Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights

Sir Richard Francis Burton has often been described in his own lifetime as ‘the most interesting figure of the 19th century’. Bold to a fault, Burton travelled to Mecca and  Medina, he entered the forbidden African city of Harrar, explored the African Great Lakes, and shocked his readers with his candid travel accounts, replete with details about the sexual customs of the peoples he encountered.

Despite these adventures, Burton is probably best remembered for his translation of Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, commonly known as the Arabian Nights. These Arabic tales, cherished in Europe since the early 18th century, are often erotic in content, and in Burton’s unexpurgated translation they outraged Victorian England. Burton included numerous footnotes and a scholarly apparatus, offering a vivid picture of Arabian life, which set his translation apart from earlier English renderings. The work was first printed in 1885-1888 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies by the ‘Kama Shastra Society’, a bogus society founded by Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot to publish (semi-)erotic Arabic and Indian texts.

At the London International Book Fair (24-26 May) Forum Rare Books (the Netherlands) will exhibit a set of this first edition, which includes a 4-page autograph letter signed by Isabel Burton to “Mr Heath” concerning subscribers of the Arabian Nights who haven’t paid yet. Since it is “quite impossible for a lady to ask for money”, Ms Burton urges her correspondent “to write and ask those who have not paid, if they would mind sending by return of post a cheque for the whole ten guineas [the price for the first 10 volumes], or returning me the 1st Vol intact”.

Isabel Arundell, longing for a wild and roving life, married Burton in 1861. She acted as his agent, wrote a number of books on her own account, and was responsible for the financial success of the Arabian Nights. She was an unconventional and intelligent woman, editing many of her Burton’s works. Yet, as she writes in the present letter, she “was not allowed to read” her husband’s Arabian Nights.

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