978-0-393-04672-4 / 9780393046724

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


Publisher:W W Norton & Co Inc



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About the book:

More than a century after their deaths, Richard and Isabel Burton are legend. Sir Richard Burton was a prolific writer, an insatiable explorer, a linguist, and a translator who pursued controversy and risk as surely as adventure. In 1853, disguised as an Afghani doctor, he became one of the first Europeans to enter the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He later led an expedition to discover the source of the Nile--whether he got there first was later protractedly disputed. He spoke dozens of languages and translated the erotic works The Arabian Nights, The Kama Sutra, and The Perfumed Garden into English, making him fall afoul of the National Vigilance Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Isabel, for her part, defied her upper-crust family to marry Richard and lead the "wild, roving, vagabond life" she had dreamed of as a stifled young lady. She was her husband's collaborator, editor, and most vehement advocate. She defended his oft-besmirched reputation, promoted his writing, successfully campaigned to make him knighted--even arranged a dinner with the queen. After Richard's death, Isabel came under fire for burning his papers, including the Kama Sutra translation. This double biography by Mary S. Lovell (biographer, too, of Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, and Jane Digby) attempts to dispel many of the myths that have grown up around the pair of famous Victorians. She defends Isabel's burning her husband's papers as an act designed to protect his reputation and privacy. Lovell points out that even after their being burned, more of Richard's papers remained than were left by many of his contemporaries. And she cites them as primary source material for the book. Lovell also strenuously contradicts the long-held belief that Richard was gay--his interest in and writings about male sexuality, she believes, were borne purely of anthropological research. The Burtons, she assures readers, had an ideal marriage in every way, but she offers little supporting material to prove her claim. Lovell's views seem sometimes to be colored by her adoration for her subjects. But the obvious breadth of her research and her narrative skill make Rage to Live one of the more distinguished biographies of late.

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