Review of “The Devil Drives: A life of Sir Richard Burton” by Fawn M. Brodie

In this fascinating and adventurous biography, Brodie tells an extraordinary story of one of the 19th century’s most interesting men, Sir Richard Francis Burton.  Burton was a writer, scientist, soldier, Oxford student, raconteur, sword fighter, explorer, and exceptional linguist. “Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause; He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”[i]

In his early childhood his parents moved the family several times from France to Italy, to England, and back to Italy. His father knew if Richard were to make it in life he would need the aid of aristocratic peers and friends and sent him off to college at Oxford. Burton eventually grew to know 29 different languages, but failed an honors test at Oxford for reciting the more difficult Romaic form of Greek rather than the ancient.

As a writer and linguist, Burton produced a 16-volume translation of a collection of West and South Asian stories known in English as Arabian Nights. “He took to languages in India as other men to liquor, intoxicated by the sense of mastery and the exhilaration of unlocking mysteries.[ii]” In 1884, while in the twilight of his years, he also wrote a world-renowned book about sword fighting, The Book of the Sword.

Had Antarctica or the North Pole been discovered, Burton would have sought passage to explore it. He lived in Northern India in the British Army working as an undercover agent for General Charles Napier,  and he was the first European to enter the Moslem holy cities of Medina, Mecca and Harar, having disguised himself by rubbing walnut oil on his face. He explored the deserts and jungles of Eastern Africa and found the source of the Nile River. He explored North America in the area of what is now Salt Lake City Utah (also the alma mater of the author). He explored South America in Brazil, he refused to hunt with anything other than falcons, he maintained two different diaries for over 40 years(one for his thoughts and the other for pure observation), and was knighted by the Queen of England – truly, he was the most interesting man of the 19th century.

To attempt to describe such a life in detail is, to say the least, adventurous. There are eleven other volumes written about Burton and The Devil Drives: a life of Sir Richard Burton is considered to be the most ambitiously thorough and unbiased.   Brodie uses Burton’s private diaries (limited as they were due to his wife Isabel burning the vast majority of them after his death in an effort to “protect his reputation”) and other primary literature written by Burton obtained through the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain and the Royal Anthropological Society(Burton himself was a founder).  She chronologically weaves together intriguing adventures and short stories of his life and references Burton’s contemporaries, such as John Hanning Speke and David Livingstone, to provide local historical contexts.  For example, when describing the pursuit of locating the source of the Nile taken on by explorers and leaders of nations throughout the ages, she concludes that at least in the 19th century, men whom have lost women they dearly loved are somehow inspired to try and find the source of Africa’s longest river – questioning if the river itself has mystical feminine qualities and attraction. For Burton, this was the death of his mother.

Burton and Speke were great companions and friends, and upon returning to England after the expedition to find the source of the White Nile, Burton denies that it was actually found, creating a rift between them and a public controversy that continues to this day. Brodie creates inroads to understanding the deeper relationship between Burton and John Speke on several occasions and in the end, chooses not to confirm Speke’s death was accidental. While she does not directly mention suicide, she writes regarding Speke’s death during a hunting expedition, “suicide is a supreme act of hate, often directed against someone one has loved[iii]”.

Tempting as it may have been for Brodie to explore the wider global historical context of this Renaissance man living in the 19th century, she aptly avoids it in exchange for limiting the scope of the book and providing greater focus on specific details.  Brodie concludes that the “Devil” driving Burton is not a mystical, religiously fabricated beast, but instead is a vestige of the admiration by his mother of her wild half-brother. Burton’s grandfather was to leave behind a great fortune to his children one of whom was his son, Richard Bark, born of a previous marriage. However, his grandfather much enjoyed Burton to the “wild half-brother…barrister-at-law who refused a judgeship in Australia, and died a soap-boiler[iv]” and it is Burton’s belief that had his mother not stopped his grandfather from completing his will (shortly thereafter his grandfather died) Burton would have received this share.




[i] Sir Richard Burton, “The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi”, 1880, verse VIII

[ii] Fawn M Brodie, “The Devil Drives: A life of Sir Richard Burton”, W.W. Norton, New York, 1967, pg. 50

[iii] ibid. pg. 226

[iv] ibid. pg. 22

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