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[personal profile] neveralarch
This is an annotation/commentary for Chai! or, the Unhappy Cafe and also for Personal Narrative, which are about Richard Francis Burton. It's meant to be read after those fics, though if you want a bunch of random history and opinions you can probably read this anyway!


A fairly common comment I got on Chai! is that people didn't know every reference, and they were heading to wikipedia. Which... probably didn't help that much. The article on Richard F. Burton isn't bad, but a lot of these jokes and references were fairly obscure, so I figured I'd provide a cheat sheet, now that reveals have happened.

The chronology and facts in Personal Narrative are fairly straightforward, but Chai! is... less so, haha. So some things happen out of order or too close together, and I decided I didn't care. I hope it wasn't too confusing to people trying to follow along without a lot of prior knowledge.

Here are the basics: Richard Francis Burton was a Victorian explorer, linguist, writer, and translator. Some of his major coups were his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, his exploration of the Nile and its source(s), and his translation of the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights. To write the two stories for Yuletide, I checked out a huge stack of books, but my sources ended up being Byron Farwell's biography and some works by Burton which I had already read. I'll talk more about sources at the end of the post, if anyone's interested. But here is the list of obscure references from Chai!:

The title
First off, Chai! or, the Unhappy Cafe is a reference to one of Burton's earliest books, Scinde; or, the Unhappy Valley. This was Burton's second book and his first on Sindh. He wrote three of them, and each time he spelled Sindh differently. Burton wrote a ridiculous number of books over his lifetime, mostly travelogues, but he had a rambling and sometimes dry style, and they never sold very well. His successes were mostly translations or adaptations: Vikram and the Vampire did moderately well, and the Kama Sutra and The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night were huge successes toward the end of Burton's life.

The resume
Burton's resume is all taken from life. He served for a long time in the East India Company's military, despite being frequently absent from his posts during his travels and excursions. Most of the languages and skills on the resume are just basic facts, but the monkey thing is sort of interesting: during service in India, Burton collected a number of monkeys, and would have dinner parties with them in an attempt to learn 'the language of the monkeys.' He dressed the monkeys in British clothing and had his servants wait on them, while attempting to converse. His fellow officers were a bit annoyed and confused, but Burton didn't like any of them much, so it worked out. Burton compiled a small vocabulary and grammar, but never managed to learn monkey language. Alas.

For the references, Burton was under the command of Napier in India, and was in Beatson's horse during the Crimean War. Neither Napier nor Beatson would have probably given a very good recommendation: Beatson's Horse mutinied during the war, for one thing.

Learning to play chess blindfolded
Growing up, Richard Burton's father liked to move around a lot, and often gained new obsessions. Then something bad would happen and the family would move again, because the elder Burton's solution to trouble was to skip town. When Burton was sixteen and living in Italy, his father became obsessed with chemistry. During this period, the father ruined their current house with his attempts to make soap. The Burton family banded together and started playing professional-level chess in an attempt to distract their father from more experiments. And it worked! Another win for Richard, who also learned to play chess blindfolded, two games at a time.

Brigham Young and Utah
After Burton made his trip to Africa with Speke, he was supposed to resume his post with the army. Instead, he took some sick leave, which he spun out into two years of wandering around the Americas. At one point Burton claimed to have met Young in Salt Lake City and to have been converted to the Mormon faith. (Burton also claimed to have been a converted Hindu, Muslim, and Isabel Arundell got him to agree to be given last rites as a Catholic, but he was fairly openly atheist/agnostic his entire life.) Burton (naturally) wrote a book about his experiences, in which he frequently extolled the virtues of polygamy.

Cholera remedy until the gout goes away
When Burton was in Cairo, he lived as a Muslim doctor in order to build up a respectable reputation. He wasn't very good at doctoring, but he had a chest full of European medicines that he applied fairly indiscriminately. Isabel Arundell actually carried on this tradition when they lived in Damascus, giving the same European medication for every problem. Burton started to realize that maybe this wasn't the best idea, after all, but Isabel sort of ignored him.

Prejudice
All of the quotes about Burton's prejudice are adapted from his articles and books. I go back and forth on how bad he was - he very rarely actively or physically abused individuals based on their race/class/gender, in counterpoint to his fellow explorers. Burton also was really interested and frequently respectful of the culture and customs which he observed, and took great pains to preserve native place names and laud local knowledge. On the other hand, Burton liked to complain about everything and show off his disdain for everyone. He had a lot of general prejudices against people based on their race/class/gender: Burton was firmly convinced of his superiority and the superiority of white Englishman, and would exposit at great length. One of his last books, The Jew, the Gypsy, and El Islam, is essentially one long polemic which you can probably figure out the subject of.

This is actually a common academic argument: how racist was Richard Burton? How much was for show and how much was real? In the end, I decided he was pretty racist, but I did try to show some of the difficulties and contradictions in reading/interacting with Burton.

Burton and his language skills
Reading Burton is hard, because he doesn't ever stop and think "oh, other people don't speak thirty-plus languages." Most Victorian works will contain unexplained phrases in French and Latin, which is annoying. Burton's contain unexplained sentences written in Italian, Latin, Arabic, and Swahili. That's all in one sentence. This may be one reason as to why his books never sold very well: many of his contemporary critics would complain about it.

Hamid al-Samman
Hamid al-Samman was one of the people on the Hajj with Burton, during Burton's trip to Mecca and Medina. He was a local of Medina, and he had Burton over to his house at the end of the Hajj and gave him a tour of the holy city. They seem to have gotten on very well.

Isabel Arundell
OH MY GOD, I LOVE ISABEL SO MUCH. SO MUCH.

Okay, done. Sorry.

Isabel Arundell was a Catholic from a good upper-middle class family. She was fairly respectable, and very religious. She was also completely obsessed with Richard Burton.

Isabel met Burton once, when she was a teenager and he was in his twenties, and proceeded to follow his exploits for the rest of her life. She didn't really have any contact with Burton for most of her youth, but her diary is about 80% Richard. She read all of his books and all of his articles. She did in fact learn how to fence in order to defend Burton (the greatest swordsman of his age, possibly), and was prepared to go with him anywhere. Unfortunately, Burton wasn't super aware of her! They did meet again before the Crimean War, and Burton wrote Isabel some bad poetry which she cherished forever. But Burton tended to flirt with and write poetry for everyone, so this wasn't a particular favor. (Burton even sent the same piece of poetry to another lady-friend: he was good at multitasking.) During the Crimea and the Nile expedition, Burton sent letters to basically everyone not Isabel. She was distraught.

The big shift in their not-relationship came after the Nile Expedition. Burton came home tired and extremely ill, in the midst of a bitter dispute with Speke over the true source of the river. Isabel was there to comfort him and be generally sympathetic. They became engaged!

Then Burton left for Utah without warning anyone.

When he came back two(!) years later, Isabel was determined to keep him this time. They got married without her parents' consent but with the approval of the Catholic Church), and Isabel was ecstatic. She got Burton a diplomatic post to replace his lost military career (the East India Company was cutting back), and all was well.

Then Burton left for his new job at Fernando Po without her!

Eventually Isabel caught up, and they lived fairly happily until Burton died, 39 years later. Their relationship was kind of- I don't know. It was even more uncomfortably husband-dominated than most Victorian relationships: Burton made all of the decisions, and would even hypnotize Isabel against her will, in order to 'learn her secrets.' Isabel was obsessed with him and would take about anything. But, at the same time, they're ADORABLE together. They seem to have loved each other, and Isabel was convinced that Burton was the best person ever. She had long 'prophetic' dreams in which she rescued Burton from hell or got him a diplomatic job or some other success. After Burton was appointed to the consulate in Santos he and Isabel were basically inseparable, and they went on a number of expeditions together. Their later married life was more about companionship than anything else - they fenced and swam together, and Isabel often referred to them as 'two gay brothers'(!!) on an adventure. They were childless, but they don't seem to have worried about it much.

Biographers of Burton tend to dislike Isabel, because she burned a lot of Burton's papers after he died. Documenters hate a loss of documentation, and I empathize. But Farwell is generally pretty fair about Isabell (he thinks the marriage was adorable too, I can tell), and there have been a couple biographies about Isabel herself which I haven't read, but I plan to.

The Cannibal Club
The Cannibal Club was largely a group of young literary hedonists, with Richard Burton as their occasional encourager and legitimate adventurer mascot. He was good friends with Milnes and great friends with Swinburne. Some of Swinburne's friends thought Burton was leading the younger poet into bad ways, but it looks more like Burton just didn't disapprove of drinking and masochism, both of which Swinburne was already pretty far into.

Fred Hankey was also involved in the Cannibal Club, and was a collector of obscure erotica. Burton had promised to bring him a woman's skin in order to bind one of his volumes, which Hankey liked to brag about. Burton suggested that he might fill this promise during his trip to Dahomey, as there were a lot of executions going on there, but he seems to have been joking.

Milnes' nurse is Florence Nightingale, who rejected him after years of courtship/borderline stalking.

John Hanning Speke
Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke went on a trip together to discover the true source of the Nile. They had met earlier in Somaliland (where Burton got stabbed), and applied to the Royal Geographical Society for funding on this important expedition. The trip was both a success and a disaster. Speke and Burton didn't get along very well and fought the whole time, but they did make two major discoveries: Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. Tanganyika was a joint discovery, and is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Victoria was discovered by Speke, while Burton was resting in a town, and is one of the major sources of the Nile. But Speke made poor measurements and didn't understand the local language, and Burton discounted his account of the lake. In fact, it was really unlikely that Speke had managed to stumble on the true source, and Burton had a number of legitimate objections. They were supposed to present together at the Royal Geographical Society, but Burton dallied on the way back, and Speke presented his evidence about Lake Victoria alone. The whole issue became a huge fight, and Burton basically quit the RGS over it. His inevitable book about the expedition never named Speke as his companion and hardly mentioned him at all, even anonymously.

And then Burton skipped town to go to Utah, ignoring the whole scientific dispute developing in London.

The issue was made even worse by Speke's second expedition, which was supposed to establish Lake Victoria as the Nile's source, but only returned more botched measurements and estimations. Burton had returned from Utah, by this point, and was very vocal with his critique of the second expedition. Burton and Speke were to debate the issue publicly, but Speke left London the day before the debate for a spur-of-the-moment shooting trip, and was shot. Burton was waiting for Speke at the RGS debate when news came of Speke's death. Burton then gave a very stiff and unhappy speech about some other anthropological material, in order to fill the time that was meant to be occupied by the debate.

People still argue about who was in the right during the 'Great Nile Controversy,' but it's become clear that Speke was definitely right about the source. Lake Tanganyika only flows into the Congo River drainage.

Calling in sick
This is basically what Burton did, all the time. At least half his expeditions were made while on 'sick leave' from the military or his later consular work. At one point Burton was in France while he was supposed to be in Damascus, and he and Isabel had to hide from some diplomats who had turned up in case they reported Burton to his superiors. Eventually Isabel just explained the situation to the diplomats, and they got away with it for being ridiculous, apparently. Story of their lives, really.

More Isabel
The Captain Burton obituary incident and Isabel's rules for marriage are also completely real. ISABEL. Pay, pack, and follow is a phrase used often in Isabel's diaries, and probably by Burton himself. Burton would often just leave for a new country, letting Isabel worry about any lose ends. A couple times he left their home in the middle of the night, without warning, sending Isabel a telegram later. Fortunately(?) she had a sort of sixth-sense about when Burton was about to leave, and would commandeer horses and carts in order to catch up and wave him goodbye at the port.

Burton's knighthood
Burton's knighthood was given after his translation of the Arabian Nights, and years of service at various consulates. Also after a solid decade of Isabel clamoring for a knighthood, including starting a newspaper campaign for a 'poor unrewarded servant of Her Majesty.'

Henry Stanley and Charles Gordon
Henry Stanley is the journalist who found Doctor Livingstone in the African interior. He also was a huge racist jerk, just saying - he frequently abused his guides and bearers, and no one seems to have liked him very much. I find him much less redeemable than Burton. Charles 'Chinese' Gordon was another Victorian adventurer who died trying to establish and protect the Egyptian expansionist government in the Sudan. Prior to the Sudanese revolt, Gordon had been trying to convince Burton to join him there as an advisor, but Burton decided to stay in diplomatic work and avoided the ensuing violence.



And that's it! Rachel Wynne isn't a real person - though her last name is from Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle, a 19th century diarist. And here are some source recommendations:

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, by Richard Burton
One of his better and less racist books. You kind of have to skim it, since it's three volumes and contains a lot of unnecessary detail, but there's a lot of interesting and funny things going on during the pilgrimage.

The Book of the Sword by Richard Burton
Unfinished, but Burton's best academic work. It's even relatively readable! It contains some of Burton's ongoing feuds with other academics, especially linguists (the book has nothing really to do with linguistics, he just wanted to talk about it).

Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton by Byron Farwell
A really good biography. Both critical and sympathetic, and especially good at dealing with Isabel. Farwell can be a bit racist and sexist at times, but he's still better than his source material, so. I'm sure there are better biographies, but Farwell works extensively from original sources and records, which I appreciated, and he has an excellent narrative tone.

burtoniana.org
A Burton fansite(!!!) that has a lot of free pdfs of Burton's books and articles.

And an anti-recommendation:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
This is a novel about the adventures of Burton and Swinburne, in a steampunk AU. I really wanted to like it. But! It's so bad. Speaking from a historical point of view, the characterization is very off, and Hodder too often takes Burton at face value. Also, a lot of the plot hinges on getting rid of all the important women (including Queen Victoria and Isabel, all the sadfaces), and then sexually assaulting all of the women left over. I could complain about it for a WHILE, but I won't, just- if you are looking for more awesome Burton adventures, don't read this.

In sum, if you're jonesing for more Burton, read some of his biographies or books! If you need more weird Victorian AUs, I would go read Tim Powers, just a suggestion.

If you are here to become part of the new Richard Burton fandom, PLEASE WRITE EPIC ISABEL STORIES. I couldn't do her justice.

Date: 2012-01-14 03:15 pm (UTC)
sophia_sol: drawing of Combeferre, smiling and holding up a finger like he's about to explain something (Default)
From: [personal profile] sophia_sol
EEEE OH WOW THIS POST IS AMAZING! *loves*

I just, oh wow, you don't even know HOW HAPPY you made me this yuletide, and then this post is full of EVEN MORE AWESOME and pretty much I need to go read stuff about Richard Burton forever, methinks.

(and right now I am so sad because my sister thought she had a book about Isabel but it turned out to be a book about a different awesome victorian lady, which is all well and good, but ISABEL. She sounds ALL OF THE FASCINATING.)

Date: 2012-01-15 01:50 am (UTC)
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
If you're looking for more Burton adventures, I enjoyed To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which is basically Philip Jose Farmer fanboying Richard Burton in a strange scifi RPF crossover.

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