Victorian Literature Richard Francis Burton
Dane Kennedy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0162


Richard Francis Burton (b. 1821–d. 1890) was a prodigiously gifted polymath who knew some twenty-five languages, wrote more than twenty books about his journeys through distant lands, introduced the Kama Sutra and other exotic works of erotica to English readers, and produced a controversial and influential sixteen-volume translation of the Arabian Nights. Few Victorians ventured to as many regions of the world as Burton or showed as much curiosity as he did about the cultures and customs of the peoples who inhabited them. He was raised by his expatriate parents in Italy and France, began his career as a cadet in the East India Company army, gained fame from his pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Muslim from South Asia, led the first British-sponsored expedition in search of the source of the Nile River, traveled extensively through East and West Africa, North and South America, Arabia and even Iceland, and spent the final decades of his life as a British consul in Damascus and Trieste. He was a prominent figure in bohemian circles in mid-century London, where he helped found the controversial Anthropological Society and the notorious Cannibal Club; he provoked public outrage for his defense of Islam, polygamy, and slavery; he famously and tragically clashed with John Hanning Speke, his erstwhile companion on the East African expedition, over the latter’s claims to have discovered the Nile’s source; he spent the last decade of his life battling the forces of prudery in Britain with his translations of The Kama Sutra, The Book of a Thousand Nights and Night (especially its “Terminal Essay” on pederasty), and other sexually explicit works. He was both an agent and a critic of British imperialism, a racist and a relativist, a religious skeptic and a spiritualist, a pornographer and a cultural provocateur, a man of action and a prolific author. No wonder he has attracted the attention of biographers and literary scholars, historians and cultural critics, geographers and anthropologists, area studies specialists, novelists and many others. They have been drawn to his protean character, his literary accomplishments, his contrarian opinions, his daring expeditions, his geographical findings, his ethnographic observations, his interest in human sexuality, and much more. Every generation, it seems, has found new reasons to revisit his life and writings.

Reference Works

Richard Burton’s voluminous publications, many available in modern editions and others accessible online through Project Guttenberg and similar sites, are the essential points of departure for any study of Burton and his work. They reveal most of what we know about his life and thought. Key reference works are Penzer 1923 on Burton’s published work, Kirkpatrick 1978 on his personal library, Casada 1990 on scholarship about Burton, Young 1999 on Burton’s letters regarding the source of the Nile, and Jutzi 1993 on newer discoveries. The website Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1821–1890 lists recently published works on Burton, as well as other previously uncompiled material. Burton’s unpublished papers are scattered in multiple archives and private collections. The most important publicly available collections are held by the British Library, the Huntington Library, and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

  • Casada, James A. Sir Richard F. Burton: A Biobibliographical Study. London: Mansell, 1990.

    A dated, but still useful, annotated bibliography of works by and about Burton, organized by categories such as manuscripts, books, translations, and ephemera.

  • Jutzi, Alan H., ed. In Search of Sir Richard Burton: Papers from a Huntington Library Symposium. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1993.

    This collection of symposium papers is both biographical and bibliographical in its concerns, with many of the contributors writing about newly discovered letters and manuscripts, marginalia in Burton’s library collection, and the like.

  • Kirkpatrick, B. J. A Catalogue of the Library of Sir Richard Burton, K.C.M.G. held by the Royal Anthropological Institute. London: Royal Anthropological Institute, 1978.

    Burton left a library of 2,537 books, pamphlets, maps, and manuscripts. Many of the books are heavily annotated by Burton. This catalogue of the collection, which was subsequently acquired by the Huntington Library, gives us a glimpse into the range of subjects that interested Burton, as well as the many languages he read.

  • Penzer, Norman M. An Annotated Bibliography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, K.C.M.G. London: A. M. Philpot, 1923.

    This bibliography of Burton’s many publications includes helpful information on the multiple editions of his more popular works, or at least those editions published before 1923.

  • Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1821–1890.

    This website is a valuable compendium of information on Burton and works by and about him. It includes bibliographies of Burton biographies and contemporaries’ reminiscences, lists of and links to his many publications, photographs and portraits of Burton, and, perhaps most noteworthy, an extensive collection of his letters, edited by the website creator, Gavan Tredoux.

  • Young, Donald, ed. The Search for the Source of the Nile. London: Roxburghe Club, 1999.

    This privately published selection of letters by Burton and John Hanning Speke, drawn from the personal collection of Quentin Keynes, concerns their increasingly personal dispute about the source of the Nile.

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