Sir Richard Francis Burton - Born March 19th 1821 – Died October 20th 1890. 

The VV must admit that she has long had something of a crush on Sir Richard Francis Burton, a notorious Victorian gentleman who could variously be described as one and all of the following: a soldier, explorer, a writer and poet, a translator, a hypnotist, an oriental scholar, a sexologist and diplomat  ~ oh, and a smoker of opium who was said to be so devoted that even when in Africa searching for the source of the river Nile, he took his Indian ‘pipe boy’ whose job (and we won't allow any gossip to mar our hero's name) was to cart around his master’s pipes and smoking paraphernalia).

Richard Francis Burton was the son of an army officer. As a child he often accompanied his parents on frequent trips abroad, which no doubt helped to develop his natural curiosity, his passionate love of travelling and the learning of other languages. When a little older he attended a Richmond preparatory school before going to university at Trinity College, Oxford. There he studied Arabic and also physical pursuits such as fencing and falconry. However, his volatile nature often led to confrontations – including taking part in a duel when another student dared to mock the elaborate style of his moustache.

Leaving Oxford under something of a cloud – and trampling the college’s flower beds while departing in his carriage – Burton followed in his father’s profession and signed up with the army of the East India Company, posted with the18th Bombay Native Infantry who were then based at Gujarat. His facility as a linguist (he was said to speak 29 languages) made him quite invaluable in matters of surveillance during the Indian wars – in other words, he was a spy, and one whose dark and exotic looks were distinctly advantageous. He was very successful in this work, quite prepared to fully immerse himself in the study of Hindu culture - and to such an extent that he was accused of actually ‘going native’ and becoming a ‘white nigger’. One of his appointed ‘tasks’ was to visit male brothels where many of his fellow soldiers were thought to be indulging in unnatural, foreign practices. Well, that may well have been the case, but it soon became widely believed that Burton combined his business with pleasure and took that opportunity to enjoy the delights of the brothels himself – though he never did admit this. However, when once questioned about morality he was reputed to have said, 'Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.'

Burton certainly revelled in danger, so much so that in 1853 he took a year’s leave from the Company and undertook a ‘Hajj’ or pilgrimage to Mecca, an adventure for which he disguised himself as an Arab. The consequent account of that, along with all that he had learned about the Islamic faith led to Burton’s great renown.

He went on to become very deeply involved with the Royal Geological Society, for whom he made many discoveries about local cultures and history in what were then considered to be distant and exotic realms. An expedition to Zanzibar was launched in1856 to look for the source of the River Nile. But the trip was badly fated. Burton and his fellow journeyman, the explorer John Hanning Speke, both suffered badly from disease. In the end Speke almost went blind and Burton was so ill he could hardly walk. Much of their equipment was stolen, as well as vital living supplies, and the two men disagreed so much on where the source of the Nile might be that they finally agreed to part and continue their journeys home alone.

Sir Richard Burton with the scar on his cheek that was caused by a warrior's spear.

During this time Burton kept many detailed notes regarding the geography and the local populations. He continued to have adventures which included being attacked by more than a hundred warriors, that leading to a permanent scar when the tip of a spear pierced through his cheek.

Isabel Arundell - who became Sir Richard Burton's wife

Back home again in England, his dispute with John Speke became bitter and public. It only came to an end when, in 1864, Speke died in a shooting accident – though some considered it suicide and blamed Burton for the tragedy. After this, Burton joined the Foreign Office as consul in Fernando Po, an island off West Africa. But he did not take along the wife who he'd married in 1861, because it was considered that the climate would not suit her health. But then they had what might be called, even by modern standards, something of an unconventional marriage - and that followed a secret engagement when Isabel's family refused to accept a man not rich, or Catholic - and presumably they might have heard a few other rumours going round.

An illustration from Vikram and the Vampire - a Hindu tale of devilry translated by Burton

The couple were reunited in 1865 when Burton was stationed in Brazil, after which, in 1869, they moved to Damascus and, later, Trieste. It was during this period in his life that Burton wrote prolifically – much about his travels, but also involved in translating classical and Renaissance literature. We must thank him for Vikram and the Vampire which was published in 1870 – a collection of Indian Hindu tales. He brought us the delights of The Arabian Nights. His interest in eastern erotica led to the English versions of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden.

Isabel Burton in later life

He was knighted in 1886, and this despite all scandals and his open sexual nature. He really cared very little for the prurient Victorian attitude that once led him to his prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. To counteract the inconvenience of that his translations were afterwards privately printed, then distributed to admirers without any fear of legal redress. But later, following his death, and no doubt dreading any more slurs to damage their reputation, Isabel Burton proceeded to burn what remained of her husband’s papers, including those already drawn up for a new translation of The Perfumed Garden in which Burton had wanted to include a chapter on pederasty, otherwise known as the ‘love of boys’.

Isabel and her husband are buried in a Catholic churchyard in West London’s Mortlake, in a tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent. As another reference to the man, the church has a stained glass memorial window, and many of his personal effects, including paintings and photographs, are kept at the Orleans House Gallery which is situated in Twickenham.



Curious Snake Exploring a Skull by Izumi Sukeyuki 

When visiting the 'Death' exhibition at The Wellcome Collection in London, the VV was fascinated to see the macabre use of human skulls in art.

Above is an okimono or 'decorative object' (dated from the nineteenth century and certainly no later than the 1920's) that shows the Buddhist vision of the ongoing existence of the soul. The concept is further enhanced by the use of snake in the skull cavity, for the snake was thought to be reborn every time it shed its skin.

When Shall we Meet Again?

This image from the end of the nineteenth century shows a group of medical dissection students posing for a 'humorous' photograph.

This is a hammered brass and gold trident from nineteenth century Tibet. It represents the Hindu god, Shiva who is almost always depicted as carrying a trident. Shiva is a deity strongly connected with death, rebirth and reincarnation.

La Vie et la Mort

The Death exhibition also has a collection of Memento Mori cards such as La Vie et la Mort, above. 

These images were popular in the Victorian and Edwardian era when they were often produced on postcards. Imagine one dropped in your letter box!

The intention of such greetings cards were to illustrate the 'vanitas' theme, illustrating the biblical quote: 'vanity of vanity; all is vanity' (Ecclesiastes 1). It is a chilling reminder to 'Remember, you must die!' - that all earthly pleasures are nothing more than fleeting illusions of the flesh. But, just in case you try to forget, below are yet more charming scenes -

This image might well very occur on packets of cigars today where the skull and bones themes is reproduced to warn smokers of their mortal risks.

A rather jolly circus theme - or is it simply that a lover is as foolish as a clown to think that the passions of physical love are worth such ardent devotion?

Another somewhat gruesome depiction of two lovers. Be careful not to knock over that candle or the flame of desire will be snuffed out faster than you realise!

A rather jolly sleigh ride. But, ah, the perils of snow and ice will soon take the smiles off their faces.

Two adorable children and a puppy - oh, this is simply too cruel!

And finally, an example again of the perils of our vanity. Beware, dear lady readers. It strikes me that these bottle and pots might conceal some deadly poison!



The VV does love the cover of Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome which is written by Carolyn W. de la L.Oulton and published by Victorian Secrets.

When most of us think of Jerome K. Jerome, it is with Three Men in a Boat in mind - a comical satire on the middle class of which many dramatisations have been made. However, there is much about Jerome K. Jerome's life that has been left unexplored. Working as a humourist, novelist, journalist, essayist and dramatist, Jerome K. Jerome had an 'interesting' attitude to his career and is known for this humorous statement: "I like work. It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours."

The following guest post by Carolyn W. de la. L.Oulton gives a little more insight into the reason for such a statement - and also the flavour of her book - a must for all students of Jermome K. Jerome...


Born in Walsall in 1859, Jerome K. Jerome is of course most famous for his three men and that boat written thirty years later, and Oxford has been dining out on him ever since.

In his lifetime however it was London with which he was most closely associated, causing him to lament on one occasion that: Whenever the superior book-reviewer, sampling a new work of mine, has expended on me all his stock epithets of cad, boor, blackguard, snob, liar, brute, bank-clerk, new humourist, thief, upstart, and suchlike subtle thrusts characteristic of the new criticism, he invariably concludes his “notice” by calling me a “Cockney.” … I have never been a bank-clerk. I have served as clerk in most other offices, but never in a bank. To call me “Cockney” is even more unjust. Meaning from the beginning to be a writer, I took the precaution of selecting my birthplace in a dismal town in the centre of the Staffordshire coalfields, a hundred and fifty miles, at least, away from London.

Jerome moved from Staffordshire to London at the age of three, and his first memories were of a shabby genteel house in Poplar, where his parents scrubbed their own doorstep by night to persuade the neighbours that they kept a servant, while he himself was routinely attacked by street boys (because, his mother assured him, he was a gentleman). His father, also called Jerome Jerome, died in 1871, and after a cursory education at the Marleybone Philological School, the fourteen year old Jerome began work as a clerk for the London and North Western Railway in 1873. Like other Victorian writers he seems to have been propelled by his family into a sensible rather than a congenial career, and after the death of his mother in 1875 he began a more bohemian existence, moving around dingy lodgings in the neighbourhood of Camden, while spending his leisure hours in the stalls of various theatres.

By 1878 he had thrown in his job, much to the horror of his two older sisters, and was acting at Astley’s in a series of minor roles. As he recalled late in life, 'At Euston, I was earning seventy pounds a year, and I might become general manager. I pointed out to them that, instead, I might become London’s leading actor with a theatre of my own. But they only cried.’

What actually happened after the end of the season at Astley’s was that he played supporting roles, including Whittington’s cat, for a string of itinerant companies, before ending up back in London penniless in 1880. For the next few months Jerome was literally living on the streets, before being rescued by an acquaintance, who found him work and quite possibly a lodging. This was 36 Newman Street, Cavendish Square, where Jerome famously met the bank clerk George Wingrave who would take on one of the starring roles in Three Men in a Boat in 1889.

For most of the 1880s Jerome was working on the Strand, as a shorthand writer and solicitor’s clerk. Three Men in a Boat was written in a flat in Chelsea, where he was living with his new wife, but for years after he became famous he continued to work to an exhausting schedule in Arundel Street. It was here that he set up headquarters for two journals in the 1890s, the weekly To-day and the monthly The Idler. Between them these journals managed to capture and in some cases ‘discover’ some impressive writers, including Gissing, Mary Braddon, H. G. Wells and the now less familiar Barry Pain, Israel Zangwill, Pett Ridge and W. W. Jacobs. In their pages Jerome’s team of writers debated topics from who should succeed Tennyson as Poet Laureate, to ‘The Man in Love. Is he ridiculous or sublime in the eyes of the loved one?’

Unfortunately To-day also ran an ill advised series of articles accusing a wealthy industrialist, Samson Fox, of peculation on a grand scale. Unsurprisingly Fox sued, and the prohibitive costs of the defence left Jerome in debt once again by the end of 1897. Bitter and humiliated, he decamped to Germany with his family and when he came back to England in the early 1900s, it was to settle quietly in the Oxfordshire countryside.

But in the last few years of his life, Jerome returned to live in London with his wife. Able once again to live in comfort himself, the cruelty of the city still haunted his imagination. As he put it in his autobiography My Life and Times in 1926, ‘Grim poverty lurks close to its fine thoroughfares, and there are sad, sordid streets within its wealthiest quarters. But about the East End of London there is a menace, a haunting terror that is to be found nowhere else.’

Jerome died on 14 June 1927, and two plaques have since been put up in his memory. One is attached to the large town house in Walsall where he was born before his father’s catastrophic business failure; the other is an English Heritage blue plaque commemorating the writing of Three Men in a Boat at 104 Chelsea Gardens. There is no visual record of his time in the poverty stricken East End of London, what he once called ‘‘the city of the gnomes who labour sadly all their lives, imprisoned underground… deep down below the fairy city’ of the West End.

Dr Carolyn Oulton is a Reader in Victorian Literature and Co-Director of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers at Canterbury Christ Church University. 

Victorian Secrets has published a Kindle version of Three Men in a Boat which can be purchased here.

Victorian Secrets has also published Weeds - a significant departure for Jerome K Jerome, being a disturbing story of sexual corruption in which marital fidelity is a perpetual struggle. It offers a contemporary debate on social degeneration and the emergence of the New Woman.