The author of fifty plus books, including the translations in “literal” detail of all the graphic possibilities that could be mustered and blustered against the edifice of late Victorian England in a raging torrent of works that could be regarded as nihilistic Dadaism of the literary kind, ended up, grace to the efforts of wife Isabel, incinerated for posterity. She was intent on eliminating the evidence by throwing everything she could of this great Rabelasian adventurer into the holocaust of ignominy. And she almost succeeded in wiping out all of the evidence. Erotica-rein.
The she wrote a biography of her husband in which she tried desperately to fashion him in the image of her own fantasy. She would have everyone gullible enough to swallow that Burton was in fact, and at heart a good Catholic; perhaps with tendencies to drift to the fringes, but a waywardness blessed wit the sanctity of the saints and the word of J.C. as guiding principle in his actions. This, in spite of of his books being peppered with a mockery of superstition and priestcraft, whether Christian, Moselm, or Heathen. ” I ignore the existence of a soul and spirit,” he said publicly in 1878, “feeling no want of a self within a self, an I within an I.” And in the “Terminal Essay” he had written, ” The more I study religions the more I am convinced that men never worshiped anything but himself.”
Isabel did her best to eliminate evidences of his curiosity for exotic practices, fearful lest he be thought vicious because he collected data on what Victorian England called vice. He was, she insisted, ” in private life the most pure, the most refined, the most modest man that ever lived.” It is a sad and ironic circumstance that Burton for all his hunger for communication, for all his hypnotism and supposedly telepathic interchanges with his wife, never properly measured her capacity for destruction and never successfully established the communication that might have allayed it.
In sum, the best of Richard Burton was either burned or buried. But that which is buried, whether by being locked in the library cases specializing in privately printed editions or simply by being scattered among the thousands of pages of his travel books, is eminently worth unearthing. In a sense, things have come full circle; Orientalism is a strong as ever, its juxtaposition with Chrsitianity bringing out the same reactions and sometimes curiosity that is expected of an evolving concept of what Liberal democracy is. Today, we can look at Richard Burton with the same kind of urbanity and detachment that he brought to the Arabs, and even ironically, the Mormons and it still evokes the same curiosity and intrigue as to how this fits in with a master plan if it does exist and to which Burton failed to acknowledge.