Jon R. Godsall The tangled web - a life of Sir Richard Burton. 
Matador, 2008, 576 pp £ 8.99. ISBN: 978-1906510-428


For more than 20 years Jon Godsall studied documented evidence on the many faceted life of Richard Burton - soldier, explorer, traveller, scholar, linguist, anthropologist, swordsman and copious author.  Taking his title from the poem of Burton's The Kasidah1, in 2008 Godsall published his work with Matador, the self-publishers. 


With 429 pages of text with extensive notes, comprehensive bibliographic data and an author index, this book incorporates the known facts on Burton.  There are also 16 pages of illustrations and 4 very good maps, made by the author, of the main explorations. 


Although much is already published on Burton, Godsall unearthed interesting previously unknown data which is to be seen here for the first time. This included Foreign Office documents relating to Burton's consular activities and material held in the Royal Asiatic Society, in particular correspondence in the Oscar Eckenstein Collection between Eckenstein and Burton's first bibliographer N. M. Penzer.  New material came to light when in 1981 Godsall enjoyed a meeting with Mrs. Dorothy Flemming - great-niece of Isabel Burton.  Present day descendents of Burton also provided useful leads.  Making good use of these encounters, Godsall has managed to draw the past and the present closer together.


Godsalls overall style is factual. He examines events about and sayings of Burton and questions their truthfulness and offers his own interpretations. By looking at things from the stance that 'The biographer does not trust his witnesses living or dead'2, Godsall turned the nature of The Tangled Web into a biographical enquiry. 


Burton had a larger than life, many sided personality and countless achievements.   While in no way demeaning these achievements, Godsall looks at the contradictions between published facts and what he thinks really was the case.  He challenges the authenticity of the accepted finer details surrounding Burton's life.  For example, Burton maintained that he passed his Arabic exam but there is evidence that he did not - although in itself this matters little, bearing in mind the superlative annotated translations of The Arabian Nights and other works that he made. 


A controversial figure, Burton was not shy to write about things which were taboo at the time.  There are certain ambiguities surrounding his interest in sex, both from his former liaisons with women, his marriage to Isabel Arundell and his writings on male sexuality.  The latter date back to his early time in the army in India when Burton, being the only available British officer who could speak Sindi, was given the job of reporting on the situation of male brothels in Karachi. In this context Godsall brings in the work of the biographer Fawn Brodie in her book The Devil Drives.  He makes damning criticism of what he sees as Brodie's incorrect analysis and misrepresentations of the situation, which have been accepted by later biographers. 


An interesting point can be construed about first edition of Burtons book First Footsteps in East Africa.   Appendix 4 of that book talked about female circumcision and, even though it was written in Latin to try and avoid a problem with the censors, it was not included by the publisher when it came out in 1856.  However, Fawn Brodie did find and purchase what she thought was a unique copy with 2 pages bound into it of the Appendix IV.   This she made available to Gordon Waterfield who included it as Appendix 2 of his 1966, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London publication.   From text and notes in The Tangled Web the pieces of this jigsaw can be fitted together.  Two pages out of four of the original Appendix IV can be seen on the Burtoniana website.


In 1861 Isabel Arundell and Richard Burton were married after a courtship of several years.  Theirs may seem an unlikely match coming as they did from different social planes and with widely differing views on religion.  Sometimes it may look as if Isabel was dominated by her husband and certainly she did all she could that he asked of her, but she always maintained her own strong opinions.   Godsall is not the only biographer to condemn Isabel's burning, shortly after his death, of many of Richard Burton's unpublished writings and other documents - in particular his translation of The Scented Garden.  Some detail is given about Isabel's repulsion of some papers of K.H. Ulrichs's (pseudonym 'Numa Numantius') Memnon with its treatment of homosexual love which would have been included at the head of The Scented Garden if it had reached publication. 


Little further information appears in this work on three well researched areas of Burton's pilgrimage to Mecca, his journey to the forbidden city of Harar, previously unvisited by Europeans, or his search with Speke for the Nile.  Several biographers, Godsall included, report being attracted to the life of Burton after seeing the BBC Series of 1971 on the 'Search for the Nile'.  Unfortunately this does not appear to have been released by the BBC although many people would like to see it.


The Tangled Web encompasses a vast area and includes a great deal of biographical data.  While reading, it helps to continually appreciate the text both from close range, for  fine detail, and from a wider perspective, to follow the broad overall picture of Burton's life.   The references to the many notes are shown numerically by Chapter Number at the end of the text of the book.  For checking out these notes, it would have been helpful to the reader if the written title headings at the top of each page of text had included the Chapter Number too, as is often the custom when there are copious notes.


This study will be a most useful tool for any wanting to know about the life of Richard Burton, not only for its perspective per se but also the successful way it has introduced leads to other available biographical data. It is significant that it was chosen as Book of the Month by Geographical, the Royal Geographical Society's own magazine, for its February 2009 issue.


Kathleen Ladizesky

9 July 2009



[1]. R. F. Burton, The Kasidah, Canto VI, stanza iv

            As palace mirror'd in the stream

               as vapour mingled in the skies

            So weaves the brain of mortal man

              the tangled web of Truth and Lies 


[2]. P.M. Kendall, The Art of Biography, London 1965 p. 22