SINGLE MAN SEEKS adventurous female with passion for travel and curiosity for life. My hobbies include fencing and snake charming. Speak twenty-eight languages. Briefly endured Oxford. Enthusiastically agnostic. A fave Saturday night is hosting a simian dinner party to catalog the vocabulary of monkeys. I also enjoy exploring forbidden locales in disguise and have discovered the source of the Nile. Full disclosure: I’ve called marriage a barbarous and indelicate exhibition but am open to it provided you’re okay with random disappearances for indefinite lengths of time. Friends insist I have the eyes of a tiger and the voice of an angel but you’ll be the judge of that. Having done extensive research on the erotic impulses of apes and sexual practices of the Swahili, I can make you very happy.
“I have undertaken a very peculiar man,” Isabel writes to her mother upon tying the knot with the brilliantly quirky, cage-rattling Richard Burton but she never doubted her choice. Not when after proposing marriage (“I would rather have a crust and a tent with you than be queen of all the world; and so I say now, Yes, yes, YES!”) he promptly took off for the Nile expedition. Not when after a stint with the Mormons she learned he’d returned from America through a headline in The Times.
Not when she was forced to keep up appearances at his posting in Damascus after he went MIA for four months. Or nursing him through bouts of fever after his exotic trespassing or editing his manuscripts or negotiating with publishers and foreign offices to prop up the reputation he was dedicated to besmirching. “Since Richard would not fight his own battles I fought them for him.”
Isabel Burton had hardly been trained for this peculiar Englishman who declared that England was the only country he never felt at home in. As Lesley Blanch tells it in The Wilder Shores of Love, she was born in 1831 to a family that traced back to the time of William the Conqueror, and enjoyed the delicate Victorian indoctrination of “country delights, bird-nesting, following the hounds on a fat pony, … pet dogs, pet lambs, pets everywhere … coachmen and footmen in dark green and gold liveries.” But she would peer through the barred windows of the fifth-floor London nursery when the lamp-lighter came by on his rounds. And befriended the gypsies camped in the woods near the country retreat, who nicknamed her Daisy.
And she read that explorer’s books. His tales of exotic places and impossible ideas would not have been acceptable topics for the “myopic prigs” who courted her after she made her London debut. So when by pure chance, she met the author while strolling with her sister on the Ramparts of Boulogne, she knew Richard Burton was meant to be her savior. This man with weather-beaten complexion, fierce and melancholy expression, who “smiled as though it hurt him” would rescue her from a life of “unimpeachable dullness.” Ten years later, after pleading with, cajoling and finally defying her parents, she became Isabel Burton. (Nuptial luncheon conversation: “Richard! How does it feel to have killed a man?” “Quite jolly Dr. Bird.”)
Isabel and Richard wouldn’t have shared mutual algorithms on OKCupid. She, the elegantly dressed, socially conscious, pious can-do. He of shabby travel-worn coat, impatient contempt, and Arab fatalism. Her life was driven by organization. His by transgression. What was the glue that held their companionship fast?
Here’s the I Got You Babe bit: Rising before the sun for breakfast and a morning of “Literature” followed by a swim and fencing. The shared passions – pets “from leopards to lambs” and 8,000-book library. The diplomatic postings in Damascus, Brazil, Trieste. Voyaging in the desert, their eyes lined with kohl. Travels to Rome, Venice, Vienna. “They took trains across Europe as other people took cabs across London,” writes Blanch. Ostrich races in Goa and dinners with rajahs on jewel-studded gold plates “in their sumptuous palaces, the princes dripping with pearls and uncut rubies.” Sign The Sultanette up!
Now comes the I’ll Cry If I Want To bit: “Men drink when they are sad, women fly into company” Isabel writes during a period when Richard had evaporated from her life, perhaps in one of the many disguises that allowed him to explore incognito, the mosques, bazaars and erotic underworld he wrote of, “but I must fight the battle with my own heart, learn to live alone and work, and when I have conquered, I will allow myself to see something of my friends.” Isabel’s nemesis wasn’t “another woman” it was Burton’s other worlds. “It was the hidden, mysterious aspects of his life in the East of which she was jealous,” writes Blanch. But hadn’t the faithful wife, doting caretaker, and tireless champion, earned automatic access?
Considering that the Victorian woman had precious few paths to pursue her own destiny, it’s hard to fault Isabel for seeking her escape through a man. And easy to see why she was smitten. In a time when explorers were celebrities, Burton was a superstar. “He was the foremost Orientalist of his day,” says Blanch, “the explorer of the Great Lakes region, one of the world’s outstanding linguists, author of the greatest version of the Arabian Nights.” He was the fascinating outsider, always dancing on the margins and daring the center to stray.
But oh the peril of believing that we are owed admittance beyond another’s velvet ropes. Is there a space between two separate souls that need never be colonized? Is allowing for unexplored territory more honorable than mapping every square inch of intimacy? I engage on the margins of the male harem’s lives. No apologies for superficiality. The Sultanette is ready to wager that the most intriguing, intensely thoughtful, passionately daring, and original aspects of ourselves might exist at those edges under the radar, where there is no pressure or temptation to be compromised.
But the edge is not warm and cozy and gravity’s pull to the center is tough to resist. Upon Burton’s death in 1890, he bequeathed to Isabel all of his writings including what he described as his crown achievement, erotic esoterica bound to cause shockwaves, The Scented Garden “to be overhauled and examined by her only, and to be dealt with entirely at her own discretion, and in the manner she thinks best, having been my sole helper for thirty years.” Did he not smell the danger?
“When I locked myself in his rooms,” Isabel wrote in a letter to the Morning Post, “I read this (manuscript) … and I remained for three days in a state of perfect torture as to what I ought to do about it.” She protested valiantly over why she burned not just The Scented Garden but every page and word of his journals. She would not subject his legacy to critics who might accuse him of writing “from the impure point of view.” He had appeared to her in an apparition and told her to burn them.
But in the end, the woman who regarded Richard Burton as “the most interesting figure of the nineteenth century” was capable only of leaving us her version of this complex, controversial, reckless, unconventional, deliciously flawed being – her sanitized Life of Sir Richard Burton in his most unseemly disguise.
“We live on the fourth floor because there isn’t a fifth” Isabel had boasted of their domicile in Trieste. The Burtons now rest in the mausoleum Isabel built. It is an Arab tent – symbol of the freedom to wander like the gypsies she had been drawn to as a girl. Only this tent is chiseled out of great blocks of unyielding Carrara marble. Together at last.
If you doubt Isabel’s love was true, take a listen to Tammy and the Ronettes …