George Borrow - The Man and His Books
by Edward Thomas
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Transcribed from the 1912 Chapman & Hall edition by David Price, email







Printed by JAS. TRUSCOTT AND SON, LTD., London, E.C.

{picture: George Borrow, (From the painting by H. W. Phillips, R.A., in the possession of Mr. John Murray, by whose kind permission the picture is reproduced.): page0.jpg}


The late Dr. W. I. Knapp's Life (John Murray) and Mr. Watts-Dunton's prefaces are the fountains of information about Borrow, and I have clearly indicated how much I owe to them. What I owe to my friend, Mr. Thomas Seccombe, cannot be so clearly indicated, but his prefaces have been meat and drink to me. I have also used Mr. R. A. J. Walling's sympathetic and interesting "George Borrow." The British and Foreign Bible Society has given me permission to quote from Borrow's letters to the Society, edited in 1911 by the Rev. T. H. Darlow; and Messrs. T. C. Cantrill and J. Pringle have put at my disposal their publication of Borrow's journal of his second Welsh tour, wonderfully annotated by themselves ("Y Cymmrodor," 1910). These and other sources are mentioned where they are used and in the bibliography.



By dedicating this book to you, I believe it is my privilege to introduce you and Borrow. This were sufficient reason for the dedication. The many better reasons are beyond my eloquence, much though I have remembered them this winter, listening to the storms of Caermarthen Bay, the screams of pigs, and the street tunes of "Fall in and follow me," "Yip-i-addy," and "The first good joy that Mary had."




The subject of this book was a man who was continually writing about himself, whether openly or in disguise. He was by nature inclined to thinking about himself and when he came to write he naturally wrote about himself; and his inclination was fortified by the obvious impression made upon other men by himself and by his writings. He has been dead thirty years; much has been written about him by those who knew him or knew those that did: yet the impression still made by him, and it is one of the most powerful, is due mainly to his own books. Nor has anything lately come to light to provide another writer on Borrow with an excuse. The impertinence of the task can be tempered only by its apparent hopelessness and by that necessity which Voltaire did not see.

I shall attempt only a re-arrangement of the myriad details accessible to all in the writings of Borrow and about Borrow. Such re-arrangement will sometimes heighten the old effects and sometimes modify them. The total impression will, I hope, not be a smaller one, though it must inevitably be softer, less clear, less isolated, less gigantic. I do not wish, and I shall not try, to deface Borrow's portrait of himself; I can only hope that I shall not do it by accident. There may be a sense in which that portrait can be called inaccurate. It may even be true that "lies—damned lies" {1} helped to make it. But nobody else knows anything like as much about the truth, and a peddling biographer's mouldy fragment of plain fact may be far more dangerous than the manly lying of one who was in possession of all the facts. In most cases the fact—to use an equivocal term—is dead and blown away in dust while Borrow's impression is as green as grass. His "lies" are lies only in the same sense as all clothing is a lie.

For example, he knew a Gypsy named Ambrose Smith, and had sworn brotherhood with him as a boy. He wrote about this Gypsy, man and boy, and at first called him, as the manuscripts bear witness, by his real name, though Borrow thought of him in 1842 as Petulengro. In print he was given the name Jasper Petulengro—Petulengro being Gypsy for shoesmith—and as Jasper Petulengro he is now one of the most unforgetable of heroes; the name is the man, and for many Englishmen his form and character have probably created quite a new value for the name of Jasper. Well, Jasper Petulengro lives. Ambrose Smith died in 1878, at the age of seventy-four, after being visited by the late Queen Victoria at Knockenhair Park: he was buried in Dunbar Cemetery. {2}

In the matter of his own name Borrow made another creative change of a significant kind. He was christened George Henry Borrow on July 17th (having been born on the 5th), 1803, at East Dereham, in Norfolk. As a boy he signed his name, George Henry Borrow. As a young man of the Byronic age and a translator of Scandinavian literature, he called himself in print, George Olaus Borrow. His biographer, Dr. William Ireland Knapp, says that Borrow's first name "expressed the father's admiration for the reigning monarch," George III.; but there is no reason to believe this, and certainly Borrow himself made of the combination which he finally adopted—George Borrow—something that retains not the slightest flavour of any other George. Such changes are common enough. John Richard Jefferies becomes Richard Jefferies; Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson becomes Robert Louis Stevenson. But Borrow could touch nothing without transmuting it. For example, in his Byronic period, when he was about twenty years of age, he was translating "romantic ballads" from the Danish. In the last verse of one of these, called "Elvir Hill," he takes the liberty of using the Byronic "lay":

'Tis therefore I counsel each young Danish swain who may ride in the forest so dreary, Ne'er to lay down upon lone Elvir Hill though he chance to be ever so weary.

Twenty years later he used this ballad romantically in writing about his early childhood. He was travelling with his father's regiment from town to town and from school to school, and they came to Berwick-upon-Tweed: {3}

"And it came to pass that, one morning, I found myself extended on the bank of a river. It was a beautiful morning of early spring; small white clouds were floating in the heaven, occasionally veiling the countenance of the sun, whose light, as they retired, would again burst forth, coursing like a racehorse over the scene—and a goodly scene it was! Before me, across the water, on an eminence, stood a white old city, surrounded with lofty walls, above which rose the tops of tall houses, with here and there a church or steeple. To my right hand was a long and massive bridge, with many arches and of antique architecture, which traversed the river. The river was a noble one; the broadest that I had hitherto seen. Its waters, of a greenish tinge, poured with impetuosity beneath the narrow arches to meet the sea, close at hand, as the boom of the billows breaking distinctly upon a beach declared. There were songs upon the river from the fisher-barks; and occasionally a chorus, plaintive and wild, such as I had never heard before, the words of which I did not understand, but which at the present time, down the long avenue of years, seem in memory's ear to sound like 'Horam, coram, dago.' Several robust fellows were near me, some knee-deep in water, employed in hauling the seine upon the strand. Huge fish were struggling amidst the meshes—princely salmon—their brilliant mail of blue and silver flashing in the morning beam; so goodly and gay a scene, in truth, had never greeted my boyish eye.

"And, as I gazed upon the prospect, my bosom began to heave, and my tears to trickle. Was it the beauty of the scene which gave rise to these emotions? Possibly; for though a poor ignorant child—a half-wild creature—I was not insensible to the loveliness of nature, and took pleasure in the happiness and handiworks of my fellow-creatures. Yet, perhaps, in something more deep and mysterious the feeling which then pervaded me might originate. Who can lie down on Elvir Hill without experiencing something of the sorcery of the place? Flee from Elvir Hill, young swain, or the maids of Elle will have power over you, and you will go elf-wild!—so say the Danes. I had unconsciously laid myself down on haunted ground; and I am willing to imagine that what I then experienced was rather connected with the world of spirits and dreams than with what I actually saw and heard around me. Surely the elves and genii of the place were conversing, by some inscrutable means, with the principle of intelligence lurking within the poor uncultivated clod! Perhaps to that ethereal principle the wonders of the past, as connected with that stream, the glories of the present, and even the history of the future, were at that moment being revealed! Of how many feats of chivalry had those old walls been witness, when hostile kings contended for their possession?—how many an army from the south and from the north had trod that old bridge?—what red and noble blood had crimsoned those rushing waters?—what strains had been sung, ay, were yet being sung on its banks?—some soft as Doric reed; some fierce and sharp as those of Norwegian Skaldaglam; some as replete with wild and wizard force as Finland's runes, singing of Kalevale's moors, and the deeds of Woinomoinen! Honour to thee, thou island stream! Onward mayst thou ever roll, fresh and green, rejoicing in thy bright past, thy glorious present, and in vivid hope of a triumphant future! Flow on, beautiful one!—which of the world's streams canst thou envy, with thy beauty and renown? Stately is the Danube, rolling in its might through lands romantic with the wild exploits of Turk, Polak, and Magyar! Lovely is the Rhine! on its shelvy banks grows the racy grape; and strange old keeps of robber-knights of yore are reflected in its waters, from picturesque crags and airy headlands!—yet neither the stately Danube, nor the beauteous Rhine, with all their fame, though abundant, needst thou envy, thou pure island stream!—and far less yon turbid river of old, not modern renown, gurgling beneath the walls of what was once proud Rome, towering Rome, Jupiter's town, but now vile Rome, crumbling Rome, Batuscha's town, far less needst thou envy the turbid Tiber of bygone fame, creeping sadly to the sea, surcharged with the abominations of modern Rome—how unlike to thee, thou pure island stream!"

In this passage Borrow concentrates upon one scene the feelings of three remote periods of his life. He gives the outward scene as he remembers it forty years after, and together with the thoughts which now come into his mind. He gives the romantic suggestion from one of the favourite ballads of his youth, "Elvir Hill." He gives the child himself weeping, he knows not why. Yet the passage is one and indivisible.

These, at any rate, are not "lies—damned lies."


Borrow's principal study was himself, and in all his best books he is the chief subject and the chief object. Yet when he came to write confessedly and consecutively about himself he found it no easy task. Dr. Knapp gives an interesting account of the stages by which he approached and executed it. His first mature and original books, "The Zincali," or "The Gypsies of Spain," and "The Bible in Spain," had a solid body of subject matter more or less interesting in itself, and anyone with a pen could have made it acceptable to the public which desires information. "The Bible of Spain" was the book of the year 1843, read by everybody in one or other of the six editions published in the first twelve months. These books were also full of himself. Even "The Zincali," written for the most part in Spain, when he was a man of about thirty and had no reason for expecting the public to be interested in himself, especially in a Gypsy crowd—even that early book prophesied very different things. He said in the "preface" that he bore the Gypsies no ill-will, for he had known them "for upwards of twenty years, in various countries, and they never injured a hair of his head, or deprived him of a shred of his raiment." The motive for this forbearance, he said, was that they thought him a Gypsy. In his "introduction" he satisfied some curiosity, but raised still more, when speaking of the English Gypsies and especially of their eminence "in those disgraceful and brutalising exhibitions called pugilistic combats."

"When a boy of fourteen," he says, "I was present at a prize fight; why should I hide the truth? It took place on a green meadow, beside a running stream, close by the old church of E—-, and within a league of the ancient town of N—-, the capital of one of the eastern counties. The terrible Thurtell was present, lord of the concourse; for wherever he moved he was master, and whenever he spoke, even when in chains, every other voice was silent. He stood on the mead, grim and pale as usual, with his bruisers around. He it was, indeed, who got up the fight, as he had previously done with respect to twenty others; it being his frequent boast that he had first introduced bruising and bloodshed amidst rural scenes, and transformed a quiet slumbering town into a den of Jews and metropolitan thieves. Some time before the commencement of the combat, three men, mounted on wild-looking horses, came dashing down the road in the direction of the meadow, in the midst of which they presently showed themselves, their horses clearing the deep ditches with wonderful alacrity. 'That's Gypsy Will and his gang,' lisped a Hebrew pickpocket; 'we shall have another fight.' The word Gypsy was always sufficient to excite my curiosity, and I looked attentively at the new comers.

"I have seen Gypsies of various lands, Russian, Hungarian, and Turkish; and I have also seen the legitimate children of most countries of the world, but I never saw, upon the whole, three more remarkable individuals, as far as personal appearance was concerned, than the three English Gypsies who now presented themselves to my eyes on that spot. Two of them had dismounted, and were holding their horses by the reins. The tallest, and, at the first glance, the most interesting of the two, was almost a giant, for his height could not have been less than six feet three. It is impossible for the imagination to conceive any thing more perfectly beautiful than were the features of this man, and the most skilful sculptor of Greece might have taken them as his model for a hero and a god. The forehead was exceedingly lofty—a rare thing in a Gypsy; the nose less Roman than Grecian—fine yet delicate; the eyes large, overhung with long drooping lashes, giving them almost a melancholy expression; it was only when they were highly elevated that the Gypsy glance peered out, if that can be called glance which is a strange stare, like nothing else in this world. His complexion—a beautiful olive; and his teeth of a brilliancy uncommon even amongst these people, who have all fine teeth. He was dressed in a coarse waggoner's slop, which, however, was unable to conceal altogether the proportions of his noble and Herculean figure. He might be about twenty-eight. His companion and his captain, Gypsy Will, was, I think, fifty when he was hanged, ten years subsequently (for I never afterwards lost sight of him), in the front of the jail of Bury St. Edmunds. I have still present before me his bushy black hair, his black face, and his big black eyes, full and thoughtful, but fixed and staring. His dress consisted of a loose blue jockey coat, jockey boots and breeches; in his hand a huge jockey whip, and on his head (it struck me at the time for its singularity) a broad- brimmed, high-peaked Andalusian hat, or at least one very much resembling those generally worn in that province. In stature he was shorter than his more youthful companion, yet he must have measured six feet at least, and was stronger built, if possible. What brawn!—what bone!—what legs!—what thighs! The third Gypsy, who remained on horseback, looked more like a phantom than any thing human. His complexion was the colour of pale dust, and of that same colour was all that pertained to him, hat and clothes. His boots were dusty of course, for it was midsummer, and his very horse was of a dusty dun. His features were whimsically ugly, most of his teeth were gone, and as to his age, he might be thirty or sixty. He was somewhat lame and halt, but an unequalled rider when once upon his steed, which he was naturally not very solicitous to quit. I subsequently discovered that he was considered the wizard of the gang.

{picture: John Thurtell. (From an old print.): page9.jpg}

"I have been already prolix with respect to these Gypsies, but I will not leave them quite yet. The intended combatants at length arrived; it was necessary to clear the ring—always a troublesome and difficult task. Thurtell went up to the two Gypsies, with whom he seemed to be acquainted, and, with his surly smile, said two or three words, which I, who was standing by, did not understand. The Gypsies smiled in return, and giving the reins of their animals to their mounted companion, immediately set about the task which the king of the flash-men had, as I conjecture, imposed upon them; this they soon accomplished. Who could stand against such fellows and such whips? The fight was soon over—then there was a pause. Once more Thurtell came up to the Gypsies and said something—the Gypsies looked at each other and conversed; but their words had then no meaning for my ears. The tall Gypsy shook his head. 'Very well,' said the other, in English, 'I will—that's all.'

"Then pushing the people aside, he strode to the ropes, over which he bounded into the ring, flinging his Spanish hat high into the air.

"Gypsy Will.—'The best man in England for twenty pounds!'

"Thurtell.—'I am backer!'

"Twenty pounds is a tempting sum, and there were men that day upon the green meadow who would have shed the blood of their own fathers for the fifth of the price. But the Gypsy was not an unknown man, his prowess and strength were notorious, and no one cared to encounter him. Some of the Jews looked eager for a moment; but their sharp eyes quailed quickly before his savage glances, as he towered in the ring, his huge form dilating, and his black features convulsed with excitement. The Westminster bravos eyed the Gypsy askance; but the comparison, if they made any, seemed by no means favourable to themselves. 'Gypsy! rum chap.—Ugly customer,—always in training.' Such were the exclamations which I heard, some of which at that period of my life I did not understand.

"No man would fight the Gypsy.—Yes! a strong country fellow wished to win the stakes, and was about to fling up his hat in defiance, but he was prevented by his friends, with—'Fool! he'll kill you!'

"As the Gypsies were mounting their horses, I heard the dusty phantom exclaim—

"'Brother, you are an arrant ring-maker and a horse-breaker; you'll make a hempen ring to break your own neck of a horse one of these days.'

"They pressed their horses' flanks, again leaped over the ditches, and speedily vanished, amidst the whirlwinds of dust which they raised upon the road.

"The words of the phantom Gypsy were ominous. Gypsy Will was eventually executed for a murder committed in his early youth, in company with two English labourers, one of whom confessed the fact on his death-bed. He was the head of the clan Young, which, with the clan Smith, still haunts two of the eastern counties."

In spite of this, Borrow said in the same book that this would probably be the last occasion he would have to speak of the Gypsies or anything relating to them. In "The Bible in Spain," written and revised several years later, he changed his mind. He wrote plenty about Gypsies and still more about himself. When he wished to show the height of the Spanish Prime Minister, Mendizabal, he called him "a huge athletic man, somewhat taller than myself, who measure six feet two without my shoes." He informed the public that when he met an immense dog in strolling round the ruins above Monte Moro, he stooped till his chin nearly touched his knee and looked the animal full in the face, "and, as John Leyden says, in the noblest ballad which the Land of Heather has produced:—

'The hound he yowled, and back he fled, As struck with fairy charm.'"

When his servant Lopez was imprisoned at Villallos, Borrow had reason to fear that the man would be sacrificed to political opponents in that violent time, so, as he told the English minister at Madrid, he bore off Lopez, single-handed and entirely unarmed, through a crowd of at least one hundred peasants, and furthermore shouted: "Hurrah for Isabella the Second." And as for mystery, "The Bible in Spain" abounds with invitations to admiration and curiosity. Let one example suffice. He had come back to Seville from a walk in the country when a man emerging from an archway looked in his face and started back, "exclaiming in the purest and most melodious French: 'What do I see? If my eyes do not deceive me—it is himself. Yes, the very same as I saw him first at Bayonne; then long subsequently beneath the brick wall at Novgorod; then beside the Bosphorus; and last at—at—O my respectable and cherished friend, where was it that I had last the felicity of seeing your well- remembered and most remarkable physiognomy?'"

Borrows answers: "It was in the south of Ireland, if I mistake not. Was it not there that I introduced you to the sorcerer who tamed the savage horses by a single whisper into their ear? But tell me, what brings you to Spain and Andalusia, the last place where I should have expected to find you."

Baron Taylor (Isidore Justin Severin, Baron Taylor, 1789-1879) now introduces him to a friend as "My most cherished and respectable friend, one who is better acquainted with Gypsy ways than the Chef de Bohemiens a Triana, one who is an expert whisperer and horse-sorcerer, and who, to his honour I say it, can wield hammer and tongs, and handle a horse-shoe, with the best of the smiths amongst the Alpujarras of Granada."

Borrow then lightly portrays his accomplished and extraordinary cosmopolitan friend, with the conclusion:

"He has visited most portions of the earth, and it is remarkable enough that we are continually encountering each other in strange places and under singular circumstances. Whenever he descries me, whether in the street or the desert, the brilliant hall or amongst Bedouin haimas, at Novgorod or Stamboul, he flings up his arms and exclaims, 'O ciel! I have again the felicity of seeing my cherished and most respectable B—-.'"

Borrow could not avoid making himself impressive and mysterious. He was impressive and mysterious without an effort; the individual or the public was impressed, and he was naturally tempted to be more impressive. Thus, in December of the year 1832 he had to go to London for his first meeting with the Bible Society, who had been recommended to give him work where he could use his knowledge of languages. As he was at Norwich, the distance was a hundred and twelve miles, and as he was poor he walked. He spent fivepence-halfpenny on a pint of ale, half-pint of milk, a roll of bread and two apples during the journey, which took him twenty-seven hours. He reached the Society's office early in the morning and waited for the secretary. When the secretary arrived he hoped that Borrow had slept well on his journey. Borrow said that, as far as he knew, he had not slept, because he had walked. The secretary's surprise can be imagined from this alone, or if not, from what followed. For Borrow went on talking, and told the man, among other things, that he was stolen by Gypsies when he was a boy—had passed several years with them, but had at last been recognised at a fair in Norfolk, and brought home to his family by an uncle. It was not to be expected that Borrow would conceal from the public "several years" of this kind. Nevertheless, in none of his books has he so much as hinted at a period of adoption with Gypsies when he was a boy. Nor has that massive sleuth-hound, Dr. Knapp, discovered any traces of such an adoption. If there is any foundation for the story except Borrow's wish to please the secretary, it is the escapade of his fourteenth or fifteenth year—when he and three other boys from Norwich Grammar School played truant, intending to make caves to dwell in among the sandhills twenty miles away on the coast, but were recognised on the road, deceitfully detained by a benevolent gentleman and within a few days brought back, Borrow himself being horsed on the back of James Martineau, according to the picturesque legend, for such a thrashing that he had to lie in bed a fortnight and must bear the marks of it while he was flesh and blood. Borrow celebrated this escapade by a ballad in dialogue called "The Wandering Children and the Benevolent Gentleman. An Idyll of the Roads." {13a} There may have been another escapade of the same kind, for Dr Knapp {13b} prints an account of how Borrow, at the age of fifteen, and two schoolfellows lived for three days in a cave at Acle when they ought to have been at school. But his companions were the same in both stories, and "three days in a cave" is a very modest increase for such a story in half-a-century. It was only fifteen years later that Borrow took revenge upon the truth and told the story of his exile with the Gypsies.

{picture: The Grammar School Norwich. Photo: Jarrold & Sons, Norwich: page12.jpg}

Probably every man has more or less clearly and more or less constantly before his mind's eye an ideal self which the real seldom more than approaches. This ideal self may be morally or in other ways inferior, but it remains the standard by which the man judges his acts. Some men prove the existence of this ideal self by announcing now and then that they are misunderstood. Or they do things which they afterwards condemn as irrelevant or uncharacteristic and out of harmony. Borrow had an ideal self very clearly before him when he was writing, and it is probable that in writing he often described not what he was but what in a better, larger, freer, more Borrovian world he would have actually become. He admired the work of his Creator, but he would not affect to be satisfied with it in every detail, and stepping forward he snatched the brush and made a bolder line and braver colour. Also he ardently desired to do more than he ever did. When in Spain he wrote to his friend Hasfeldt at St. Petersburg, telling him that he wished to visit China by way of Russia or Constantinople and Armenia. When indignant with the Bible Society in 1838 he suggested retiring to "the Wilds of Tartary or the Zigani camps of Siberia." He continued to suggest China even after his engagement to Mrs. Clarke.

Just as he played up to the Secretary in conversation, so he played up to the friends and the public who were allured by the stories left untold or half-told in "The Zincali" and "The Bible in Spain." Chief among his encouragers was Richard Ford, author (in 1845) of the "Handbook for Travellers in Spain and Readers at Home," a man of character and style, learned and a traveller. In 1841, before "The Bible in Spain" appeared, Ford told Borrow how he wished that he had told more about himself, and how he was going to hint in a review that Borrow ought to publish the whole of his adventures for the last twenty years. The publisher's reader, who saw the manuscript of "The Bible in Spain" in 1842, suggested that Borrow should prefix a short account of his birth, parentage, education and life. But already Borrow had taken Ford's hint and was thinking of an autobiography. By the end of 1842 he was suggesting a book on his early life, studies and adventures, Gypsies, boxers, philosophers; and he afterwards announced that "Lavengro" was planned and the characters sketched in 1842 and 1843. He saw himself as a public figure that had to be treated heroically. Read, for example, his preface to the second edition of "The Zincali," dated March 1, 1843. There he tells of his astonishment at the success of "The Zincali," and of John Murray bidding him not to think too much of the book but to try again and avoid "Gypsy poetry, dry laws, and compilations from dull Spanish authors."

"Borromeo," he makes Murray say to him, "Borromeo, don't believe all you hear, nor think that you have accomplished anything so very extraordinary. . . ."

And so, he says, he sat down and began "The Bible in Spain." He proceeds to make a picture of himself amidst a landscape by some raving Titanic painter's hand:

"At first," he says, "I proceeded slowly,—sickness was in the land and the face of nature was overcast,—heavy rain-clouds swam in the heavens,—the blast howled amid the pines which nearly surround my lonely dwelling, and the waters of the lake which lies before it, so quiet in general and tranquil, were fearfully agitated. 'Bring lights hither, O Hayim Ben Attar, son of the miracle!' And the Jew of Fez brought in the lights, for though it was midday I could scarcely see in the little room where I was writing. . . .

"A dreary summer and autumn passed by, and were succeeded by as gloomy a winter. I still proceeded with 'The Bible in Spain.' The winter passed and spring came with cold dry winds and occasional sunshine, whereupon I arose, shouted, and mounting my horse, even Sidi Habismilk, I scoured all the surrounding district, and thought but little of 'The Bible in Spain.'

"So I rode about the country, over the heaths, and through the green lanes of my native land, occasionally visiting friends at a distance, and sometimes, for variety's sake, I staid at home and amused myself by catching huge pike, which lie perdue in certain deep ponds skirted with lofty reeds, upon my land, and to which there is a communication from the lagoon by a deep and narrow watercourse.—I had almost forgotten 'The Bible in Spain.'

"Then came the summer with much heat and sunshine, and then I would lie for hours in the sun and recall the sunny days I had spent in Andalusia, and my thoughts were continually reverting to Spain, and at last I remembered that 'The Bible in Spain' was still unfinished; whereupon I arose and said: This loitering profiteth nothing,—and I hastened to my summer-house by the side of the lake, and there I thought and wrote, and every day I repaired to the same place, and thought and wrote until I had finished 'The Bible in Spain.'

"And at the proper season 'The Bible in Spain' was given to the world; and the world, both learned and unlearned, was delighted with 'The Bible in Spain,' and the highest authority said, 'This is a much better book than the Gypsies;' and the next great authority said, 'Something betwixt Le Sage and Bunyan.' 'A far more entertaining work than Don Quixote,' exclaimed a literary lady. 'Another Gil Blas,' said the cleverest writer in Europe. 'Yes,' exclaimed the cool sensible Spectator, 'a Gil Blas in water colours.'

"A Gil Blas in water colours"—that, he says himself, pleased him better than all the rest. He liked to think that out of his adventures in distributing Bibles in Spain, out of letters describing his work to his employers, the Bible Society, he had made a narrative to be compared with the fictitious life and adventures of that gentle Spanish rogue, Gil Blas of Santillana. No wonder that he saw himself a public figure to be treated reverently, nay! heroically. And so when he comes to consider somebody's suggestion that the Gypsies are of Jewish origin, he relates a "little adventure" of his own, bringing in Mr. Petulengro and the Jewish servant whom he had brought back with him after his last visit to Spain. He mounts the heroic figure upon an heroic horse:

"So it came to pass," he says, "that one day I was scampering over a heath, at some distance from my present home: I was mounted upon the good horse Sidi Habismilk, and the Jew of Fez, swifter than the wind, ran by the side of the good horse Habismilk, when what should I see at a corner of the heath but the encampment of certain friends of mine; and the chief of that camp, even Mr. Petulengro, stood before the encampment, and his adopted daughter, Miss Pinfold, stood beside him.

"Myself.—'Kosko divvus, {17a} Mr. Petulengro! I am glad to see you: how are you getting on?'

"Mr. Petulengro.—'How am I getting on? as well as I can. What will you have for that nokengro?' {17b}

"Thereupon I dismounted, and delivering the reins of the good horse to Miss Pinfold, I took the Jew of Fez, even Hayim Ben Attar, by the hand, and went up to Mr. Petulengro, exclaiming, 'Sure ye are two brothers.' Anon the Gypsy passed his hand over the Jew's face, and stared him in the eyes: then turning to me, he said, 'We are not dui palor; {17c} this man is no Roman; I believe him to be a Jew; he has the face of one; besides if he were a Rom, even from Jericho, he could rokra a few words in Rommany.'"

Still more important than this equestrian figure of Borrow on Sidi Habismilk is the note on "The English Dialect of the Rommany" hidden away at the end of the second edition of "The Zincali."

"'Tachipen if I jaw 'doi, I can lel a bit of tan to hatch: N'etist I shan't puch kekomi wafu gorgies.'

"The above sentence, dear reader, I heard from the mouth of Mr. Petulengro, the last time that he did me the honour to visit me at my poor house, which was the day after Mol-divvus, {18a} 1842: he stayed with me during the greatest part of the morning, discoursing on the affairs of Egypt, the aspect of which, he assured me, was becoming daily worse and worse. 'There is no living for the poor people, brother,' said he, 'the chokengres (police) pursue us from place to place, and the gorgios are become either so poor or miserly, that they grudge our cattle a bite of grass by the way side, and ourselves a yard of ground to light a fire upon. Unless times alter, brother, and of that I see no probability, unless you are made either poknees or mecralliskoe geiro (justice of the peace or prime minister), I am afraid the poor persons will have to give up wandering altogether, and then what will become of them?

"'However, brother,' he continued, in a more cheerful tone: 'I am no hindity mush, {18b} as you well know. I suppose you have not forgot how, fifteen years ago, when you made horse-shoes in the little dingle by the side of the great north road, I lent you fifty cottors {18c} to purchase the wonderful trotting cob of the innkeeper with the green Newmarket coat, which three days after you sold for two hundred.

"'Well, brother, if you had wanted the two hundred, instead of the fifty, I could have lent them to you, and would have done so, for I knew you would not be long pazorrhus to me. I am no hindity mush, brother, no Irishman; I laid out the other day twenty pounds, in buying ruponoe peamengries; {19a} and in the Chong-gav, {19b} have a house of my own with a yard behind it.

"'And, forsooth, if I go thither, I can choose a place to light a fire upon, and shall have no necessity to ask leave of these here Gentiles.'

"Well, dear reader, this last is the translation of the Gypsy sentence which heads the chapter, and which is a very characteristic specimen of the general way of speaking of the English Gypsies."

Here be mysteries. The author of "The Bible in Spain" is not only taken for a Gypsy, but once upon a time made horse-shoes in a dingle beside the great north road and trafficked in horses. When Borrow told John Murray of the Christmas meeting with Ambrose Smith, whom he now called "The Gypsy King," he said he was dressed in "true regal fashion." On the last day of that year he told Murray that he often meditated on his "life" and was arranging scenes. That reminder about the dingle and the wonderful trotting cob, and the Christmas wine, was stirring his brain. In two months time he had begun to write his "Life." He got back from the Bible Society the letters written to them when he was their representative in Russia, and these he hoped to use as he had already used those written in Spain. Ford encouraged him, saying: "Truth is great and always pleases. Never mind nimminy-pimminy people thinking subjects low. Things are low in manner of handling." In the midsummer of 1843 Borrow told Murray that he was getting on—"some parts are very wild and strange," others are full of "useful information." In another place he called the pictures in it Rembrandts interspersed with Claudes. At first the book was to have been "My Life, a Drama, by George Borrow"; at the end of the year it was "Lavengro, a Biography," and also "My Life." He was writing slowly "to please himself." Later on he called it a biography "in the Robinson Crusoe style." Nearly three years passed since that meeting with Mr. Petulengro, and still the book was not ready. Ford had been pressing him to lift a corner of the curtain which he had gradually let fall over the seven years of his life preceding his work for the Bible Society, but he made no promise. He was bent on putting in nothing but his best work, and avoiding haste. In July, 1848, Murray announced, among his "new works in preparation," "Lavengro, an Autobiography, by George Borrow." The first volume went to press in the autumn, and there was another announcement of "Lavengro, an Autobiography," followed by one of "Life, a Drama." Yet again in 1849 the book was announced as "Lavengro, an Autobiography," though the first volume already bore the title, "Life, a Drama." In 1850 publication was still delayed by Borrow's ill health and his reluctance to finish and have done with the book. It was still announced as "Lavengro, an Autobiography." But at the end of the year it was "Lavengro: the Scholar—the Gypsy—the Priest," and with that title it appeared early in 1851. Borrow was then forty-six years old, and the third volume of his book left him still in the dingle beside the great north road, when he was, according to the conversation with Mr. Petulengro, a young man of twenty-one.

{picture: East Dereham Church, Norfolk. Photo: H. T. Cave, East Dereham: page21.jpg}


"Life, a Drama," was to have been published in 1849, and proof sheets with this name and date on the title page were lately in my hands: as far as page 168 the left hand page heading is "A Dramatic History," which is there crossed out and "Life, a Drama" thenceforward substituted. Borrow's corrections are worth the attention of anyone who cares for men and books.

"Lavengro" now opens with the sentence: "On an evening of July, in the year 18—, at East D—-, a beautiful little town in a certain district of East Anglia, I first saw the light."

The proof shows that Borrow preferred "a certain district of East Anglia" to "The western division of Norfolk." Here the added shade of indefiniteness can hardly seem valuable to any but the author himself. In another place he prefers (chapter XIII.) the vague "one of the most glorious of Homer's rhapsodies" to "the enchantments of Canidia, the masterpiece of the prince of Roman poets."

In the second chapter he describes how, near Pett, in Sussex, as a child less than three years old, he took up a viper without being injured or even resisted, amid the alarms of his mother and elder brother. After this description he comments:

"It is my firm belief that certain individuals possess an inherent power, or fascination, over certain creatures, otherwise I should be unable to account for many feats which I have witnessed, and, indeed, borne a share in, connected with the taming of brutes and reptiles."

This was in the proof preceded by a passage at first modified and then cut out, reading thus:

"In some parts of the world and more particularly in India there are people who devote themselves to the pursuit and taming of serpents. Had I been born in those regions I perhaps should have been what is termed a snake charmer. That I had a genius for the profession, as probably all have who follow it, I gave decided proof of the above instance as in others which I shall have occasion subsequently to relate."

This he cut out presumably because it was too "informing" and too little "wild and strange."

A little later in the same chapter he describes how, before he was four years old, near Hythe, in Kent, he saw in a penthouse against an old village church, "skulls of the old Danes":

"'Long ago' (said the sexton, with Borrow's aid), 'long ago they came pirating into these parts: and then there chanced a mighty shipwreck, for God was angry with them, and He sunk them; and their skulls, as they came ashore, were placed here as a memorial. There were many more when I was young, but now they are fast disappearing. Some of them must have belonged to strange fellows, madam. Only see that one; why, the two young gentry can scarcely lift it!' And, indeed, my brother and myself had entered the Golgotha, and commenced handling these grim relics of mortality. One enormous skull, lying in a corner, had fixed our attention, and we had drawn it forth. Spirit of eld, what a skull was yon!

"I still seem to see it, the huge grim thing; many of the others were large, strikingly so, and appeared fully to justify the old man's conclusion that their owners must have been strange fellows; but compared with this mighty mass of bone they looked small and diminutive, like those of pigmies; it must have belonged to a giant, one of those red-haired warriors of whose strength and stature such wondrous tales are told in the ancient chronicles of the north, and whose grave-hills, when ransacked, occasionally reveal secrets which fill the minds of puny moderns with astonishment and awe. Reader, have you ever pored days and nights over the pages of Snorro? probably not, for he wrote in a language which few of the present day understand, and few would be tempted to read him tamed down by Latin dragomans. A brave old book is that of Snorro, containing the histories and adventures of old northern kings and champions, who seemed to have been quite different men, if we may judge from the feats which they performed, from those of these days. One of the best of his histories is that which describes the life of Harald Haardraade, who, after manifold adventures by land and sea, now a pirate, now a mercenary of the Greek emperor, became King of Norway, and eventually perished at the battle of Stanford Bridge, whilst engaged in a gallant onslaught upon England. Now, I have often thought that the old Kemp, whose mouldering skull in the Golgotha at Hythe my brother and myself could scarcely lift, must have resembled in one respect at least this Harald, whom Snorro describes as a great and wise ruler and a determined leader, dangerous in battle, of fair presence, and measuring in height just five ells, neither more nor less."

Of this incident he says he need offer no apology for relating it "as it subsequently exercised considerable influence over his pursuits," i.e., his study of Danish literature; but in the proof he added also that the incident, "perhaps more than anything else, tended to bring my imaginative powers into action"—this he cut out, though the skulls may have impressed him as the skeleton disinterred by a horse impressed Richard Jefferies and haunted him in his "Gamekeeper," "Meadow Thoughts," and elsewhere.

Sometimes he modified a showy phrase, and "when I became ambitious of the title of Lavengro and strove to deserve it" was cut down to "when I became a student." When he wrote of Cowper in the third chapter he said, to justify Cowper's melancholy, that "Providence, whose ways are not our ways, interposed, and with the withering blasts of misery nipped that which otherwise might have terminated in fruit, noxious and lamentable"; but he substituted a mere "perhaps" for the words about Providence. In the description of young Jasper he changed his "short arms like" his father, into "long arms unlike."

In the fourteenth chapter Borrow describes his father's retirement from the army after Waterloo, and his settling down at Norwich, so poor as to be anxious for his children's future. He speaks of poor officers who "had slight influence with the great who gave themselves very little trouble either about them or their families." Originally he went on thus, but cut out the words from the proof:

"Yet I have reason for concluding that they were not altogether overlooked by a certain power still higher than even the aristocracy of England and with yet more extensive influence in the affairs of the world. I allude to Providence, which, it is said, never forsakes those who trust in it, as I suppose these old soldiers did, for I have known many instances in which their children have contrived to make their way gallantly in the world, unaided by the patronage of the great, whilst others who were possessed of it were most miserably shipwrecked, being suddenly overset by some unexpected squall, against which it could avail them nothing."

This change is a relief to the style. The next which I shall quote is something more than that. It shows Borrow constructing the conversation of his father and mother when they were considering his prospects at the age of twelve. His father was complaining of the boy's Gypsy look, and of his ways and manners, and of the strange company he kept in Ireland—"people of evil report, of whom terrible things were said—horse- witches and the like." His mother made the excuse: "But he thinks of other things now." "Other languages, you mean," said his father. But in the proof his mother adds to her speech, "He is no longer in Ireland," and the father takes her up with, "So much the better for him; yet should he ever fall into evil practices, I shall always lay it to the account of that melancholy sojourn in Ireland and the acquaintances he formed there."

Instead of putting into his friend, the Anglo-Germanist Williams Taylor's mouth, the opinion "that as we are aware that others frequently misinterpret us, we are equally liable to fall into the same error with respect to them," he alters it to the very different one, "That there is always some eye upon us; and that it is impossible to keep anything we do from the world, as it will assuredly be divulged by somebody as soon as it is his interest to do so."

In the twenty-fourth chapter Borrow makes Thurtell, the friend of bruisers, hint, with unconscious tragic irony, at his famous end—by dying upon the gallows for the murder of Mr. William Weare. He tells the magistrate whom he has asked to lend him a piece of land for a prize-fight that his own name is no matter.

"However," he continues, "a time may come—we are not yet buried—whensoever my hour arrives, I hope I shall prove myself equal to my destiny, however high—

"Like bird that's bred amongst the Helicons."

In the original Thurtell's quotation was:

"No poor unminded outlaw sneaking home."

This chapter now ends with the magistrate's question to young Borrow about this man: "What is his name?" In the manuscript Borrow answered, "John Thurtell." The proof had, "John . . ." Borrow hesitated, and in the margin, having crossed out "John," he put the initial "J" as a substitute, but finally crossed that out also. He was afraid of names which other people might know and regard in a different way. Thus in the same proof he altered "the philologist Scaliger" to "a certain philologist": thus, too, he would not write down the name of Dereham, but kept on calling it "pretty D—-"; and when he had to refer to Cowper as buried in Dereham Church he spoke of the poet, not by name, but as "England's sweetest and most pious bard."

{picture: Page 1 of "Lavengro," showing Borrow's corrections. (Photographed from the Author's proof copy, by kind permission of Mr. Kyllmann and Mr. Thos. Seccombe.) Photo: W. J. Roberts: page27.jpg}


These changes in the proof of what was afterwards called "Lavengro" were, it need hardly be said, made in order to bring the words nearer to a representation of the idea in Borrow's brain, and nearer to a perfect harmony with one another. Take the case of Jasper Petulengro's arm. Borrow knew the man Ambrose Smith well enough to know whether he had a long or a short arm: for did not Jasper say to him when he was dismal, "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!" Possibly he had a short arm like his father, but in reading the proof it must somehow have seemed to Borrow that his Jasper Petulengro—founded on Ambrose Smith and at many points resembling him—ought to have a long arm. The short arm was true to "the facts"; the long arm was more impressive and was truer to the created character, which was more important.

It was hardly these little things that kept Borrow working at "Lavengro" for nearly half of his fourth decade and a full half of his fifth. But these little things were part of the great difficulty of making an harmonious whole by changing, cutting out and inserting. When Ford and John Murray's reader asked him for his life they probably meant a plain statement of a few "important facts," such facts as there could hardly be two opinions about, such facts as fill the ordinary biography or "Who's Who." Borrow knew well enough that these facts either produce no effect in the reader's mind or they produce one effect here and a different one there, since the dullest mind cannot blankly receive a dead statement without some effort to give it life. Borrow was not going to commit himself to incontrovertible statements such as are or might be made to a Life Insurance Company. He had no command of a tombstone style and would not have himself circumscribed with full Christian name, date of birth, etc., as a sexton or parish clerk might have done for him. Twenty years later indeed—in 1862—he did write such an account of himself to be printed as part of an appendix to a history of his old school at Norwich. It is full of dates, but they are often inaccurate, and the years 1825 to 1833 he fills with "a life of roving adventures." He cannot refrain from calling himself a great rider, walker and swimmer, or from telling the story of how he walked from Norwich to London—he calls it London to Norwich—in twenty-seven hours. But in 1862 he could rely on "Lavengro" and "The Romany Rye"; he was an author at the end of his career, and he had written himself down to the best of his genius. The case was different in 1842.

He saw himself as a man variously and mysteriously alive, very different from every other man and especially from certain kinds of man. When you look at a larch wood with a floor of fern in October at the end of twilight, you are not content to have that wood described as so many hundred poles growing on three acres of land, the property of a manufacturer of gin. Still less was Borrow content to sit down at Oulton, while the blast howled amid the pines which nearly surround his lonely dwelling, and answer the genial Ford's questions one by one: "What countries have you been in? What languages do you understand?" and so on. Ford probably divined a book as substantial and well-furnished with milestones as "The Bible in Spain," and he cheerfully told Borrow to make the broth "thick and slab."

Ford, in fact, doubled the difficulty. Not only did Borrow feel that his book must create a living soul, but the soul must be heroic to meet the expectations of Ford and the public. The equestrian group had been easy enough—himself mounted on Sidi Habismilk, with the swift Jew and the Gypsy at his side—but the life of a man was a different matter. Nor was the task eased by his exceptional memory. He claimed, as has been seen, to remember the look of the viper seen in his third year. Later, in "Lavengro," he meets a tinker and buys his stock-in-trade to set himself up with. The tinker tries to put him off by tales of the Blazing Tinman who has driven him from his beat. Borrow answers that he can manage the Tinman one way or other, saying, "I know all kinds of strange words and names, and, as I told you before, I sometimes hit people when they put me out." At last the tinker consents to sell his pony and things on one condition. "Tell me what's my name," he says; "if you can't, may I—." Borrow answers: "Don't swear, it's a bad habit, neither pleasant nor profitable. Your name is Slingsby—Jack Slingsby. There, don't stare, there's nothing in my telling you your name: I've been in these parts before, at least not very far from here. Ten years ago, when I was little more than a child, I was about twenty miles from here in a post chaise, at the door of an inn, and as I looked from the window of the chaise, I saw you standing by a gutter, with a big tin ladle in your hand, and somebody called you Jack Slingsby. I never forget anything I hear or see; I can't, I wish I could. So there's nothing strange in my knowing your name; indeed there's nothing strange in anything, provided you examine it to the bottom. Now what am I to give you for the things?"

(I once heard a Gypsy give a similar and equal display of memory.) Dr. Knapp has corroborated several details of "Lavengro" which confirm Borrow's opinion of his memory. Hearing the author whom he met on his walk beyond Salisbury, speak of the "wine of 1811, the comet year," Borrow said that he remembered being in the market-place of Dereham, looking at that comet. {30} Dr Knapp first makes sure exactly when Borrow was at Dereham in 1811 and then that there was a comet visible during that time. He proves also from newspapers of 1820 that the fight, in the twenty sixth chapter of "Lavengro," ended in a thunderstorm like that described by Borrow and used by Petulengro to forecast the violent end of Thurtell.

Now a brute memory like that, which cannot be gainsaid, is not an entirely good servant to a man who will not put down everything he can, like a boy at an examination. The ordinary man probably recalls all that is of importance in his past life, though he may not like to think so, but a man with a memory like Borrow's or with a supply of diaries like Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff's may well ask, "What is truth?" as Borrow often did. The facts may convey a false impression which an omission or a positive "lie" may correct.

{picture: A page from the author's proof copy of "Lavengro," showing Borrow's significant corrections. (Photographed by kind permission of Mr. Kyllmann and Mr. Thos. Seccombe.) Photo: W. J. Roberts: page30.jpg}

Just at first, as has been seen, a month after his Christmas wine with Mr Petulengro, Borrow saw his life as a drama, perhaps as a melodrama, full of Gypsies, jockeys and horses, wild men of many lands and several murderers. "Capital subject," he repeated. That was when he saw himself as an adventurer and Europe craning its neck to keep him in sight. But he knew well, and after the first flush he remembered, that he was not merely a robust walker, rider and philologist. When he was only eighteen he was continually asking himself "What is truth?" "I had," he says, "involved myself imperceptibly in a dreary labyrinth of doubt, and, whichever way I turned, no reasonable prospect of extricating myself appeared. The means by which I had brought myself into this situation may be very briefly told; I had inquired into many matters, in order that I might become wise, and I had read and pondered over the words of the wise, so called, till I had made myself master of the sum of human wisdom; namely, that everything is enigmatical and that man is an enigma to himself; thence the cry of 'What is truth?' I had ceased to believe in the truth of that in which I had hitherto trusted, and yet could find nothing in which I could put any fixed or deliberate belief. I was, indeed, in a labyrinth! In what did I not doubt? With respect to crime and virtue I was in doubt; I doubted that the one was blameable and the other praiseworthy. Are not all things subjected to the law of necessity? Assuredly; time and chance govern all things: yet how can this be? alas!

"Then there was myself; for what was I born? Are not all things born to be forgotten? That's incomprehensible: yet is it not so? Those butterflies fall and are forgotten. In what is man better than a butterfly? All then is born to be forgotten. Ah! that was a pang indeed; 'tis at such a moment that a man wishes to die. The wise king of Jerusalem, who sat in his shady arbours beside his sunny fishpools, saying so many fine things, wished to die, when he saw that not only all was vanity, but that he himself was vanity. Will a time come when all will be forgotten that now is beneath the sun? If so, of what profit is life? . . .

"'Would I had never been born!' I said to myself; and a thought would occasionally intrude. But was I ever born? Is not all that I see a lie—a deceitful phantom? Is there a world, and earth, and sky? . . ."

If he no longer articulated these doubts he was still not as sure of himself as Ford imagined. He was, by the way, seldom sure of his own age, and Dr. Knapp {31} gives four instances of his underestimating it by two and even five years. Whatever may be the explanation of this, after three years' work at "Lavengro" he "will not be hurried for anyone." He was probably finding that, with no notebooks or letters to help, the work was very different from the writing of "The Bible in Spain," which was pieced together out of long letters to the Bible Society, and, moreover, was written within a few years of the events described. The events of his childhood and youth had retired into a perspective that was beyond his control: he would often be tempted to change their perspective, to bring forward some things, to set back others. In any case these things were no longer mere solid material facts. They were living a silent life of spirits within his brain. He took to calling the book his "life" or "autobiography," not "Life: a Drama." It was advertised as such; but he would not have it. At the last moment he refused to label it an autobiography, because he knew that it was inadequate, and that in any case other men would not understand or would misunderstand it. He must have felt certain that the fair figure of "Don Jorge," created in "The Bible of Spain," had been poisoned for most readers by many a passage in "Lavengro," like that where he doubted the existence of self and sky and stars, or where he told of the breakdown in his health when he was sixteen and of the gloom that followed:

"But how much more quickly does strength desert the human frame than return to it! I had become convalescent, it is true, but my state of feebleness was truly pitiable. I believe it is in that state that the most remarkable feature of human physiology frequently exhibits itself. Oh, how dare I mention the dark feeling of mysterious dread which comes over the mind, and which the lamp of reason, though burning bright the while, is unable to dispel! Art thou, as leeches say, the concomitant of disease—the result of shattered nerves? Nay, rather the principle of woe itself, the fountain head of all sorrow co-existent with man, whose influence he feels when yet unborn, and whose workings he testifies with his earliest cries, when, 'drowned in tears,' he first beholds the light; for, as the sparks fly upward, so is man born to trouble, and woe doth he bring with him into the world, even thyself, dark one, terrible one, causeless, unbegotten, without a father. Oh, how frequently dost thou break down the barriers which divide thee from the poor soul of man, and overcast its sunshine with thy gloomy shadow. In the brightest days of prosperity—in the midst of health and wealth—how sentient is the poor human creature of thy neighbourhood! how instinctively aware that the floodgates of horror may be cast open, and the dark stream engulf him for ever and ever! Then is it not lawful for man to exclaim, 'Better that I had never been born!' Fool, for thyself thou wast not born, but to fulfil the inscrutable decrees of thy Creator; and how dost thou know that this dark principle is not, after all, thy best friend; that it is not that which tempers the whole mass of thy corruption? It may be, for what thou knowest, the mother of wisdom, and of the great works: it is the dread of the horror of the night that makes the pilgrim hasten on his way. When thou feelest it nigh, let thy safety word be 'Onward'; if thou tarry, thou art overwhelmed. Courage! build great works—'tis urging thee—it is ever nearest the favourites of God—the fool knows little of it. Thou wouldst be joyous, wouldst thou? then be a fool. What great work was ever the result of joy, the puny one? Who have been the wise ones, the mighty ones, the conquering ones of this earth? the joyous? I believe not. The fool is happy, or comparatively so—certainly the least sorrowful, but he is still a fool; and whose notes are sweetest, those of the nightingale, or of the silly lark?

* * * * *

"'What ails you, my child?' said a mother to her son, as he lay on a couch under the influence of the dreadful one; 'what ails you? you seem afraid!'

"Boy.—'And so I am; a dreadful fear is upon me.'

"Mother.—'But of what? there is no one can harm you; of what are you apprehensive?'

"Boy.—'Of nothing that I can express; I know not what I am afraid of, but afraid I am.'

"Mother.—'Perhaps you see sights and visions; I knew a lady once who was continually thinking that she saw an armed man threaten her, but it was only an imagination, a phantom of the brain.'

"Boy.—'No armed man threatens me; and 'tis not a thing that would cause me any fear. Did an armed man threaten me, I would get up and fight him; weak as I am, I would wish for nothing better, for then, perhaps, I should lose this fear; mine is a dread of I know not what, and there the horror lies.'

"Mother.—'Your forehead is cool, and your speech collected. Do you know where you are?'

"Boy.—'I know where I am, and I see things just as they are; you are beside me, and upon the table there is a book which was written by a Florentine; all this I see, and that there is no ground for being afraid. I am, moreover, quite cool, and feel no pain—but, but—'

"And then there was a burst of 'gemiti, sospiri ed alti guai.' Alas, alas, poor child of clay! as the sparks fly upward, so wast thou born to sorrow—Onward!"

And if men passed over this as a youthful distemper, rather often recurring, what would they make of his saying that "Fame after death is better than the top of fashion in life"? Would they not accuse him of entertaining them, as he did his companion and half-sweetheart of the dingle, Isopel Berners, "with strange dreams of adventure, in which he figures in opaque forests, strangling wild beasts, or discovering and plundering the hordes of dragons; and sometimes . . . other things far more genuine—how he had tamed savage mares, wrestled with Satan, and had dealings with ferocious publishers"?

He did not simplify the matter by his preface. There he announced that the book was "a dream." He had, he said, endeavoured to describe a dream, partly of adventure, in which will be found copious notices of books and many descriptions of life and manners, some in a very unusual form. A dream containing "copious notices of books"! A dream in three volumes and over a thousand pages! A dream which he had "endeavoured to describe"! From these three words it was necessary to suppose that it was a real dream, not a narrative introduced by the machinery of a dream, like "Pilgrim's Progress," and "The Dream of Fair Women." And so it was. The book was not an autobiography but a representation of a man's life in the backward dream of memory. He had refused to drag the events of his life out of the spirit land, to turn them into a narrative on the same plane as a newspaper, leaving readers to convert them back again into reality or not, according to their choice or ability. His life seemed to him a dream, not a newspaper obituary, not an equestrian statue on a pedestal in Albemarle Street opposite John Murray's office.

The result was that "the long-talked-of autobiography" disappointed those who expected more than a collection of bold picaresque sketches. "It is not," complained the "Athenaeum," "an autobiography, even with the licence of fiction;" "the interest of autobiography is lost," and as a work of fiction it is a failure. "Fraser's Magazine" said that it was "for ever hovering between Romance and Reality, and the whole tone of the narrative inspires profound distrust. Nay, more, it will make us disbelieve the tales in 'The Zincali' and 'The Bible in Spain.'" Another critic found "a false dream in the place of reality, a shadowy nothing in the place of that something all who had read 'The Bible in Spain' craved and hoped for from his pen." His friend, William Bodham Donne, in "Tait's Edinburgh Magazine," explained how "Lavengro" was "not exactly what the public had been expecting." Another friend, Whitwell Elwin, in the "Quarterly Review," reviewing "Lavengro" and its continuation, "The Romany Rye," not only praised the truth and vividness of the descriptions, but said that "various portions of the history are known to be a faithful narrative of Mr. Borrow's career, while we ourselves can testify, as to many other parts of his volumes, that nothing can excel the fidelity with which he has described both men and things," and "why under these circumstances he should envelop the question in mystery is more than we can divine. There can be no doubt that the larger part, and possibly the whole, of the work is a narrative of actual occurrences, and just as little that it would gain immensely by a plain avowal of the fact." I have suggested that there were good reasons for not calling the work an autobiography. Dr. Knapp has shown in his fortieth chapter that the narrative was interrupted to admit lengthy references to much later events for purposes of "occult vengeance"; and that these interruptions helped to cause the delay and to change the title there can be little doubt.

Borrow was angry at the failure of "Lavengro," and in the appendix to "The Romany Rye" he actually said that he had never called "Lavengro" an autobiography and never authorised anyone to call it such. This was not a lie but a somewhat frantic assertion that his critics were mistaken about his "dream." In later years he quietly admitted that "Lavengro" gave an account of his early life.

Yet Dr. Knapp was not strictly and completely accurate in saying that the first volume of "Lavengro" is "strictly autobiographical and authentic as the whole was at first intended to be." He could give no proof that Borrow's memory went back to his third year or that he first handled a viper at that time. He could only show that Borrow's accounts do not conflict with other accounts of the same matters. When they did conflict, Dr. Knapp was unduly elated by the discovery.

Take, for example, the sixteenth chapter of "Lavengro," where he describes the horse fair at Norwich when he was a boy:

"The reader is already aware that I had long since conceived a passion for the equine race, a passion in which circumstances had of late not permitted me to indulge. I had no horses to ride, but I took pleasure in looking at them; and I had already attended more than one of these fairs: the present was lively enough, indeed horse fairs are seldom dull. There was shouting and whooping, neighing and braying; there was galloping and trotting; fellows with highlows and white stockings, and with many a string dangling from the knees of their tight breeches, were running desperately, holding horses by the halter, and in some cases dragging them along; there were long-tailed steeds, and dock-tailed steeds of every degree and breed; there were droves of wild ponies, and long rows of sober cart horses; there were donkeys and even mules: the last rare things to be seen in damp, misty England, for the mule pines in mud and rain, and thrives best with a hot sun above and a burning sand below. There were—oh, the gallant creatures! I hear their neigh upon the wind; there were—goodliest sight of all—certain enormous quadrupeds only seen to perfection in our native isle, led about by dapper grooms, their manes ribanded and their tails curiously clubbed and balled. Ha! ha!—how distinctly do they say, ha! ha!

"An old man draws nigh, he is mounted on a lean pony, and he leads by the bridle one of these animals; nothing very remarkable about that creature, unless in being smaller than the rest and gentle, which they are not; he is not of the sightliest look; he is almost dun, and over one eye a thick film has gathered. But stay! there is something remarkable about that horse, there is something in his action in which he differs from all the rest: as he advances, the clamour is hushed! all eyes are turned upon him—what looks of interest—of respect—and, what is this? people are taking off their hats—surely not to that steed! Yes, verily! men, especially old men, are taking off their hats to that one-eyed steed, and I hear more than one deep-drawn ah!

"'What horse is that?' said I to a very old fellow, the counterpart of the old man on the pony, save that the last wore a faded suit of velveteen, and this one was dressed in a white frock.

"'The best in mother England,' said the very old man, taking a knobbed stick from his mouth, and looking me in the face, at first carelessly, but presently with something like interest; 'he is old like myself, but can still trot his twenty miles an hour. You won't live long, my swain; tall and overgrown ones like thee never does; yet, if you should chance to reach my years, you may boast to thy great grand boys, thou hast seen Marshland Shales.'

"Amain I did for the horse what I would neither do for earl or baron, doffed my hat; yes! I doffed my hat to the wondrous horse, the fast trotter, the best in mother England; and I, too, drew a deep ah! and repeated the words of the old fellows around. 'Such a horse as this we shall never see again, a pity that he is so old.'"

But Dr. Knapp informs us that the well-known trotting stallion, Marshland Shales, was not offered for sale by auction until 1827, when he was twenty-five years old, and ten years after the date implied in "Lavengro." And what is more, Dr. Knapp concludes that Borrow must have been in Norwich in 1827, on the fair day, April 12.


I do not wish to make Borrow out a suffering innocent in the hands of that learned heavy-weight and wag, Dr. Knapp. Borrow was a writing man; he was sometimes a friend of jockeys, of Gypsies and of pugilists, but he was always a writing man; and the writer who is delighted to have his travels in Spain compared with the rogue romance, "Gil Blas," is no innocent. Photography, it must be remembered, was not invented. It was not in those days thought possible to get life on to the paper by copying it with ink. Words could not be the equivalents of acts. Life itself is fleeting, but words remain and are put to our account. Every action, it is true, is as old as man and never perishes without an heir. But so are words as old as man, and they are conservative and stern in their treatment of transitory life. Every action seems new and unique to the doer, but how rarely does it seem so when it is recorded in words, how rarely perhaps it is possible for it to seem so. A new form of literature cannot be invented to match the most grand or most lovely life. And fortunately; for if it could, one more proof of the ancient lineage of our life would have been lost. Borrow did not sacrifice the proof. He had read many books in many languages, and he had a strong taste. He liked "Gil Blas," which is a simple chain of various and surprising adventures. He liked the lives of criminals in the "Newgate Lives and Trials" (or rather "Celebrated Trials," 1825), which he compiled for a publisher in his youth.

"What struck me most," he said, "with respect to these lives was the art which the writers, whoever they were, possessed of telling a plain story. It is no easy thing to tell a story plainly and distinctly by mouth; but to tell one on paper is difficult indeed, so many snares lie in the way. People are afraid to put down what is common on paper, they seek to embellish their narrative, as they think, by philosophic speculations and reflections; they are anxious to shine, and people who are anxious to shine, can never tell a plain story. 'So I went with them to a music booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin, and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand,' says, or is made to say, Henry Simms, executed at Tyburn some seventy years before the time of which I am speaking. I have always looked upon this sentence as a masterpiece of the narrative style, it is so concise and yet so very clear."

Borrow read Bunyan, Sterne and Smollett: he liked Byron's "Childe Harold" and his "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte";—he liked that portrait with all Europe and all history for a background. Above all, he read Defoe, and in the third chapter of "Lavengro" he has described his first sight of "Robinson Crusoe" as a little child:

"The first object on which my eyes rested was a picture; it was exceedingly well executed, at least the scene which it represented made a vivid impression upon me, which would hardly have been the case had the artist not been faithful to nature. A wild scene it was—a heavy sea and rocky shore, with mountains in the background, above which the moon was peering. Not far from the shore, upon the water, was a boat with two figures in it, one of which stood at the bow, pointing with what I knew to be a gun at a dreadful shape in the water; fire was flashing from the muzzle of the gun, and the monster appeared to be transfixed. I almost thought I heard its cry. I remained motionless, gazing upon the picture, scarcely daring to draw my breath, lest the new and wondrous world should vanish of which I had now obtained a glimpse. 'Who are those people, and what could have brought them into that strange situation?' I asked myself; and now the seed of curiosity, which had so long lain dormant, began to expand, and I vowed to myself to become speedily acquainted with the whole history of the people in the boat. After looking on the picture till every mark and line in it were familiar to me, I turned over various leaves till I came to another engraving; a new source of wonder—a low sandy beach on which the furious sea was breaking in mountain-like billows; cloud and rack deformed the firmament, which wore a dull and leaden-like hue; gulls and other aquatic fowls were toppling upon the blast, or skimming over the tops of the maddening waves—'Mercy upon him! he must be drowned!' I exclaimed, as my eyes fell upon a poor wretch who appeared to be striving to reach the shore; he was upon his legs, but was evidently half smothered with the brine; high above his head curled a horrible billow, as if to engulf him for ever. 'He must be drowned! he must be drowned!' I almost shrieked, and dropped the book. I soon snatched it up again, and now my eye lighted on a third picture; again a shore, but what a sweet and lovely one, and how I wished to be treading it; there were beautiful shells lying on the smooth white sand, some were empty like those I had occasionally seen on marble mantelpieces, but out of others peered the heads and bodies of wondrous crayfish; a wood of thick green trees skirted the beach and partly shaded it from the rays of the sun, which shone hot above, while blue waves slightly crested with foam were gently curling against it; there was a human figure upon the beach, wild and uncouth, clad in the skins of animals, with a huge cap on his head, a hatchet at his girdle, and in his hand a gun; his feet and legs were bare; he stood in an attitude of horror and surprise; his body was bent far back, and his eyes, which seemed starting out of his head, were fixed upon a mark on the sand—a large distinct mark—a human footprint!

"Reader, is it necessary to name the book which now stood open in my hand, and whose very prints, feeble expounders of its wondrous lines, had produced within me emotions strange and novel? Scarcely, for it was a book which has exerted over the minds of Englishmen an influence certainly greater than any other of modern times, which has been in most people's hands, and with the contents of which even those who cannot read are to a certain extent acquainted; a book from which the most luxuriant and fertile of our modern prose writers have drunk inspiration; a book, moreover, to which, from the hardy deeds which it narrates, and the spirit of strange and romantic enterprise which it tends to awaken, England owes many of her astonishing discoveries both by sea and land, and no inconsiderable part of her naval glory.

"Hail to thee, spirit of De Foe! What does not my own poor self owe to thee? England has better bards than either Greece or Rome, yet I could spare them easier far than De Foe, 'unabashed De Foe,' as the hunchbacked rhymer styled him."

It was in this manner, he declares, that he "first took to the paths of knowledge," and when he began his own "autobiography" he must have well remembered the opening of "Robinson Crusoe":—"I was born in the year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, named Kreutznaer, who first settled at Hull," though Borrow himself would have written it: "I was born in the year 16—-, in the City of Y—-, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, named Kruschen, who first settled at H—-." Probably he remembered also that other fictitious autobiography of Defoe's, "The Adventures of Captain Singleton," of the child who was stolen and disposed of to a Gypsy and lived with his good Gypsy mother until she happened to be hanged, a little too soon for him to be "perfected in the strolling trade." Defoe had told him long before Richard Ford that he need not be afraid of being low. He could always give the same excuse as Defoe in "Moll Flanders"—"as the best use is to be made even of the worst story, the moral, 'tis hoped, will keep the reader serious, even where the story might incline him to be otherwise." In fact, Borrow did afterwards claim that his book set forth in as striking a way as any "the kindness and providence of God." Even so, De Quincey suggested as an excuse in his "Confessions" the service possibly to be rendered to other opium-eaters. Borrow tells us in the twenty-second chapter of "Lavengro" how he sought for other books of adventure like "Robinson Crusoe"—which he will not mention by name!—and how he read many "books of singular power, but of coarse and prurient imagination." One of these, "The English Rogue," he describes as a book "written by a remarkable genius." He might have remembered in its preface the author lamenting that, though it was meant for the life of a "witty extravagant," readers would regard it as the author's own life, "and notwithstanding all that hath been said to the contrary many still continue in this belief." He might also have remembered that the apology for portraying so much vice was that the ugliness of it—"her vizard-mask being remov'd"—"cannot but cause in her (quondam) adorers, a loathing instead of loving." The dirty hero runs away as a boy and on the very first day tires of nuts and blackberries and longs "to taste of the fleshpots again." He sleeps in a barn until he is waked, pursued and caught by Gypsies. He agrees to stay with them, and they have a debauch of eating, drinking and fornication, which makes him well content to join the "Ragged Regiment." They colour his face with walnut juice so that he looks a "true son of an Egyptian." Hundreds of pages are filled thereafter by tediously dragging in, mostly from other books, joyless and leering adventures of low dishonesty and low lust. Another book of the kind which Borrow knew was the life of Bamfylde Moore-Carew, born in 1693 at a Devonshire rectory. He hunted the deer with some of his schoolfellows from Tiverton and they played truant for fear of punishment. They fell in with some Gypsies feasting and carousing and asked to be allowed to "enlist into their company." The Gypsies admitted them after the "requisite ceremonies" and "proper oaths." The philosophy of Carew or his historian is worth noticing. He says of the Gypsies:

"There are perhaps no people so completely happy as they are, or enjoy so great a share of liberty. The king is elective by the whole people, but none are allowed to stand as candidates for that honour but such as have been long in their society, and perfectly studied the nature and institution of it; they must likewise have given repeated proofs of their personal wisdom, courage and capacity; this is better known as they always keep a public record or register of all remarkable (either good or bad) actions performed by any of their society, and they can have no temptation to make choice of any but the most worthy, as their king has no titles or legislative employments to bestow, which might influence or corrupt their judgments.

"The laws of these people are few and simple, but most exactly and punctually observed; the fundamental of which is that strong love and mutual regard for each member in particular and for the whole community in general, which is inculcated into them from the earliest infancy. . . . Experience has shown them that, by keeping up their nice sense of honour and shame, they are always enabled to keep their community in better order than the most severe corporal punishments have been able to effect in other governments.

"But what has still more tended to preserve their happiness is that they know no other use of riches than the enjoyment of them. They know no other use of it than that of promoting mirth and good humour; for which end they generously bring their gains into a common stock, whereby they whose gains are small have an equal enjoyment with those whose profits are larger, excepting only that a mark or ignominy is affixed on those who do not contribute to the common stock proportionately to their abilities and the opportunities they have of gain, and this is the source of their uninterrupted happiness; fully this means they have no griping usurer to grind them, no lordly possessor to trample on them, nor any envyings to torment them; they have no settled habitations, but, like the Scythian of old, remove from place to place, as often as their convenience or pleasure requires it, which render their life a perpetual source of the greatest variety.

"By what we have said above, and much more that we could add of the happiness of these people and of their peculiar attachment to each other, we may account for what has been matter of much surprise to the friends of our hero, viz., his strong attachment, for the space of about forty years, to this community, and his refusing the large offers that have been made to quit their society."

Carew himself met with nothing but success in his various impersonations of Tom o' Bedlam, a rat-catcher, a non-juring clergyman, a shipwrecked Quaker, and an aged woman with three orphan grandchildren. He was elected King of the Beggars, and lost the dignity only by deliberate abdication. "The restraints of a town not suiting him after the free rambling life he had led, he took a house in the country, and having acquired some property on the decease of a relation, he was in a position to purchase a residence more suited to his taste, and lived for some years a quiet life 'respected best by those who knew him best.'"

A very different literary hero of Borrow's was William Cobbett, in spite of his radical opinions. Cobbett was a man who wrote, as it were, with his fist, not the tips of his fingers. When I begin to read him I think at once of a small country town where men talk loudly to one another at a distance or as they walk along in opposite directions, and the voices ring as their heels do on the cobbles. He is not a man of arguments, but of convictions. He is so full of convictions that, though not an indolent man, he has no time for arguments. "On this stiff ground," he says in North Wiltshire, "they grow a good many beans and give them to the pigs with whey; which makes excellent pork for the Londoners; but which must meet with a pretty hungry stomach to swallow it in Hampshire." When he was being shouted down at Lewes in 1822, and someone moved that he should be put out of the room, he says: "I rose that they might see the man that they had to put out." The hand that holds the bridle holds the pen. The night after he has been hare-hunting—Friday, November the sixteenth, 1821, at Old Hall, in Herefordshire—he writes down this note of it:

"A whole day most delightfully passed a hare-hunting, with a pretty pack of hounds kept here by Messrs. Palmer. They put me upon a horse that seemed to have been made on purpose for me, strong, tall, gentle and bold; and that carried me either over or through every thing. I, who am just the weight of a four-bushel sack of good wheat, actually sat on her back from daylight in the morning to dusk (about nine hours) without once setting my foot on the ground. Our ground was at Orcop, a place about four miles distance from this place. We found a hare in a few minutes after throwing off; and, in the course of the day, we had to find four, and were never more than ten minutes in finding. A steep and naked ridge, lying between two flat valleys, having a mixture of pretty large fields and small woods, formed our ground. The hares crossed the ridge forward and backward, and gave us numerous views and very fine sport. I never rode on such steep ground before; and, really, in going up and down some of the craggy places, where the rain had washed the earth from the rocks, I did think, once or twice of my neck, and how Sidmouth would like to see me. As to the cruelty, as some pretend, of this sport, that point I have, I think, settled, in one of the chapters of my 'Year's Residence in America.' As to the expense, a pack, even a full pack of harriers, like this, costs less than two bottles of wine a day with their inseparable concomitants. And as to the time spent, hunting is inseparable from early rising; and, with habits of early rising, who ever wanted time for any business?"

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