Lovell, Mary S.
- A Rage to Live A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton
Little Brown & Co, 1998.
Hardcover, octavo, 910pp., monochrome plates. Minimal wear; lightly scuffed dustwrapper (now professionally protected by superior non-adhesive polypropylene film) and lightly toned page edges. Near fine. "Sir Richard Burton - explorer, scholar, ethnologist, linguist, translator, eroticist - was, of all the eminent Victorians, the one most gifted at attracting and keeping enemies. Not just any enemies either: an alarming number of his particularly unbalanced contemporaries took up as a duty the job of hating him, dedicating their lives to getting him. His only major competitor in the odium limelight was his wife, Isabel (who was 10 years younger and outlived him by 6 years), a practised officious meddler and irritant to the important during her husband's life, saved her best shot for after his death: legend has it that she burned her husband's papers (diaries, manuscripts) at his death in a frenzy of blue-nosed righteousness... As a result, Isabel magnetized the well-oiled detestation not only of the poet Swinburne and a host of her contemporaries but of nearly every scholar and certainly every biographer since... This, anyhow, is the received view. Until now. Mary S. Lovell, opens her book by telling us that the one thing we all know about Isabel, that she was a literary arsonist, is wrong. She started a fire, certainly, and some of Burton's letters, along with one important manuscript, were in it; but much, including his diaries, was not. More significant, she was not a mindless hysteric, Lovell shows, but a competent and judicious woman who knew what she was doing. Lovell shows that Isabel was, without doubt, a powerful and courageous woman who could swim with the sharks and fence; act as collaborator, editor and literary agent; ride and shoot and treat rattlesnake bites; get herself and Burton presented to the Queen and asked to dine with the Prime Minister... It is hardly to our credit that we have so readily constructed Isabel as another of those shrews-married-to-genius: ignorant, intolerant and - oh, it's a shame he got married at all...The material on Burton is generally solid and secure, judicious and sometimes even wry. He was astonishingly gifted and did not put a bushel over those shining gifts: 'It is not my fault,' he wrote in one of his prefaces, 'if I am better educated than my fellows.' Doubtless not, but it's not the sort of approach calculated to win our hearts... Burton, after all, not only was part of the 'Great Game' of espionage in India but fought in the Crimean War, launched several bold and controversial African explorations, became a principal figure in the battle over the source of the Nile and, disguised as an Arab merchant-magician-dervish-fortune-teller, managed to penetrate the forbidden city of Mecca. He served the Foreign Office in posts in West Africa, Brazil and Syria, and made important trips (recorded in important books) to many other spots, including Iceland and the United States... Isabel was, for all her tough-minded independence, somewhat wackily superstitious: ''I wish I were a man. If I were I would be Richard Burton; but, being only a woman, I would be Richard Burton's wife.'' There is no doubt that she worshipped him, but she did not so much submit herself to him as unite with him in doing what she wanted to do all along: find perilous adventure in the jungles and deserts, in the polite social world and in the life of the mind. She wanted, she said, ''a wild, roving, vagabond life,'' and Burton had it to give to her... Lovell's new material shows that without question Isabel worked closely with Burton, and not just as a scribe or researcher. She was his editor, agent and often his co-author... In this, she was not only less successful but managed to make herself thorny and obnoxious to many. Even here, however, Lovell brilliantly shows how her defects were the reflexes of her large, openhearted strengths. Lovell writes with a zeal that seems to ring right out of Isabel herself. This biography is both admirably scholarly and, now and then, engagingly so... " - James Kinkaid
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