If Louis Blake Duff is to be believed, Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby ‘missed by a hair’s breadth getting into the main channels of history’. This is short-sighted and Dr John W. Hawkins’ impressive new book well and truly rebukes the notion.
It would be fair to say that, like many figures celebrated in their time through a grasp of the zeitgeist and a powerful personality, Frederick Gustavus Burnaby’s reputation has not worn well. Despite being the subject of six biographies, the most recent biographical work on Burnaby was released nearly sixty years ago and there has been very little since.
Born in 1842, he lived during an age of empire and exceptional British achievement. From a comfortable, albeit unremarkable Bedfordshire family, Burnaby grew up to become part of the Prince of Wales’ circle. He founded the first British version of Vanity Fair with Thomas Gibson Bowles (although he was pressured to give this up), and corresponded regularly with The Times. He was a seasoned soldier who, at six feet four inches, was reputed to be the strongest man in the British army. He helped Lord Randolph Churchill found the Primrose league, recognised that the future of aviation lay in heavier than air flight, and manned the first solo hot air balloon flight across the channel. Taking these achievements separately, Duff’s assessment is sensible – Burnaby’s individual successes were overshadowed by others. But as a taken as a whole, Burnaby’s reach and influence was extraordinarily impressive. Through Hawkins research, Burnaby becomes the paradigm figure of his time.
Aside from some documents (used in previous biographies, but not printed in full) that have now sadly been lost and/or destroyed, The Collected Letters and Speeches of Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby is a two volume work that offers all known documentation relating to Burnaby’s life – from letters and speeches to journal articles, war reports and Music Hall ballads. There is new material in the shape of unpublished private correspondence and letters written to newspapers that were not previously attributed to him and a concise introduction that serves as potted biography. It is the most comprehensive collection of primary literature relating to Burnaby to date.
The first book traces Burnaby’s life up until 1878 and is split into six clear sections. Part One looks at Burnaby’s life up until 1878. Part Two and Three cover his letters and speeches respectively. Part Four presents other writings, and Part Five is dedicated to sketches, extracts and obituaries. At nearly five hundred pages long, it is a long book. Thankfully, the diary-like chronology and Hawkins’ exciting prose keeps the reader interested. A minor gripe would be the lack of glossy images, black and white prints are used sparing throughout the volume, but it would have been nice to have a something visual to reflect upon.
Hawkins’ book is a welcome addition to Victorian historiography. Not only does Fred come alive through the astonishing collection of sources, but we are left in no doubt that he has been terribly overlooked. We encounter a man who was far more than just a soldier, traveller and controversialist. Hawkins reveals Burnaby to be nothing if not complex – he used his pen to both record the number he had killed in Sudan in a ‘game book’, and craft riveting and colourful memoirs about his expeditions. Burnaby was an exceptionally well-connected man whose life that bled into the wider themes of the age. In Hawkins, Burnaby has found an historian to do him justice. I look forward to Volume 2.