The Devil Drives

Fawn Brodie


The Devil Drives

Fawn Brodie


Richard Burton’s life offers dazzling riches. He was one of the greatest Victorian explorers, an innovative translator and brilliant linguist, a prolific travel writer, a pioneer in the fields of anthropology and sexual psychology, a mesmeric lover, a spy and a publisher of erotica.

Fawn Brodie has created a vivid portrait of this remarkable man, who emerges from the richly textured fabric of his time. His travels to Mecca and Medina dressed as a Muslim pilgrim, his witnessing of the human sacrifices at Dahomey and his unlikely but loving partnership with his pious Catholic bride are all treated with warmth, scholarship and understanding. 

‘A first class biography of an exceptional man ... Buy it, steal it, read it.’ - J.H. Plumb, New York Times
‘The latest, far the best and surely the final biography of Sir Richard Burton, one of the most bizarre characters whom England has ever produced.’  - Graham Greene, Observer
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The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton
ISBN: 978-0907871-23-1
Format: 480pp demi pb


Author Biography

Fawn McKay Brodie was born a Mormon in Ogden, Utah, in 1915. she attended the universities of Utah and Chicago. Her prize-winning No Man Knows My History, the life of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith, was published in 1945. Afterwards, at her own wish, Fawn Brodie was excommunicated from the Mormon Church, but the estrangement was bridged in 1967 when the Utah Historical Society made her a Fellow, its highest honour.

Her other works include a critical edition of Burton's The City of the Saints, and the best-selling Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, published in 1974. She died in 1981, after completing Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character.

Extract from Chapter One

Starting in a hollowed log of wood—some thousand miles up a river, with an infinitesmal prospect of returning! I ask myself “Why?” and the only echo is “damned fool! … the Devil drives.”

SO RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON, preparing for an exploration of the lower Congo in 1863, wrote to Monckton Milnes from the African kingdom of Dahomey. Asking himself why he risked life and sanity to penetrate the unknown jungles of Central Africa, he repeated a question that had tormented him upon his earlier voyages. His answer, “the Devil drives,” applies not only to his geographical discoveries but also to the whole of his turbulent life. The nature of his demon, the source of his restlessness, and the nourisher of his courage, baffled his friends, his wife, and later his biographers.

Moreover, though Burton scoffed at all forms of religious superstition—whether the fetishism of the Fan cannibals or the death ceremonies of his own Church of England—he dwelt fascinated upon all things accounted devilish in his own time. Once he even contemplated writing a biography of Satan himself. “It is interesting to note the superior gusto with which Eastern, as well as the Western tale-teller describes his scoundrels and villains,” he wrote, “whilst his good men and women are mostly colourless and unpicturesque. So Satan is the true hero of Paradise Lost and by his side God and man are very ordinary; and Mephistopheles is much better society than Faust and Margaret.”2 Burton's own visage seems to have conjured up thoughts of Satan; Swinburne said that he had the jaw of a devil and the brow of a god; and the Earl of Dunraven wrote that Burton “prided himself on looking like Satan—as, indeed, he did.”

But Burton's preoccupation with things Satanic was only one aspect of the man. In the catholicity of his interests he seemed to have been a true man of the Renaissance. He was soldier, explorer, ethnologist, archaeologist, poet, translator, and one of the two or three great linguists of his time. He was also an amateur physician, botanist, zoologist, and geologist, and incidentally a celebrated swordsman and superb raconteur.

“Discovery is mostly my mania,” he wrote. And in a world where there seemed to be very little left to be discovered, he sought out the few remaining mysteries. He penetrated the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina at great risk and wrote detailed descriptions. He was the first European to explore the forbidden Moslem city of Harar in Somaliland, which promised death to any infidel. Then he turned to the mystery that had fired the curiosity of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, “the greatest geographical secret after the discovery of America,” the source of the White Nile. Enduring great hardship, he succeeded with John Hanning Speke in discovering Lake Tanganyika, but just missed Lake Victoria, a failure that embroiled him in controversy and tragedy.

But Burton's real passion was not for geographical discovery but for the hidden in man, for the unknowable, and inevitably the unthinkable. What his Victorian compatriots called unclean, bestial, or Satanic he regarded with almost clinical detachment. In this respect he belongs more properly to our own day. But he was trapped in a century where few men truly understood his talents; he was confined and penalized by the pruderies of his time, praised only for his most obvious exploits, and generally condemned for a curiosity as prodigious as it was penetrating.

During his later years he railed against the “immodest modesty,” cant, and hypocrisy of his era. He took it upon himself to bring to the West the sexual wisdom of the East, where acceptance of the naturalness of the art of love came close to religious exaltation. Precursor of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud, he anticipated many of their insights. He translated his sixteen-volume edition of the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, larded with ethnological notes to make it a veritable treasure house. He risked prosecution and imprisonment to print, secretly, several translations of Oriental erotica, one of which, The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui, also called The Scented Garden, he was working on when he died.

His other writings were prodigious in quantity and extraordinarily varied in content. He shines therefore in three constellations of gifted men. He is among the first rank of British explorers, together with David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, Samuel Baker, and John Hanning Speke. He was one of that group of gifted British scientists, many of them “amateurs”—Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Charles Lyell, James Frazer, Flinders Petrie, Arthur Evans, A. H. Sayce, and Thomas Huxley—who pushed back the frontiers of man's knowledge of man in an explosion of enthusiastic discovery. And thirdly, he was a literary figure of great distinction.

“He was fond of calling himself an anthropologist,” J. S. Cotton wrote in the Academy at his death, “by which he meant that he took for his domain everything that concerns man and woman. Whatever humanity does he refused to consider common or unclean; and he dared to write down in black and white (for private circulation) the results of his exceptional experience. … His virility stamped everything he said or wrote. … He concealed nothing; he boasted of nothing. … But to those who were admitted to his intimacy, the man was greater than what he did or what he wrote.”

His wife wrote that except in a gathering of his best friends “he would throw out his quills like a porcupine.”6 But there were many such gatherings, and it is astonishing how many nineteenth-century Englishmen in their reminiscences devoted pages to a single evening with Richard Burton. Bram Stoker, though at first repelled by his “iron countenance,” wrote that “as he talked, fancy seemed to run riot in its alluring power; and the whole world of thought seemed to flame with gorgeous colour.” Lord Redesdale noted that “the thing which he loved above all others was to astonish, and for the sake of that he would not hesitate to violate the virtue of the pure maiden who dwells in a well.”7 When a young curate asked him once if he had shot a man near Mecca, he replied mischievously, “Sir, I'm proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.” Still Burton could be stung by the consequences of his own tall tales about himself. Once in a crowded party he overheard a woman say, “There is that infamous Captain Burton. I should like to know that he was down with some lingering illness.” Burton turned to face her and said gravely, “Madame, I have never in all my life done anything so wicked as to express so shocking a wish as that.”

Ouida, the fashionable female novelist of the time, wrote that Burton “looked like Othello, and lived like the Three Mousquetaires blended in one.”9 Frank Harris wrote a memorable essay on Burton, which he included in his Contemporary Portraits, along with Carlyle, Whistler, Swinburne, Rodin, and Anatole France. He had met him first at a London party:

 Burton was in conventional evening dress, and yet, as he swung around to the introduction, there was an untamed air about him. He was tall, about six feet in height, with broad, square shoulders; he carried himself like a young man, in spite of his sixty years, and was abrupt in movement. His face was bronzed and scarred, and when he wore a heavy moustache and no beard he looked like a prize-fighter; the naked, dark eyes—imperious, aggressive eyes, by no means friendly; the heavy jaws and prominent hard chin gave him a desperate air. 

Burton unbuttoned, and talked as only Burton could talk of Damascus and that immemorial East; of India and its super-subtle people, of Africa and human life in the raw today as it was twenty thousand years ago.… Burton was of encyclopaedic reading; knew English poetry and prose astonishingly; had a curious liking for “sabre-cuts of Saxon speech”—all such words as come hot from life's mint.…

A western lynching yarn held him spell-bound, a crime passionel in Paris intoxicated him, started him talking, transfigured him into a magnificent story-teller, with intermingled appeals of pathos and rollicking fun, campfire effects, jets of flame against the night.

His intellectual curiosity was astonishingly broad and deep rather than high. He would tell stories of Indian philosophy or of perverse negro habits of lust and cannibalism, or would listen to descriptions of Chinese cruelty and Russian self-mutilation till the stars paled out. Catholic in his admiration and liking for all greatness, it was the abnormalities and not the divinities of men that fascinated him.

Deep down in him lay the despairing gloom of utter disbelief.… Burton's laughter, even, deep-chested as it was, had in it something of sadness.10

As a brawler in his youth, and a literary brawler in maturity, Burton made many enemies. He could dismiss the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette for his “malevolent insipidities,” and demolish the reputation of an author by writing in a review, “This book has been carefully purged of everything valuable.” He attacked Henry Reeve, editor of the Edinburgh Review, as “a cross and cross-grained old man whose surly temper is equalled only by his ignoble jealousy of another's success.”11 But much of this cudgeling was in response to venomous attacks upon his Arabian Nights. After its publication he was called “an authority … on all that relates to the bestial element in man,” and “a man who knows thirty-five languages and dialects, especially that of pornography.” Henry Reeve called his Nights “one of the most indecent books in the English language,” and “an extraordinary agglomeration of filth.”

Burton's marriage was no less fascinating than his explorations. His friends and biographers have been sharply divided into those who admired and those who detested his wife. Isabel Arundell Burton was a member of the Roman Catholic aristocracy, in her youth a girl of considerable beauty, and all her life the possessor of a proud, independent, and romantic spirit. W. H. Wilkins, her first biographer, described her relations with her husband as “more like a poem than an ordinary marriage.” Ouida, who was friend to both, insisted theirs was “a love marriage in the most absolute sense of the word.”

Burton's niece, Georgiana Stisted, on the other hand, who wrote an effusive biography of her uncle, described the marriage as “a serious imprudence.” John Payne, rival translator of the Arabian Nights, told the biographer Thomas Wright that Isabel “was answerable for most of Burton's troubles. She didn't know the difference between truth and falsehood.… She and Burton never understood each other.” Lord Redesdale wrote that “Burton was a model husband, and his wife adored him,” but he believed Isabel to have been a snob who did Burton great damage in his foreign office posts. Others called her silly, fatuous, superstitious, and a bigoted Catholic. Swinburne at first called her “the best of wives,” but turned against her savagely after Burton's death.

Troubled by her husband's preoccupation with erotic literature, Isabel repeatedly urged him to abandon his translation of The Scented Garden and turn instead to his own memoirs. Finally he said to her, “Tomorrow I shall have finished this, and I promise you that after this I will never write another book upon this subject. I will take to our biography.” The next day he was dead. Within a fortnight Isabel Burton had destroyed the manuscript. “Sorrowfully, reverently, and in fear and trembling,” she wrote, “I burnt sheet after sheet, until the whole of the volumes were consumed.” 

Later she set about writing the biography of her husband, describing him as

“the most pure, the most refined, the most modest man … that ever lived.” She insisted, “There is one thing that I feel I am fit for, and that is to lift the vail as to the inner man.” Afterwards she took the forty-year accumulation of his journals and diaries and burned practically everything.

Burton had kept two sets of journals, one the detailed account of his travel experiences, which included his anthropological notes, summaries of books he had read, and impressions of conversations with many of the most influential people in England. The other set consisted of his intimate diaries, which he always kept under lock and key. From the few portions his wife singled out for quotation, and from several pages preserved in the British Museum, we have reason to believe that these diaries were a record of his pain, heartbreak, and humiliation, as well as his exaltation. A few documents and a good many letters escaped the holocaust. So the loss was not total; it was simply irreparable. There would have been a loss of comparable magnitude had Boswell's widow built a bonfire at Malahide Castle.

A fine oil painting of Sir Richard Burton painted by Sir Frederick Leighton in 1876 hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a strong portrait, as befits the man, showing the ruddy complexion, full beard and moustache, and fierceness of eye. Burton is in good company, in the same room with Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Above him is Sir Charles Lyell, British geologist who was buried in Westminster Abbey. Across the room is the beguiling portrait of the three Brontë sisters done by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë. Burton seems to be staring at Ruskin, whose bland, blue eyes and benign countenance are in sharpest contrast with his own baleful glare. It is a curious accident that Burton should seem to be looking directly at the one man guilty of exactly the same kind of post-mortem burning as his wife. Ruskin had been made executor of the estate of the painter J. M. W. Turner, and in going through the collection of his canvases in 1857, he discovered a group of paintings Turner had made of sailors and prostitutes on the London docks. He burned them all. 

Isabel knew the story well. “Turner's executors burnt a few of his last pictures under similar circumstances to leave his reputation as a painter at its zenith,” she wrote. “I acted from the same motive.”15 Though the burning insured Isabel Burton's position as Richard Burton's most important biographer, it nevertheless underlined her incomprehension of the true nature of his “demon,” and made everything she wrote suspect, especially her portrait of “the inner man.”