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A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton Hardcover – 17 Sep 1998
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Scholarly ... Fabulous ... The biography shines its light on that remorselessly interesting period of British history, the Victorian era (TELEGRPAH)
A monumentual biography (THE TIMES)
Gripping (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
A RAGE TO LIVE is a splendid and very enjoyable book. Mary S Lovell does her hero and heroine proud (LITERARY REVIEW)
*A fascinating 'dual' biography of Richard and Isabel Burton.See all Product description
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Previously I've thoroughly enjoyed several of Mary Lovell's biographies but this one didn't really work for me. Don't get me wrong, it was as brilliantly researched as ever, it was beautifully written and it contained some fresh material. What's more Ms Lovell isn't shy of giving her opinion, something I very much value in a biographer. No, the problem was not the writer but the subject. I hate to say it, but the more I read of Richard and Isabel Burton, the less I liked them. The sound like the kind of couple, frankly, that I'd have been horrified to have to sit down to dinner with.
I didn't expect this. I've been coming across Burton in my other reading on and off for the last few months and was looking forward to finding out more. He sounded interesting. He sounded erudite, witty, and controversial. But when I got to know him through this book, what I thought more than anything was that he sounded like a pompous boor with a highly inflated opinion of himself and a very low one of pretty much everyone else - especially those who took agin him - and there were a great many of these (that neither he nor Isabel could understand this, I think, endorses my view of him).
Now there's no doubting that he was a great explorer. His bravery and bravado were immense. His literary output was prolific, and we have him to thank for taking what was the Arabian Nights and turning it from a fairy tale to the bawdy, funny, fascinating and truly significant work that is One Thousand and One Nights. He's also credited with translating a number of erotic works including the Kama Sutra, and also the Perfumed Garden, though apparantely this is wrong, since Isabel controversially burned his translation after he died. So yes, Burton is admirable.
As to Isabel, it is she I think whom Lovell most wanted to write about. She who has been much maligned as the ignorant, bigoted woman who destroyed his papers and held him back, made enemies for him and also made a saint of him. Lovell does a brilliant job of destroying and debunking these myths, and putting Isabel in her righteous place by Burton's side, as a true help meet, an excellent literary agent and most of all, the woman that made all his wanderings and writings possible. She also managed to scrape a more than modest living for the pair of them wherever they ended up, despite Burton's spendthrift ways. So go Isabel.
But seeing Isabel restored still didn't cut it for me I'm afraid, because in my opinion she worshipped at the wrong shrine. She adored her husband, and she thought she was adored back, but I wasn't particularly convinced by that, one of the things that got my back up about Burton. He took her for granted, he expected ridiculous things for her and when she came through, he was very rarely grateful. He wanted a wife, but he didn't always want one by his side, and the times when Isabel was left waiting in the wings for him - well, another thing that irritated me.
However, this is a thorough and well-written biography. It has filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge, but I have to say, enough so that I don't want to know any more of Richard and Isabel. But if you do, then I'd highly recommend it. And if you've not read any of Ms Lovell's other bios then I'd highly, highly recommend those, particularly those of Jane Digby and the Mitfords.
A page turner. Have been following his journey on the map. And ordered some of his books. An amazing life. Wish there were more people like him on this planet.
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