Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Rage to Live and steampunk fantasy and reality!

A Rage to Live.  A biography of
Richard and Isabel Burton.
by Mary S. Lovell.

Burton &Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.   
 By Mark Hodder

Yet again I have been a neglectful blogger, so this is a another catch up on recent reading.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was a book I had been eagerly looking forward to and it did not disappoint.  A Steampunk sci-fi, it makes good use of intrinsic time travel dilemmas and paradoxes to create an alternative reality in which Hodder can play out steampunk fantasies within the confines of a plausible logic. The novel is perhaps not perfect, but it is certainly one of the better recent additions to what is  a growing body of work within  the genre. Over a skeleton of plausible fact, Hodder builds an entertaining story, but the use of very real historical figures can also be a little jarring at times and requires some effort from the reader to accept these fictionalised, mythologised characterisations.

In essence the novel occurs in an alternative history where Queen Victoria has been assassinated and Albert is on the throne.  Richard Burton rather than pursuing a diplomatic career is appointed as a special agent to investigate strange mysteries, hence his involvement with the mystery of spring heeled Jack.  Jack is of course a real figure in British urban mythology, his identity was never discovered and he may in fact have been more than one person. Hodder makes great use of this very real historical mystery to weave the framework of his alternative history, other historical icons abound in this sci-fi tale where steam technology  moves beyond the limitations of its time.  Technology and Eugenics (or rather genetic engineering), explode in possibility, new animals are  breed or evolved like the entertaining, 'messenger parakeets', who swear prolifically when delivering messages.  Steam engineering exceeds it's historical limitations and coal powered vehicles abound, including the invention of primitive helicopters, while Brunel builds the first  geo-thermal power plant, well before its time.  Hodder explains this exceptional technological progress in terms of a time travel paradox, to say much more, will give away to much of the plot.

Hodder's use of Richard Burton and Charles Algernon Swinburne as heroes is inspired, if ever a historical figure was suited to adoption by a steampunk adventure it is Sir Richard Francis Burton, explorer, adventurer, linguist extraordinaire.  Swinburne also makes for an interesting characterisation, the diminutive poet is a nice opposition to the masculine and dramatic Burton and the two men were in real life friends. It was however, some of the other characters that I did find a  bit of challenge to accept, at least initially.  Oscar Wilde features, but not the Oscar known to history and literature, in Hodder's universe Oscar is a child in London after having fled the Irish famine.  He appears as a paper boy who Burton christens with the nick name Quips and many of Wilde's famous lines issue from Quips' precocious mouth, while this is an interesting ploy I, did at first struggle with this use of Wilde.  Many of the other characters are also very real historical figures and the novel begins by recounting one very real dramatic adventure from the life of Burton, the attack in Somalia that left him seriously scared as a result of being speared through the face.  From this point onwards Hodder changes Burton's story to fit the demands of his narrative.  Isabel Arundel,the woman destined to become Burton's wife  appears at the start of the novel but Hodder manages to push her out of the story, (I hope this is only temporary and Isabell will re-appear in later novels, the possibility for further appearances certainly exists).  Other figures also make appearances, from Darwin to Brunel, Hodder utilises the icons of the age with some effect, and many of the characters are in fact very real historical figures, including the women who were in fact the victims of spring heeled Jacks rather odd and disturbing attacks.

Like Scott Westerfield,(Leviathan),  Hodder has played with both history and science fiction in  creating this great new fantasy.  Like Westerfield, he has created the twin disciplines of technology and genetics to feed and drive his narrative, the view he creates of an alternative 19th century is imaginative, creative and entertaining, furthermore, his story is more mature and adult in its outlook, than Westerfield's.  Ultimately it is just outrageously good fun. 

One of the side effects of reading a novel that takes the bulk of its cast of characters from history is that of course it leads you into further reading in order to satisfy the curiosity that the original work sparked and this is what lead me to seek out a biography of Richard Francis Burton himself.  A Rage to Live is the somewhat lengthy biography of both Richard and his equally interesting partner Isabel, that I found in the local public library.  It was a rather daunting book to start and when I did start it I wondered if I would persevere and read it all the way through, I needn't have worried, Burton's life reads like something straight from the pages of a Boys Own adventure and combined with the romance of genuinely loving relationship with an equally interesting woman the work was a compelling read.
This is the only biog of Burton I have read and so find it a little difficult to comment on the validity of Lovell's interpretation of their story.  From the text I gather there is considerable controversy surrounding Burton and Isabel.  Her destruction of some of his papers after his death left something of a shadow on her reputation and many biographers have speculated about both their marriage and Burton's sexual orientation but Lovell does present a very convincing portrait of one of the great men of the age and a convincing portrait of a loving couple.  Lovell clearly developed considerable affection for her subjects and while she aims for objectivity, she does seem a little in awe of them.

The book presents an account of their lives including Richard's time in the army in India, his early,  fascination with languages and cultures foreign to him.  Lovell describes his remarkable ability to blend in, his fondness for disguises and his fascination with all aspects of cultures new to him, including sexual mores.  Episodes like his historic Hajj and his early exploration of Africa, including the infamous trip with Speke to find the source of the Nile, are fully recounted and they make for great reading.  Burton emerges as a remarkable, if a somewhat self destructive figure.  Isabel is no less compelling in her determination to spend her life with this unusual man.  Later sections of the book deal with their lives together while Richard pursued a  career as a Consul in a variety of postings, towards the end a posting to Trieste, largely designed to keep him out of trouble.  The later part of the book also covers the translations that resulted in Burton's enduring fame; Thousand Nights and one, and the Karma Sutra.

I must admit I did struggle a little with the last hundred odd pages, certainly the tragedy of Isabel's loss of the man she loved was sad, but then all biographies must end with a death, and her struggle to protect his reputation was really no less compelling than the earlier parts of the book, perhaps the work could have benefited from some tighter editing and a more concise account of those final years for the participants in Lovell's history.  Overall A Rage to Live was a great read, what a good biography really should be, it bought to life the biographer's subjects, illuminating them in clear, if essentially kind light.  I enjoyed it very much.

I note that Hodder has begun a trilogy featuring Burton and Swinburne, The Strange affair of Spring Heeled Jack, is just the first book in the series, the next entitled, The Curious case of the clockwork Man is now sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention and as soon as the third is available it to will find a place on my TBR shelf, their can be no greater praise really than that.  Perhaps, too a biography of Swinburne is on my horizon, reading does that, it creates webs of connection that expand exponentially out, one book leading to another and on and on, ad infinitum, with fiction arousing curiosity that must be satisfied.

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