Let in the Djinns

Maya Jasanoff

  • The Highly Civilised Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World by Dane Kennedy
    Harvard, 354 pp, £17.95, September 2005, ISBN 0 674 01862 1

Trieste, it has been said, is a nowhere of sorts: unreal, isolated, out of time, attractive to exiles, unknown to almost everybody else. So it was an apt city to serve as the final home of a man regarded as one of the most unreal, isolated and timeless figures of the Victorian era. Richard Burton arrived in the Adriatic port in 1873 as Britain’s consul. He had pretty much seen everything. He had visited sacred centres from Benares to Salt Lake City, with a pilgrimage to Mecca in between; he had trekked thousands of miles into central Africa and out, seeking the source of the Nile; he had mastered swordsmanship in numerous styles and learned falconry in Sindh; he had lived in Brazil and visited war-torn Paraguay, hunted for gold in West Africa, and surveyed Icelandic sulphur reserves. He had published some twenty books and could chatter freely in at least two dozen languages. No wonder this ‘nowhere’ seemed to hold nothing for him. He was bored and in physical decline; his requests for a transfer or early retirement were denied. There was nothing for it, he realised, but to let in the djinns. Burton began translating Arabic stories he had long loved, hundreds of them. His pages swelled with rocs, afreets, talking fish, wonderful lamps, wizards, eunuchs and stallions from the sea. His encyclopedic store of memories poured into explanatory notes on the shape of bottles in Egypt, the style of beards in Persia, on twig toothbrushes, ant attacks, preparations of ambergris and opium – and, most copiously, detailed varieties of sexual technique. If for nothing else, the world should remember Trieste for the 16-volume Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885-88), Burton’s literary triumph, and a vast exercise in vicarious thrills.

His translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra (1883), together with his celebrated explorations in Arabia and Africa, have made Burton a familiar historical character. The greatest achievement of Dane Kennedy’s stimulating, elegant book is to reveal a fresh and different Burton. Kennedy begins with an arresting photograph. Burton huddles in a blanket on a floor, leaning his tousled head against a wall, glowering into the camera. He looks hunted, defensive, homeless. Beneath the curious image he wrote an even more curious caption: ‘the highly civilised man’. At first the remark seems sarcastic, but might he have meant more? Could this apparent misfit be understood in the context of his self-consciously ‘civilised’ age? The Highly Civilised Man treats Burton as an authentic product of his times rather than a flamboyant exception to them. The result is a clever intellectual history, structured around the chief guises – Orientalist, impersonator, explorer, racist, sexologist – adopted by Burton during his improbable career.

Burton often likened himself to a Gypsy, which was hardly a surprise given that he was more or less raised as one, moving south with his parents through the expatriate enclaves of France and Italy, as they searched out congenial climates. The one effort to send Richard and his brother to school in England turned into a Dickensian nightmare for the boys, and the family swiftly returned to France. Burton spent his adolescence on the Continent, flirting with juvenile delinquency. By the time he turned up as a freshman at Oxford, sporting a ‘splendid moustache’ that shocked his envious peers, he was a skilled fencer, sexually precocious and able to curse in every dialect spoken from Lyon to Naples. He immediately set about getting himself expelled, and took ship for India in 1842 as an ensign in the East India Company army.

Burton’s fame as an Orientalist rests chiefly on his 1880s translations. But he earned his spurs forty years earlier when, as Kennedy demonstrates, he became an ‘exemplary agent of the colonial state’. Burton fitted into a long line of officer-Orientalists. With no wars forthcoming, his best path to promotion was language study, which was actively encouraged by the army. In just five years, he passed government exams in Hindustani, Gujarati, Marathi, Persian, Sindhi and Punjabi. His abilities also earned him a place in the Sindh Survey, where he cultivated his ethnographic skills – and his penchant for non-Western dress and fraternising with the locals. His methods may have appeared extreme, but they earned tacit approval from the East India Company, which sponsored Burton’s later voyages in disguise in Arabia and East Africa.

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