identity of those responsible is mysterious through that novel and most that follow, with a complete explanation arriving only in the fifth book, twelve years later. At least two of these novels take their names from Burton's autobiographically-inspired poem The Kasidah: the third book is titled The Dark Design, after the lines of part 3, verse XXXIX:

And still the Weaver plies his loom,
whose warp and woof is wretched Man
Weaving th' unpattern'd dark design,
so dark we doubt it owns a plan.

—which is an excellent, if opaque thumbnail summary of the first few books' story line. The fourth novel, The Magic Labyrinth, draws from verse XXII in part 7:

Reason is Life’s sole arbiter,
the magic Laby’rinth’s single clue:
Worlds lie above, beyond its ken;
what crosses it can ne’er be true.

—which again is not a bad summary of the series' climax and resolution.

The primary character in the first novel is Richard Burton. Other major historical figures are introduced throughout the series (the second novel, for example, is focused on Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain) but in the end the story arc revolves around the explorations and adventures of Burton in this new world.

Farmer weaves in many known and factual elements of Burton but does not dare to fictionalize his authentic life; when other characters who know of Burton ask him questions about the various unknowns, the fictional Burton merely glares and refuses to answer. (The fictional Burton's primary interlocutor is, amusingly, a fictional representation of Farmer himself, who notes in passing that in former life he once began a biography of Burton to be titled A Rough Knight for the Queen.)

Farmer's characterization is based largely on the then-recent biographies by Farwell and Brodie. Informed readers can often spot the very passage (usually from Farwell) that Farmer is quoting or referencing.

Although this fictional turn adds nothing to world knowledge of Burton, it is a fine, interesting and entertaining novel worth reading. The remainder of the series may be of less interest to non-fan readers. The fifth and final novel, in particular, tries much too hard to explain all the mysteries of the preceding four and is an overall disappointment.

The Search for the Nile (1971)

This BBC miniseries of six one-hour episodes is considered by many to be one of the best portrayals of Burton on film. I have just recently obtained a copy of this program, which has never been released commercially, and will provide a full review when I have time to watch it.

Burton and Speke (1982)
Mountains of the Moon (1990)

William Harrison's 1982 novel is a detailed “reimagining” of the Central African expedition and its aftermath. Although parts show close attention to biographical fact and detail, the novel overall hews but loosely to the facts, even to combining events from other of Burton's explorations.

It was the basis for the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon which, while beautifully filmed, can do no better than the flawed source material. Both lean towards Burton's side in the dispute and picture Speke as a spineless character easily bent by evil counselors (mostly Lawrence Oliphant). An unlikely encounter between Burton and Livingstone late in the film and an even more unlikely horizontal encounter between Richard and Isabel early on highlight the lack of attachment to reality. A beautiful film, though, and worth watching as long as one keeps the problems in mind.

Zero Patience (1993)

One of the more bizarre entries among Burton fiction is this 1993 Canadian film, a musical about the spread of AIDS through the Western world by “Patient Zero.” Patient Zero is one major character, as is... Richard Burton, who is presented as being still alive at the age of 170 after having accidentally found the Fountain of Youth, and is now working as a taxidermist(!) at the Museum of Natural History in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

This fictional Burton is working on a museum display about Patient Zero and the spread of AIDS when he runs into Zero's ghost, who only he can see. Musical exposition and various strange, earnest hilarity ensues. (Envision a duet between talking, singing anuses, if you can.) It is a strange, strange film.

Fifteen years on, the AIDS issues and viewpoints are terribly dated (for one thing, the Patient Zero hypothesis has been discredited) and the film has that odd innocent earnestness so much a hallmark of Canadian film and television. (Charitably, it could be called a lack of the cynicism so ingrained in US media; a meaner take might be that it's sheer naivete.) While writer-director John Greyson is clearly familiar with Burton and weaves in many authentic details, in the end the Burton character is merely a hobbyhorse for the production and other characters to ride.

The Collector of Worlds (2006/2008)

This new novel, by Bulgarian/German author Iliya Troyanov (b. 1965), was published in German in 2006 and has just been released in an English translation by William Hobson. I have not yet obtained a copy of this novel but extensive reviews are available.

It is written in three parts, each of which covers one of Burton's famous explorations and is constructed as a narrative dialogue between Burton and another character. The first section covers Burton's years in India; the second his pilgrimage to Mecca; and the third his expedition to Central Africa with Speke.

Reviews are universally good but none appears to be from a reviewer thoroughly conversant with Burton. I will review this novel in depth when I acquire a copy.

Minor Burton References

Very brief references to Burton are found in many fictional settings; he is a popular trope among science fiction writers, probably from the influence of Farmer's novels. A few I have noted or have had brought to my attention:

Page Updated 2008-08-26


All material on this site is from and in the public domain unless specifically credited. Complete copyright information can be found on the About page. All original material including content, design, organization & layout ©2008 James D. Gifford.