Books: 10,001 nights of piety and pornography

Jan Morris hails the Victorian Burtons, a globe-trotting double- act who could outperform mere movie stars; A Rage to Live: the life of Isabel and Richard Burton by Mary S Lovell Little, Brown, pounds 25, 910pp
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A RAGE to Live is about Richard Burton - but not, as one of its author's young relatives was heard explaining to a friend, "the famous one". The young relative was wrong, though. I suspect that long after the world has forgotten Richard Burton the actor, and his Cleopatra, authors will still be writing books about Richard Burton the Victorian adventurer, savant and pornographer extraordinaire, and his doting, brave and foolish wife, Isabel.

Burton's was a life of astonishing richness, embracing grand physical exploits and works of profound learning. True, too, that his wife was an archetype of Victorian pluck and dedication, given added piquancy by Roman Catholic fundamentalism. Still, they were essentially minor historical figures of the 19th century, and it proves their personal fascination that they generate such a continuing plethora of literature.

Mary S Lovell now gives us the most ambitious Burton study of them all, a whole-hog blockbuster of a dual biography. It contains more than 900 pages, 78 pages of source notes, eight pages of bibliography and a stunningly comprehensive index. By my count, 72 individuals are named in its acknowledgements, not to mention helpful institutions from Aberystwyth to Kuwait. No detail of the Burton's story is neglected, no date ignored, no symptom of sickness undiagnosed. Their life's journey is followed mile by mile, from their birthplaces to the end of their road as Her Majesty's Consul and his consort at Trieste.

And what do we get from all this diligence? Not exactly a work of art; no very thrilling new facts; just an agreeable read that will doubtless engage the specialist passions of Burton scholars, but for the rest of us might well be cut by half. The compensating charm of the book is its engaging sense of the amateur. Mary Lovell has written several successful biographies, but still there is something beguilingly innocent about her manner. It is not just that she makes the occasional naive slip, implying that Hussein is a Christian name, or that the second highest mountain on earth is in South America. What is more endearing is a sort of writers'- circle enthusiasm: she is so delighted with her researches, so proud of her massed material, so pleased to offer gentle corrections to previous biographers, above all so irrepressibly devoted to her subjects.

This affection, rather unfashionable in modern biographies, is the real point of the book. Others have depicted the Burtons more ambiguously: Richard as glamorous but bad - if not a Muslim apostate, as contemporary rumour had it, at least a secret homosexual; Isabel as a besotted and sanctimonious ass, who unforgivably burnt many of her husband's most precious erotic writings after his death.

Lovell will have none of this. Burton's interest in sexual variety was purely anthropological; Isabel did nothing that her husband would not have approved; they loved each other dearly, and through their lives were undeserving victims of malicious rivalries, greedy opportunism and the myopic obfuscation of bureaucrats.

I was not entirely convinced. Of course, Burton's journeys were tremendous, and he wrote some admirable books about them. Of course, he was a marvellous linguist, one of the best fencers of his day, splendidly iconoclastic and outrageous. His sexual investigations were brave and original. His unexpurgated translations of The Thousand and One Nights and other Eastern classics, defying all the Grundyism of the day, were great works of scholarship.

But he could be extremely tiresome, and even Mary Lovell cannot disguise the fact. He loved to shock people: even when he was far too old for that kind of thing, he deliberately surrounded himself with mysteries and enigmas, and he was childishly ready to make enemies and bear grudges. As a British Consul, he must have been one of the most maddening ever appointed, constantly getting sick leave to go on one expedition or another, or grumbling about pay and promotion. By the end of this book I felt quite sorry for the poor Foreign Office functionaries who had to deal with him - often confused as they surely were by the influential bigwigs whose sympathy Isabel enlisted on his behalf.

For Isabel is always present in the story: organising, protesting, fussing, contacting Lords or Secretaries of State, writing prolix books of her own, making a fool or a heroine of herself, riding on camels, fending off villains, standing up for her mate against all the vagaries of fate, human prejudice and misunderstanding.

Lovell is very fond of her, too, and brings out the best in her. Her burning of the books at Trieste, A Rage to Live demonstrates, was neither so unreasonable nor so extensive as everybody used to think. She was a snob and a religious nut, but her wifely devotion is wonderful to witness now that uxorial duty has gone to pot. On she plugs, now sorting dear Richard's papers in her "little flat" in Baker Street - only nine rooms, plus kitchen - now wondering, on page 666, whether her current ailment could be due to what had happened "during the flight through the forest from the brigand". (Which brigand was that? See page 471.)

I think Mary Lovell would have been wiser to stick to Mrs Burton alone - Lady Burton as she became, Countess as (thanks to something to do with the Holy Roman Empire) she was entitled to call herself. Nothing very new is here revealed about the old hero of the tale, who just seems to me to have been an actively omni-sexual agnostic, as many sensible people are. But the portrait so carefully drawn of his childless wife, so pathetic but so courageous, so fiery in the defence of husband, faith and animal life, is genuinely touching. They don't make women like that any more - Elizabeth Burtons still, but not many Isabels.