Given my usual taste for actors' biographies, you could be forgiven a momentary confusion. This is not a biography of that Richard Burton, but rather of Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th-century explorer, adventurer, extraordinary linguist and translator, and decidedly an enigmatic character. The two things most closely associated with his name are his (unsuccessful) search for the source of the Nile, and his translation of The Arabian Nights, but that does not in the slightest suggest the extent of this man's experiences or of his overwhelming curiosity about the variety of human existence around the world. He had the good fortune to be born white, male, and of a class that allowed him to pursue that curiosity first under the auspices of the army and later either with the backing of scientific societies or as a diplomatic representative in various far-flung parts of the world. In this scholarly but not dry biography, first published in 1967 (and one of many biographies of Burton), Fawn Brodie is first a faithful chronicler, with reference to all the evidence that was left history by Isabel Burton, Burton's wife and first biographer, who provided great insights in her own work, but committed the all-too-common unforgivable Victorian sin of trying to control the narrative by destroying primary sources like journals after Burton's death. (Isabel, by the way, is an interesting enough figure to have been the subject of biographies in her own right, and I may follow up on that some day).
Brodie is, as I said, first of all a faithful chronicler, but she does venture into character analysis, most particularly in her first two and final chapters, though always adducing generous amounts of documentary evidence from the writings of Burton and his wife. She is interesting on the subject of Burton's relationship with his mother, for whom he seems to have emphasized and developed the rebellious, even immoral side of his nature, on the understanding that it attached her to him even more firmly. Brodie says much that is plausible about the nature and development of Burton's hunger for knowledge of all things exotic, a hunger that drove him to explore both forbidden places (Mecca) and the forbidden aspects of human life in general (he was absolutely fascinated by unusual sexual practices and genital mutilation). The biographer also notes that there was a shadow that hung over Burton's career from a fairly early stage, after he made a detailed report from India (lost, according to Brodie's notes) about a homosexual brothel; and she also records without being over-dramatic about it, his fairly close associations with a couple of notorious homosexuals such as Algernon Swinburne. All the evidence, both from his writings and the known facts of his life, suggest that Burton conducted his life entirely as a heterosexual, but Brodie does permit herself some small suggestion towards the end that twin anxieties about castration/impotence and homosexuality were drivers throughout his life and particularly in the last phase of his career where he was particularly taken up with the creation of "naughty books" (a phase that sorely taxed Isabel's more conventional sensibilities and caused her to take on the role of censor both before and after his death). Remembering that this biography was written in the 1960s, I'd be interested in comparing Brodie's take on Burton's sexuality with that of more recent scholars.
I have overemphasized the sexual element in this review, I find. If you are fascinated by the phenomenon of the beginnings of detailed sociological observation, it seems Burton is your man. If you are enthralled by explorers who persisted in the face of all sorts of nasty illness and bodily calamity (including a javelin right through both sides of the face), Burton's career is full of that kind of incident. And if the horrors of Victorian reputation-politics and internecine feuds between geographical adventurers appeal to you, then the Burton and Speke story - two entirely incompatible men who travelled together for hundreds of miles and each came out of it with a different story - is worth reading about.
I admit it: when I first picked up this volume, it was under the fleeting wrong impression that it was a biography of that other Richard Burton. But I am very glad indeed that, realizing my mistake upon scanning the back cover blurb, I said, "hmm, that might be interesting" and picked it up anyway. Because yes, it was very interesting, and I would recommend it.