Until about 50 years ago George Borrow was still quite widely read but he seems to be almost unknown today; a pity, I think, for he has an utterly distinctive voice and his books repay the reading. He was born at East Dereham, in Norfolk, in 1803 and as a young man was articled to a solicitor in Norwich. In the early 1820s he went to London and tried to make a living in Grub Street, but meeting with little success he started, in 1826, to wander through rural England and the Continent. He then became an agent for the Bible Society, which took him first to Russia and then to Spain, where he travelled widely between 1835 and 1839. His book The Bible in Spain is among the classic travel writings of the nineteenth century. In 1840 he married a widow older than himself and settled at Oulton Broad in Norfolk, where he lived until his death in 1881.
The two books reviewed here were Borrow's attempt to follow up the success of The Bible in Spain. Their titles are taken from the Romany: "Lavengro" means "wordmaster" and "Rye" means a young gentleman. This reflects Borrow's fascination with the Gypsies and their language, and indeed with languages in general; he was a self-taught philologist. In Borrow's time the Gypsies still preserved a fair amount of their original language and customs.
Though published separately, the two books really constitute a single work with a continuous narrative and need to be read together. They are impossible to classify. They take the form of autobiography, but they also contain fictional elements: long interwoven passages in which various characters narrate their life stories, sometimes at excessive length. There are also lengthy (and tedious) debates with a Catholic priest described as The Man In Black; Borrow was a rabid anticatholic. The interspersed narratives contain coincidences of staggering improbability by which one character unknowingly relates to another, often over long stretches of time. Certain individuals recur at intervals throughout, notably Jasper Petulengro (meaning blacksmith), an amateur boxer who is a kind of blood brother to Borrow; the pair meet when they are young boys.
The work has two main sections, which do not correspond to the division marked by the titles. In the first we get a more or less factual account of the author's early years as his father's profession of soldiering took the family to Edinburgh and Ireland among other places. His years in London also form part of this first section. The second, and more interesting, portion of the narrative describes the author's departure from London, as a result of some unspecified health breakdown (perhaps an episode of depression) and his travels as a tinker through a pre-industrial English countryside. Adventures now come thick and fast. He fights and defeats a notorious roughneck known as the Flaming Tinman; he is poisoned, almost fatally, by a Gypsy woman who resents his knowing the secrets of her tribe; he meets up again with his friend and blood brother Mr Petulengro; and there is a romantic interlude in which he shares his campsite with a gigantic and pugilistic blonde called Isopel Berners. She is clearly in love with him and wants him to go with her to America; he nearly does so, but his inner reserve, and even a certain emotional coldness, leads to his final refusal. His defence against emotional closeness is to teach the unfortunate girl Armenian, until at last she is reduced to tears.
Critics in Borrow's day were unkind about his writing, complaining of his style, or lack of it. In fact, he is a penny plain writer, not a tuppence coloured one; you don't find those purple passages of description that were thought to be the mark of "style" at the time. In other words, he is closer to Defoe than to De Quincy. His interest in philology and in foreign countries have suggested to some a similarity to Sir Richard Burton, and it does seem a pity that his attempts to find work that would take him abroad in later life came to nothing. As it is, he gives us a vivid sense of rural England in the early nineteenth century, and the story provides plenty of interest and character, especially after Borrow leaves London. These are good reasons to read Borrow; but perhaps the best is simply the wish to savour the personality of one of the most unusual people to have written in English in the last two hundred years. Borrow, in short, was a genuine original, who saw the world as no one else has seen it. I agree with Thomas Seccombe, who writes in his Introduction that, with all their faults, Lavengro and The Romany Rye are very great books. A short extract will give a flavour of Borrow's writing:
"What is your opinion of death, Mr Petulengro?" said I, as I sat down beside him
"My opinion of death, brother, is [that] when a man dies, he is cast into the earth, and his wife and child sorrow over him. If he has neither wife nor child, then his father and mother, I suppose; and if he is quite alone in the world, why, then, he is cast into the earth, and that is an end of the matter."
"And do you think that is the end of man?"
"There's an end of him, brother, more's the pity."
"Why do you say so?"
"Life is sweet."
"Do you think so?"
"Think so! - There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"
"I would wish to die - "
"You talk like a gorgio - which is the same as talking like a fool - were you a Rommany Chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed! - a Rommany Chal would wish to live for ever."
"In sickness, Jasper?"
"There's the sun and the stars, brother."
"In blindness, Jasper?"
"There's the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever. Dosta, we'll now go to the tents and put on the gloves; and I'll try to make you feel what a sweet thing it is to be alive, brother!"