Richard Francis Burton
Relevant Non-Istrians


Bonfire of the Manuscripts

For years Isabel Burton has been reviled by scholars and admirers of Sir Richard Francis Burton for allegedly burning her husband's diaries, papers, and manuscripts following his death on October 20, 1890. The image of Isabel, grief-stricken and desperate to purge her husband's workroom of sinful and scandalous manuscripts, was so deliciously romantic and horrifying that no one stopped to ask... what exactly did Isabel burn, and why?

No one, that is, until Mary S. Lovell. In her book A Rage to Live, Lovell disputes the commonly-held belief that Isabel, in a fit of posthumous prudishness, made a great bonfire of her husband's unpublished papers. In the manner of a detective re-opening an old file, Lovell questions the accuracy of (and motivation behind) statements made by witnesses to "the widow's burning" and looks for new evidence in the case.

It is widely acknowledged by many scholars that Isabel spent 16 days sorting through and organizing the mountains of papers, books, and manuscripts that she and Richard had accumulated over several years in Trieste. Similarly, it is well documented that Richard left Isabel clear instructions regarding the destruction of his personal papers. Lovell points out that this was not the first time that Richard had asked Isabel to destroy his notes and papers. In fact, Isabel had been responsible for burning Richard's notes and letters on a number of occassions, notably when Richard left his consular positions in Brazil and Damascus.

If we equate Isabel's burning of Richard's documents with the modern practice of shredding old paperwork, her actions seem completely normal. They seem even more normal when you consider just how many papers, bills, letters, unfinished manuscripts, books, diaries, and scribbled notes that Richard had collected and produced during his consular tenure at Trieste. Lovell observes that Richard had 8,000 books in his personal library and that, in total, Isabel shipped 200 crates of books and papers from Trieste to England. Isabel was a practical woman, and it is patently ridiculous to expect that she would preserve every scrap of paper or book that Richard owned.

Doubts about Isabel's motivations and actions are not easily set aside, however. The heart of the controversy can be summed up in one question: what exactly did Isabel burn?

It is well documented that Isabel burned old paperwork, bills, and letters that were related to Richard's consular duties. She also burned her own manuscript The Sixth Sense and numerous personal papers. (Many people ignore the fact that Isabel was an accomplished author, with several published articles and manuscripts to her credit.) After Isabel finished burning the documents that she felt had no value, she pondered what to do with Richard's more important work and, in particular, what to do with The Scented Garden.

The Scented Garden was an unpublished manuscript that Richard had worked on almost to the day of his death. The Scented Garden was a new translation of The Perfumed Garden, a work of erotica that was originally published in French as Le Jardin Parfume. After some searching, Richard discovered a complete Arabic version of The Perfumed Garden, which he used to create The Scented Garden. Publishers had already received close to 1,500 orders for the new book, proof that Richard Burton's translations of eastern erotica were wildly popular.

There is no doubt that Isabel burned all copies of The Scented Garden. In his book Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Edward Rice savours the idea that Isabel was horrified by the sexual acts described so explicitly in the manuscript and wanted to destroy it to save Richard's (and her) reputation. He also recounts how Richard appeared before Isabel as an apparition, ordering her to burn the unpublished manuscript on three separate occassions. He concludes that Isabel had no choice except to burn The Scented Garden, which she accomplished by feeding the manuscript into the fire, page by page.

Lovell's account of what happened to The Scented Garden is straightforward and far less sensational than Rice's. Isabel received an offer of £3,000 for The Scented Garden. At this point Isabel had not read the manuscript, although she knew much about its contents from talking to Richard. It was not until she received a counter-offer of £6,000 that Isabel decided it was time to read Richard's last manuscript.

Lovell contends that Isabel was not horrified by the contents of The Scented Garden; rather, she felt that without Richard alive to defend his writing (as he invariably had to do) the sensational nature of the material would outstrip its academic purpose, and "It would, by degrees, descend amongst the populace of Holywell Street" (a street where vendors sold pornography). Furthermore, Isabel felt that The Scented Garden was a low-quality translation, the poorest example of Richard's work. Unlike Rice, Lovell places the burden of choice (to burn or not to burn?) squarely on Isabel's pragmatic shoulders. As we already know, even with an eye-popping offer of £6,000 for the manuscript, Isabel chose to burn it.

So, what exactly did the world lose when Isabel burned The Scented Garden? Rice provides the best answer to this question. Only three people knew the contents of The Scented Garden: Isabel, the typist Mrs. Maylor, and Grenville Baker, a friend of the Burton's who spent many days discussing the work with Richard. Baker shared his opinions with author Norman Penzer, who published excerpts of these conversations in 1923. Baker felt that The Scented Garden was "merely a greatly annotated edition" of the previously published The Perfumed Garden. He felt that it also included a lot of old material from The Arabian Nights. Despite his personal abhorence of Isabel's decision to burn the manuscript, Penzer concluded that "the work was one which would only have been of value to a small circle of genuine scholars of the East."

Rice is far more critical of Isabel for burning Richard's other manuscripts and, like many others, upholds the belief that Isabel burned many of her husband's diaries. He claims that only "some small notebooks and a few other fragments" were saved from the library in Trieste. Lovell argues that many of Richard's papers were burned -- but not by Isabel. "We can be sure of this," Lovell writes, "because she painstakingly wrote out an inventory of the contents of the boxes she packed at Trieste, and this surviving document can be compared with a similar inventory made six years later, after Isabel's death, by her secretary."

It is common knowledge that a few of Richard's diaries were stolen from his library in Trieste following his death. Fortunately the "private [diaries], which were always kept under lock and key" had not been stolen. Indeed, it was Daisy Letchford, a "ladies' maid" hired to help Isabel pack for her return to England, who made the vague claim that many important papers from Richard's library had been burned. She also believed that a copy of The Scented Garden had been saved. Daisy painted herself as the heroine in the great burning of Richard's work, describing how she begged with the unreasonable Isabel to save his notebooks and papers. In fact, Daisy was the proud "owner" of Richard's stolen diaries and more of a trouble-maker than heroine. Lovell reveals that Isabel was highly suspicious of Daisy and felt that the rumours circulating about the wanton destruction of Richard's papers were "the result of the mischief-making and misrepresentations of Miss Letchford".

The second burning of Richard's writings occured in London following Isabel's death in 1896. As Lovell points out, the "list of what was to be burned proves that the stories of wholesale burning of diaries and letters in Trieste were fallacious." Isabel's reasons for burning these documents are clear -- as Lovell writes, Isabel "already had ample proof that unscrupulous men, pretending to be friends, would publish anything to make money."

Clearly, it was in 1896 that Richard's journals from 1862 to 1890 were burned, along with many personal letters between Richard and Isabel and some manuscripts written by Richard that Isabel believed were of poor quality or written on topics that were obscure (and thus might not be understood). Isabel did not burn all of the manuscripts, as is popularly believed. Several were published posthumously, such as The Jew, The Gypsy, and El Islam (1898), Wanderings in Three Continents (1901), The Sentiment of the Sword (1911), Selected Papers on Anthropology, Travel and Exploration (1924).

Between 6,000 and 8,000 of Richard and Isabel's books were given to "the Nation" and became "Sir Richard Burton's Library" at the Central Library in Kensington. Many other papers and documents "eventually found a home at Camberwell Library," explains Lovell. The burning of secondary papers, maps, music, and other personal items was postponed until Isabel's autobiography was completed (posthumously) by W.H. Wilkins in 1897.

In the end, Isabel used her best judgement (and she was the person Richard trusted the most in his life) to decide which of Richard's documents to destroy and which to preserve. Isabel was not an uneducated and prudish fool as many biographers describe. Instead, she was a practical and intuitive woman. Richard chose not to publish many of his own writings because he understood the risks associated with doing so (public ridicule, removal from his consular duties, ostracism by friends and family). Isabel saw how much effort, skill, and charm it required for Richard to publish his writings and preserve his scholarly reputation. When he died she carried the full burden of defending Richard's work.

The new research by Lovell has redeemed Isabel, at least in part. Yes, she burned Richard's personal diaries, letters, and manuscripts. It is clear that she had damned good reasons. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Richard Burton's writings abound -- even today. Similarly, Richard wrote a lot, but he did not necessarily write well. With these two thoughts in mind, Isabel's decision to burn selected papers, notebooks, and manuscripts is perfectly logical.

In conclusion, it is important to remember what remains of Richard's writings. His body of published work is fantastic, almost larger than life. Similarly, Isabel saved a substantial collection of unpublished notes, journals, letters, and essays. Even with the destruction of The Scented Garden and Richard's journals, it is fair to say that scholars and the public have not been cheated out of knowing what was on Richard's mind, or what he observed in foreign lands.

Counter-arguments are welcome! If you have a different opinion about the Nile controversy, put your fingers on the keyboard and send your article to I will be happy to publish it.

P.S. This is an opinion article, not a scholarly essay, so I have deliberately chosen not to use formal citations. I consulted two major biographies (listed below) and if you want to confirm what I have written, go read the books yourself.

Sources Consulted:

  • A Rage to Live. Copyright © 1998 Mary S. Lovell. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.
  • Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Copyright 1990 Edward Rice. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York.


  • Copyright 1999 - 2000 by (no longer at these addresses)

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Created: Tuesday, July 06, 2004; Last Updated: Wednesday, August 05, 2015
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