Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton by Byron Farwell

Listening to Faure.

 I visited my sister over the 4th of July weekend.  Great visit as always.  We talked politics, that gets intense, and we talked books; that also gets intense but in an enjoyable way.

On the way home I could not resist topping by Recycled Books, which is a used bookstore housed in an old Opera House on the town square in Denton.  I had 45 minutes before closing so I had to act fast.  

I was able to get a few little somethings for myself.

I wasn’t sure how to rate this book. I didn’t really like it, but I sort of liked it, hence the three stars.

The writing was superb and I have ordered other nonfiction books by the author: one on the life of Henry Stanley who found Livingston and another about the Gurkha warriors.

So if you want a well written biography this is one.

But the subject…blech.

I read Arabian Nights as a child. They were great adventure stories filled with magic carpets and genii granting wishes…Lots of fun.

So as an adult I saw a beautifully illustrated of a volume of selections of the Thousand and One Nights (Burton wrote several volumes) and bought it.

And, to my credit, I finished it. It is probably the most misogynistic and racist book I’ve ever read.

All women and Africans were villainous animals. Fate plays a huge role and all sorts of mishaps and tragedies happen to the heroes involved that by the time you’ve read “En Shallah” -or after someone has just has had their arm ripped off by an ogre and their response is “All thanks to Allah, the Merciful One,” you begin to wonder if the narrators are not being sarcastic.

There are no happy endings, but all that I could forgive if the story telling wasn’t so tedious. I don’t know if that is the fault of the folk tales or the translator, which brings me back to this biography.

Sir Richard Burton seems to have popped out of the womb rebellious and just plain odious. As a child his behavior knew no boundaries. He delighted in tormenting his tutors, governesses and fellow classmates. He was expelled from Oxford, which is what he wanted. His father finally caved into his unruly son’s will and bought him a commission in the army.

Burton had an insatiable thirst to learn languages (he learned almost thirty) of the Middle Eastern culture. He disguised himself as an Arab and went on many adventures with native tribesmen and Muslims throughout Saudi Arabia, Egypt- he claims to have found the source of the Nile, but this was disputed by other claimants-Syria and Afghanistan. Plus many other countries, including central African countries and also at one point, North America, where he lauded the polygamy of the Mormons. He went to India.

He was the first European to make it to Mecca and Medina, although when certain Arabs saw through his disguise he had to claim to have converted.

Although other explorers challenged Burton’s claim to have found the Nile, he did discover Lake Tanganyika in the Congo. So I don’t mean to imply that Burton accomplished nothing.

But as far as his writing goes, other than his translation of the Arabian Nights, I don’t know that he made much of a contribution to the rest of the world, unless you like reading the sordid sexual practices of the Middle East and India and you don’t care how boring the writing is.

His devoted and silly wife burnt all that had not been printed immediately after his death. This caused an uproar throughout England, which surprised her. Considering that, apart from the Nights, few people bought the books of Burton that were published, I can understand why.

I did enjoy the descriptions of the different cultures and people that Burton encountered, but that is to Farwell’s credit, not Burton’s.

I plan on reading Edward Rice’s and Thomas Wright’s biographies of Burton. I have started Wright’s and so far have found his writing entertaining even if his subject isn’t. 

Yes, yes.  I know you’re thinking, “What?  You just said you hate the subject.  I know, but I’m curious to see how much the slant the author took influenced my attitude.  Maybe in another biography he’ll turn out to be a nice guy. 

9 thoughts on “Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton by Byron Farwell

  1. i know it wasn’t me, so you must have done something… deep and mysterious are the ways of computer (Confucious)… anyway, i read at least one bio of Burton. he was never admired for his warm personality, lol, but rather as a driven genius with a gift for languages… i read a lot about the discovery of the Nile’s source at one time; i know Burton was in that area, but i recall that it was Speke and Grant who actually discovered it… correct me if i’m wrong…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Mudpuddle

      You are not wrong. Farwell discusses both Burton and Speke’s claims to have discovered the Nile source. It produced a great contention between them to the point that they were ready to throw daggers at each other. They agreed to a public debate, but strangely Speke was killed in a gun accident while hunting right before the scheduled debate. This was considered suspicious because Speke was an expert with guns. People surmised he committed suicide.

      Burton was absolutely distraught over Speke’s death. Not because he died, but because he was robbed of the opportunity of destroying him in public. Such a nice guy.

      You don’t believe in hell, but I think I know where the old boy is.


      1. well, i probably won’t post about it, as it is not the sort of book i try to feature, but i’ll try to read it anyhow… i read a lot of books i don’t post on…


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