CAPTAIN SIR RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON by Edward Rice
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CAPTAIN SIR RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The biographer of Thomas Merton (The Man in the Sycamore Tree, 1970) and others now turns his attention to the Victorian adventurer who during his colorful career was also an explorer of Central Africa and Brazil, the author of dozens of multi-volumed books, the translator of such Eastern classics as the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights, a linguist who mastered 29 languages, a secret agent during Britain's expansionist period, and a crusader for women's sexual liberation. In sweeping images just right for the subject, Rice's massive (512-page) biography captures Button's unflagging energy, his combative nature, and his daring exploits across the globe. The 21-year-old Burton began his career in 1842 as an officer in the armies of the Honourable East India Company, stationed in India--where he became adept at a number of local dialects and at bedding the compliant native women. He identified with the local inhabitants and was apparently converted to Islam, going so far as to be circumcised. His fellow officers took to calling him ""The White Nigger."" Later, Burton was able to penetrate the sacred shrines of Mecca in Arab garb, one of the first Europeans to do so. He also searched the interior of Africa for the source of the Nile, discovering Lake Tanganyika in the process. Meanwhile, his adventures led to frequent acrimonious relationships with his superiors and his fellow explorers. Brazil and the American Southwest followed. Most of these activities found their way into a series of volumes Burton turned out with mind-boggling prolificacy. In 1861, after a long courtship, Burton married the adoring but priggish Isabel Arundell. He settled down (somewhat), taking diplomatic posts in Damascus and elsewhere. Isabel proved a devoted helpmate; though after his death, she apparently destroyed many of his more explicitly sexual writings. Rice handles the complexities of Button's story with immense skill, organizing the wealth of detail with admirable finesse and bringing people and places to life with striking images and lively anecdotes. A splendid and exciting work (and likely to attract increased interest in light of the current film biography of Burton, Mountains of the Moon).

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
Publisher: Scribners