BURTON by Frank McLynn


Snow Upon the Desert
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 Graceful, psychologically astute portrait of the enigmatic author/scholar/explorer who was one of the first Christians to enter Mecca, discovered Africa's Lake Tanganyika, and translated such masterpieces as the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights. Published in England last year to commemorate the centenary of Burton's death, this biography marks a decided advance over McLynn's plodding Stanley (1990). While McLynn organizes the known facts of Burton's life with admirable economy and clarity, it is when he speculates on his subject's quirky--and frequently self-defeating, proto-fascist, and woman-hating--reactions to his milieux that he achieves some of his most telling effects. For example, McLynn discusses Burton's repressed homosexuality and persuasively argues that, as a young officer in India, Burton actually took part in the sexual activities he described in his report on male brothels in Karachi. Equally convincing is McLynn's theory that Burton's lifelong misogyny stemmed from his failure as a heterosexual lover during his army career. Among other well-rounded portraits here are those of John Hanning Speke, Burton's fellow explorer who was eventually designated the discoverer of the sources of the Nile, and of Isabel Arundell, the neurotic woman whom Burton married and who destroyed many of his most important documents after his death. The Arundell portrait very nearly walks off with the book, in fact, as McLynn captures the conflicting facets of her character--fawning wife, relentless promoter of her husband's reputation, religious zealot, social snob--in highly evocative detail. Excepting McLynn's fondness for arcane words and foreign phrases (``foetor,'' ``feculent,'' and ``canaille'' all appear in a single sentence)--a compelling and satisfying depiction of a man and an era, a worthy companion to Edward Rice's best-selling Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1990). (Eight pages of b&w illustrations, four maps.)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-7195-4818-7
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: John Murray/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1991


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