Isabel Burton

Isabel Burton (born Arundell; 20 March 1831 – 22 March 1896), later known as Lady Burton, was an English writer. She was the wife and partner of explorer, adventurer, and writer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890).

Isabel Burton
Isabel Burton-1861.jpg
Burton in 1861
Isabel Arundell

(1831-03-20)20 March 1831
London, England
Died22 March 1896(1896-03-22) (aged 65)
London, England
Resting placeChurchyard of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake, London, England
Richard Francis Burton (m. 1861⁠–⁠1890)

Early lifeEdit

Isabel Arundell was born in London, England, 20 March 1831. She was the daughter of Hon. Henry Raymond Arundell (1799–1886) of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, nephew of James Everard Arundell (1785–1834), 10th Baron Arundell of Wardour.[1] Her mother, Eliza, was the sister of Robert Tolver Gerard (1808–1887), 13th Baronet of Bryn, Lancashire, and 1st Baron Gerard of Bryn.

Arundell was one of eleven children born into the Wardour family, a respected and well-to-do Roman Catholic family in England. She grew up enmeshed in London society and attended the convent of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, where she excelled as a writer and in theological studies.

During the Crimean War, Arundell was refused three times in her quest to be a "Nightingale nurse" and instead set up a group of 150 like-minded women from Catholic families known as the Stella Club to assist the wives and children of soldiers who had married without permission and for whom the Army took no responsibility. Such women and children were often in dire circumstances at home. Arundell and her group went into the slums of London, against the advice of police, to distribute assistance.[2]


While on a school trip to Boulogne, Arundell first met her future husband, Richard Francis Burton, with whom she claims to have fallen in love immediately, though it would be another four years until their courtship began, and ten years until their marriage. Because of her strict Catholic background, her relationship with Burton caused strains within her family and she ultimately married him against the wishes of her parents. This was to be a major source of pain for her as the years progressed.

Isabel Burton was an intelligent, resourceful and devout woman, but is always seen in the shadow of her husband, one of the most famous of all Victorians. She was a strong supporter and advocate for her husband and assisted him on many of his most significant writings. He has credited her with being his most ardent supporter. He encouraged her to write and she wrote a number of books, including among them a history of their travels in Syria and Palestine, as well as an autobiography, published posthumously. Some scholars believe that Richard Francis Burton himself wrote under her name, though it is unclear.

Isabel Burton is perhaps best known for burning some of his papers and manuscripts after his death, including his revised translation of The Perfumed Garden, which was to be called The Scented Garden, and of which the largest part consisted of the usually unpublished final chapter dealing with pederasty, plus Burton's extensive (and comprehensive) notes on the subject.

In an appendix to her unfinished autobiography,[3] Isabel Burton's posthumous collaborator William Henry Wilkins pointed out that she had a first offer of £6,000 for the manuscript, and moreover that she need never have disclosed her actions at all, or blamed them on her husband. He further claimed that she acted from a sincere belief that "out of a thousand men who read the work, 15 would read it in the scientific spirit in which it was written, and the other 985 solely for filth's sake", and feared that publication would blight, not her husband's worldly reputation – for his interest in the subject was notorious – but, by tempting others to sin, his prospects in the world to come.[4]

Last yearsEdit

Sir Richard and Lady Burton's Tomb in Mortlake, south west London

In spite of pain from cancer, Lady Burton finished a two-volume biography of her husband, titled Richard, The Life of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, which was published on 11 July 1893.[5] Her own autobiography she completed with the help of W. H. Wilkins. The Romance of Isabel Burton was published in 1897.[5]

Lady Burton moved to Eastbourne in September 1895 and returned to London in March 1896. She died in London on 22 March.[5] Her body and that of her husband lie in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake in south west London, in an elaborate tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent which she designed.[6] The coffins of Sir Richard and Lady Burton can be seen through a window at the rear of the tent, which can be accessed via a short fixed ladder. Next to the lady chapel in the church there is a memorial stained-glass window to Sir Richard, erected by Lady Burton.


  • The inner life of Syria, Palestine, and the Holy Land: from my private journal. London: H.S. King & Co., 1875.
  • Arabia, Egypt, India: a narrative of travel. London: W. Mullan and Son, 1879.
  • Prevention of cruelty, and anti-vivisection. London: William Mullan, 1879.
  • The revival of Christianity in Syria: its miracles and martyrdoms. London: E. Stanford, 187-?.
  • Iracema, the honey lips: a legend of Brasil by José de Alencar. Translated by Lady Isabel Burton. London: Bickers & Son, 1886. (New York: Luso-Brazilian Books, 2006. ISBN 0-85051-524-6)
  • Lady Burton's edition of her husband's Arabian nights: translated literally from the Arabic by Sir Richard Francis Burton. London: Waterlow, 1886–1887.
  • The life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton. London: Chapman & Hall, 1893.
  • The romance of Isabel, Lady Burton, the story of her life. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1897
  • The passion-play at Ober-Ammergau. London: Hutchinson, 1900.

In popular cultureEdit

Fiona Shaw portrayed her in the 1990 movie Mountains of the Moon.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Lovell, Mary S. A Rage to Live, W.W. Norton, 1998
  2. ^ Rappaport, Helen (2008). No Place for Ladies. Oakhill Publishing Limited. ISBN 1846483727.
  3. ^ Appendix Archived 26 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Wilkins, W. H. (1897). The Romance of Isabel Burton. London.
  5. ^ a b c "After Sir Richard Burton's death". Local history notes – Sir Richard and Lady Isabel Burton. London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Retrieved 11 October 2012.
  6. ^ Cherry, Bridget and Pevsner, Nikolaus (1983). The Buildings of England – London 2: South. London: Penguin Books. p. 513. ISBN 0 14 0710 47 7.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

Further informationEdit

External linksEdit