Tag Archives: fawn brodie

Recent read: The Devil Drives, by Fawn Brodie

Having spent our Pageant of Democracy at the coast (in Oregon, that’s how we say “the beach”), I needed a good read. If I had been doing the ideal thing, I’d have finished reading the book about marketing editing services. Instead I brought along this book, a biography of Sir Richard Burton.

Introductions are in order. Brodie was a UCLA history professor who wrote several biographies, notably one of Joseph Smith. I had read that one and thought it rather good, though the LDS Church doesn’t seem to have shared my opinion. In my estimation, she is credible. As for Burton, he was an 1800s English philologist, foreign service officer, explorer, and researcher of human sexuality. Some called him a cad, but no one called him dull.

Burton had a great natural flair for learning languages, eventually mastering about twenty-five with another fifteen dialects. He spoke Arabic well enough to infiltrate Mecca despite not being a Muslim, which would have gotten him a messy punishment in case of discovery. He quarreled with the British Foreign Office, fellow explorers, other researchers, and anyone who tried to boss him around. He visited Utah in the early 1860s, and Brodie (a native of Ogden) calls his book on the LDS community the best study of its time. I’d think she should know.

As for human sexuality, Burton picked an unreceptive time and place to discuss it. Wherever he went, he studied sexual practices and beliefs. Much of his work in that area scandalized much of his home country (in which he lived very little of his actual life), and much of it we will never see, because his fanatically religious wife incinerated a large amount of his unpublished work and diaries after his death. The effect was to attach to Burton an air of amorality, but his real sin was not to study sexuality and publish his findings. His real sin was not to appear properly ashamed and embarrassed about doing so. For that, the court of public opinion crucified him.

Brodie didn’t write nearly as many biographies as I wish she would have, probably thanks to her thoroughness and urgent need for a passionate interest in her subject. This one’s a winner. Recommended.