By Scott Bailey
If ever you are looking for a good and somewhat different biography to read them try Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton by Byron Farwell.
I am not one for biographies myself – I only read this one due to the fact that he was featured in one of my favourite old time Science Fiction series – the Riverworld books by Philip Jose Farmer. A series where every single person who ever lived is resurrected on one world all at once – just a fantastic premise in itself.
Farmer uses Burton as the main character of the first book (and others later on.) He writes him with such passion and paints him in such an interesting way that you can’t help but find out more about him.
So I delved into this biography. Farmer had only painted a small part of his life!
Sir Richard Francis Burton, in reality, was – complicated.
He was a man of extremes. In many ways, he was extremely admirable. On other extremely reprehensible! Unforgivably so.
He achieved more in his lifetime than many of us could on six, seven, eight lifetimes! But is beliefs were bigoted and selfish, to say the least.
He was an avid supporter of slavery! He believed women’s places were in the home or the bed! He was vehemently anti-semitic and wrote several books that still cause controversy today!
You could argue he was a product of his time but he was an intelligent man and there were plenty of contemporaries who were seeing past the constraints of their society and challenging the established views.
He was a womaniser – had affairs, frequented brothels. He was a brawler – fought at the drop of a hat earning him the nickname Ruffian Dick. He disregarded authority of all kinds and went his own way, expelled from University and often AWOL from his army career.
On the flip side.
He was one of the foremost fencers of the time inventing some new moves.
He was a masterful linguist – he was fluent in 24 languages – and in many of the different dialects of them. So much so he could pass himself off as a local in many places. He learnt much of it from prostitutes!
He was a master of disguise – not just in the fact he could dress up, makeup and talk like the locals. But that he understood them, he took the time to know their customs and etiquette, the foibles without which he would have been betrayed as an outsider. He immersed himself in their culture.
He made seven pilgrimages in his life. Studying and being accepted into various religions – understanding their teachings while not believing any of them.
He was the epitome of an explorer, making dangerous journey in strange lands, suffering illness and injury, going back for more and pressing on.
He explored and brought to light the many sexual practices from around the world. He brought much middle eastern and eastern culture to our consciousness. He brought us translations of the Thousand and One Nights, the Karma Sutra and the Perfumed Garden.
So as I said, complicated.
It brings up a problem we often have with heroes. We want them to be perfect. We want all those good qualities without the bad. But life is not like that – people are not like that.
We kind of know that – we try and accommodate it. Modern day fictional heroes have their flaws, they are dark and brooding and have emotional baggage. But nothing we can’t handle – nothing really reprehensible.
So it got me thinking. I have a real problem with Sir Richard Francis Burton. I admire what he achieved. I dislike what he was as a person. I certainly would not like not have known him personally.
And I see a reflection of modern men in this dilemma. I have written here about how men (and everyone in fact) are demonised in modern media. On the other side, we are brought up with a set of ideals about what a man should be what we should strive to be.
We end up with conflicting views – an ideal – heroic man to strive for, and the wretch the world tells us we are.
The conflict I feel when thinking about Richard Francis Burton is the conflict we feel about modern men – he is a kind of reflection of us.
We should, I think – start to accept our flaws more, try to improve and eliminate them, yes, but give ourselves a break. They are a part of us, a part of our nature. Nobody is perfect – natures abhors perfection as much as a vacuum. Perfection does not exist so let’s stop trying to achieve it.
Anyway, ramble over.