About This Site
Development on this site began in April 2008 as the first public face of my nearly life-long interest in Sir Richard Francis Burton. My intent, in very brief, is to create a twenty-first century home in the ether of cyberspace for one of the earthiest of nineteenth-century men.
It is not just interesting to note how far these glowing letters are from the angular handwriting of Burton and the stern typefaces of his contemporary publications... it is key to the substance and idea of this web site.
Even the most casual aficionado is aware that there is a stack of Burton biographies and bibliographies available — not so tall as for some of his contemporaries, but not negligible in any case. Those who search online will find a dozen dedicated pages and almost two hundred thousand hits — once again, no record amount but neither inconsiderable.
So what point can there be in yet another publication, yet one more web site? There is no simple answer, so let me reply in a series of short essays.
Beginning with his death in October 1890, Burton was encapsulated, redefined and reduced to a sanitized caricature. The loss of many critical papers in an 1851 warehouse fire, and his wife Isabel's destruction of some number of his life journals and other key writings—which, although the number and content are disputed, unquestionably happened, as did a later and possibly more sweeping destruction by his niece—forever took away later generations' ability to see inside the enigma. Isabel's worshipful biography then painted a simplified and distorted portrait of a very complex and difficult man, setting the standard for most subsequent efforts. In some ways, Burton studies have never recovered from this sanitizing, what later generations would sneeringly call a “disneyfication” of the real figure.
Published interest in Burton has been curiously episodic. The first round, begun with Isabel's publication of her massive but sanitized Life in 1893, continued through the turn of the century with battling entries from Burton supporters and detractors. Another burst of biographies, none outstanding, appeared in the early 1930s.
By and large, Burton's reputation lay unexamined, except in the narrowest ways, from about 1910 until the appearance of Byron Farwell's biography in 1963. This admirably drawn effort came with a host of pretenders and was supplemented four years later by Fawn Brodie's excellent, if somewhat skewed, biography. The 1960s were thus a fruitful time in Burton studies, but these first modern biographies were written in an era when the gritty details of Burton's life and actions had to be veiled or skimmed over for a popular audience... and as Burton's career is almost wholly defined by such grit, this significantly limited the scope of these contributions. This was also an era when books were strictly held to “salable” length no matter how much space the topic might need, and these efforts are thus much shorter than their authors — or readers — might have wished. Finally, there were significant repositories of Burton papers and correspondence unavailable — and in some cases, unknown — to these biographers.
The field lay quiet again for more than twenty years. In 1990, Edward Rice's substantial biography enjoyed wide sales and sparked the first public interest in Burton in many years. (It is, unfortunately, an imperfect effort and a somewhat fanciful portrait of Burton.) Rice's work overshadowed another biography the same year from Frank McLynn, which was in turn an updating of Brodie's questionable approach. The field was again quiet for a few years, until the appearance of Lovell's joint biography of Richard and Isabel in 1998, which may be the closest thing yet to a definitive work. A lesser effort by Dane Kennedy, not a true biography but more a series of biographical analyses, appeared in 2005.
By and large, the reader with finite time to apply to the topic can absorb most of what is known about both Burtons by reading first Farwell and then Lovell; the other later biographies add very little to that combination and the early biographies are worth reading (by non-scholars) only as curiosities. But that is only a stopgap solution to a combined problem of research, biography and bibliography that has yet to be solved.
At this point, I am stepping up to the bar with several well-defined aims. I have intended to take this step for a number of years, but have been delayed by the necessary completion of some other projects... and, I will be honest, an uncertainly that Burton was the subject to which I wanted to commit the next large portion of my professional career. The other projects are complete or on paths to completion, and my interest in Burton has solidified into a genuine wish to advance his reputation. (A European vacation in June 2008 which coincidentally took me to many places of Burton interest reinforced my interests.)
In true Burtonian fashion — and here I have no idea whether I have been influenced by his blunt-force style or find him interesting because of my own — I cast out these claims:
- The definitive biography of Richard Francis Burton has yet to be written, because of limitations on prior biographers that include lack of access to key materials and the perceived need to keep a biography within commercially salable limits. A proper biography will rely on all the available material, some of it only rediscovered or made available in recent years, and will tell “commercial salability” to get knotted. The result may be five volumes long, but a life such as Burton's is worth such space and detail.
- With few exceptions, Burton studies have been sparse and confined to narrow venues. It is all well to study Burton from within the confines of Victorian perceptions or "Asian studies," or as an Orientalist, but these approaches presuppose too much and, being niche fields, accomplish too little. The august and cloistered players from these venues have had their fun for the last 100 years; It's time for a broader, more interdisciplinary and fully modern approach and appreciation of this titanically polymathic and influential figure.
- I have also noted a peculiar practice, at best an archaic notion of scholarship, in which it is assumed by most writers that the reader has memorized the relevant Burton literature and has no need of concatenated or supporting material. This distances the material from even moderately well-read readers and creates an unnecessary aura of exclusionism. No longer will this be practiced or tolerated — new contributions to the literature will be based on readily accessible concatenations and fully explicated for a moderately knowledgable reader.
- Burton is no longer studied as a historical figure, a scholar or a writer. He is instead examined from a peculiar distance, the same sort of semi-real, fly-in-amber scrutiny given Sherlock Holmes (and perhaps Harry Potter)... something that passes for scholarship and research but at first scratch reveals itself as intellectual bug-hunting and pandering to the collectors. It is time for this game to cease. (It is time, too, to leave the collecting crowd to its fun and break Burton free of the prison of costly facsimile reproduction and worship of Victorian publishing standards.)
- The life, efforts, writings and historical contributions of Richard Francis Burton are worthy of proper study, which should begin, to modern historical standards, posthaste. Q.E.D.
This site, and my efforts behind it, are intended to create the necessary foundation and nexus for a revival (if that is the correct word) and expansion of Burton studies. The true worth of the worldwide internet is that even sparse populations can come together easily, in shifted time, to achieve what in prior generations would have been hampered by distance, availability and ignorance of others' efforts. The world population of Burton aficionados is certainly small, but it now has a village in which to gather, create and share knowledge... and grow.
My initial aim is to collect here all of the known Burton material that is now scattered across limited repositories and varied forms, to create one uber-source for all the data — and, incidentally, vet and verify as much of it as possible. This will supplant all but a few of the existing web sites and pages, the vast number of which repeat the same few cupfuls of basic Burton knowledge and nearly all of which are somewhere between static and abandoned.
The material that cannot be added here for one reason or another will be fully indexed and (for web data) linked in coherently. I am chiefly referencing here Gavan Tredoux's magnificent www.Burtoniana.org, whose recently compiled contents undercut a tremendous initial workload for my own efforts. At some point I may, with his permission, mirror the vast contents of Tredoux's site but for now I am content to link to his well-earned glory.
Beyond that gathering and sorting, I hope to gather a good number of fellow scholars and aficionados and begin collating what fragments each of us might hold that are not otherwise known or widely available — including our mutual keen interest in furthering Burton's historical, scholarly and popular reputations.
I have three individual goals in this effort, above and beyond the collection and management tasks and the ongoing online furtherance of Burton's reputation.
- The first to create a standard modern edition of Burton's works — one unfailingly faithful to the original writings, but utterly freed from the musty, dusty Sherlockian amber (e.g., needlessly preserving archaic fonts, page layout, orthography and spelling — interesting curiosities all, but impediments to modern study). The three legs of the stool for study of a literary individual are a comprehensive biography (which exists, well enough), a comprehensive bibliography (Penzer, Casada and the recent updates being archetypes of the breed)... and a standard edition of the figure's works, which does not exist in any form for Burton. It will, and quite soon.
- The second task is to see to the creation of the definitive biography. I may or may not be the person to write that biography. However, the task will remain one of my goals until I am no longer able to undertake it or until a worthier candidate takes up the gauntlet, and I would in any case intend to stay in the effort as supporter and “enabler.” Whatever my other skills, I do those things well.
- A third task, which supports the others and will be initiated when the time is right, will be to found a new journal of Burton studies, tentatively titled RFB.
- And then there is the special interim and collateral task of supporting and publicizing the efforts now underway to restore and preserve the Burtons' mausoleum in Mortlake, London. The tomb has been lightly rejuvenated at intervals, but it now needs comprehensive attention, especially to the conservation of its marvelous interior and contents. A new, central Burton site that can't be of help to this effort has no justification for existence.
There have been Burton web sites as long as there has been a web. Unfortunately, none so far has come close to giving Burton a proper showcase or online home. The vast number of sites found through Google and other search engines are tiny and, if not modeled on each other, then modeled on a simple standard content scheme. Few of these sites have been updated since first creation and most appear to be forgotten or abandoned by their creators. There are a few gems, such as Richard Leveson's unusual site.
There are many sites that each hold one or two items of interest — a transcribed or facsimile rarity, a journal of a visit to a significant Burton site, a unique image from someone's closely-held collection. One site has attempted to maintain an index of these scattered materials but it is a sisyphean task. Concentrating the material here, as much as is possible, will free it from the dim reaches of the web.
Until quite recently, with the surprising appearance of Gavan Tredoux's site and now this one, a truly comprehensive and worthy Burton site has not existed. The question of whether the web can support two such sites is an easy one to answer: of course it can. I admit that I was dismayed at first by Tredoux's site, which appeared to have taken the long-ignored spot I had blocked out for my own efforts — and hard darts on me for having dawdled so long in getting here.
However, in examining the site and corresponding with Tredoux, I've established that our efforts are complementary and dovetailing rather than overlapping. His magnificent assemblage of vetted materials has jumped my timeline ahead by years; the directions I intend to take my effort and the philosophies behind it do not appear in any way to interfere with his plans and intentions. So the long years of drought in online Burton interest and studies have ended with a tsunami from one direction and a flood from the other — so if you are here reading this, you can only grin with pleasure, I think. (Unless you can't swim, in which case you're welcome to substitute your own metaphors.)
If you are in any way intrigued by my plans and goals, and those of this site, please do take time to contact me. You will find my regular mail and email contact information on the contact page, whose link is immediately below.
You are even more welcome to contact me even if you think I'm an arrogant bastard who has no appreciation for some “correct” view of Burton or the prior generations of scholars. I'll be happy to debate the issues.
Online forums have been activated as well, in which you can correspond directly with the other members who find and join our little village. Please do visit and join in.
— James Gifford, April & July 2008
Page Updated 2008-07-25