Isopel Berners - The History of certain doings in a Staffordshire Dingle, July, 1825
by George Borrow
1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Transcribed from the 1901 Hodder and Stoughton edition by David Price, email



The History of certain doings in a Staffordshire Dingle, July, 1825: An Episode in the Autobiography of George Borrow.



Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury.



The last century was yet in its infancy when the author of The Romany Rye first saw the light in the sleepy little East Anglian township of East Dereham, in the county distinguished by Borrow as the one in which the people eat the best dumplings in the world and speak the purest English. "Pretty quiet D[ereham]" was the retreat in those days of a Lady Bountiful in the person of Dame Eleanor Fenn, relict of the worthy editor of the Paston Letters. It is better known in literary history as the last resting-place of a sad and unquiet spirit, escaped from a world in which it had known nought but sorrow, of "England's sweetest and most pious bard," William Cowper. But Destiny was weaving a robuster thread to connect East Dereham with literature, for George Borrow {1} was born there on July 5th, 1803, and, nomad though he was, the place was always dear to his heart as his earliest home.

In 1816, after ramblings far and wide both in Ireland and in Scotland, the Borrows settled in Norwich, where George was schooled under a master whose name at least is still familiar to English youth, Dr. Valpy (brother of Dr. Richard Valpy). Among his schoolfellows at the grammar school were Rajah Brooke and Dr. James Martineau. George Borrow, a hardened truant from his earliest teens, was once horsed, to undergo a flogging, on the back of James Martineau, and he never afterwards took kindly to the philosophy of that remarkable man. We are glad to know that Edward Valpy's ferule was weak, though his scholarship was strong. Stories were current that even in those days George used to haunt the gipsy tents on that Mousehold Heath which lives eternally in the breezy canvases of "Old Crome," and that he went so far as to stain his face with walnut-juice to the right Egyptian hue. "Are you suffering from jaundice, Borrow," asked the Doctor, "or is it merely dirt?" While at Norwich, too, he was greatly influenced in the direction of linguistics by the English "pocket Goethe," William Taylor, the head of a clan known as the Taylors of Norwich, to distinguish them from a race in which the principle of heredity was even more strikingly developed—the Taylors of Ongar. In February 1824 his father, the gallant Captain Thomas Borrow, died, and his articles in the firm of a Norwich solicitor having determined, George went to London to commence literary man, in the old sense of the servitude, under the well-known bookseller-publisher, Sir Richard Phillipps. In Grub Street he translated and compiled galore, but when the trees began to shoot in 1825 he broke his chain and escaped to the country, to the dingle, and to Isopel Berners.

To dwell upon the bare outlines of Borrow's early career would be a superfluously dull proceeding. We shall only add a few names and dates to the framework, supplied with a fidelity that is rare in much more formal works of autobiography, in the pages of Lavengro. From the same pages we may detach just a few of the earlier influences which went to make up the rare and complex individuality of the writer. Borrow's father, a fine old soldier, in revealing his son's youthful idiosyncrasy, projects a clear mental image of his own habit of mind. "The boy had the impertinence to say the classics were much over-valued, and amongst other things that some horrid fellow or other, some Welshman, I think (thank God it was not an Irishman), was a better poet than Ovid. {2} That a boy of his years should entertain an opinion of his own, I mean one which militates against all established authority, is astonishing. As well might a raw recruit pretend to offer an unfavourable opinion on the manual and platoon exercise. The idea is preposterous; the lad is too independent by half."

Borrow's account of his father's death is a highly affecting piece of English. The ironical humour blent with pathos in his picture of this ill-rewarded old disciplinarian (who combined a tenderness of heart with a fondness for military metaphor that frequently reminds one of "My Uncle Toby"), the details of the ailments and the portents that attended his infantile career, and, above all, the glimpses of the wandering military life from barrack to barrack and from garrison to garrison, inevitably remind the reader of the childish reminiscences of Laurence Sterne, a writer to whom it may thus early be said that George Borrow paid no small amount of unconscious homage. A homage of another sort, fully recognised and declared, was that paid to the great work of Defoe, and to the spirit of strange and romantic enterprise which it aroused in its reader.

After Robinson Crusoe there played across the disk of his youthful memory a number of weird and hairy figures never to be effaced. A strange old herbalist and snake-killer with a skin cap first whetted his appetite for the captivating confidences of roadside vagrants, and the acquaintanceship serves as an introduction to the scene of the gipsy encampment, where the young Sapengro or serpent charmer was first claimed as brother by Jasper Petulengro. The picture of the encampment may serve as an example of Borrovian prose, nervous, unembarrassed, and graphic.

One day it happened, being on my rambles, I entered a green lane which I had never seen before. At first it was rather narrow, but as I advanced it became considerably wider. In the middle was a drift-way with deep ruts, but right and left was a space carpeted with a sward of trefoil and clover. There was no lack of trees, chiefly ancient oaks, which, flinging out their arms from either side, nearly formed a canopy and afforded a pleasing shelter from the rays of the sun, which was burning fiercely above. Suddenly a group of objects attracted my attention. Beneath one of the largest of the trees, upon the grass, was a kind of low tent or booth, from the top of which a thin smoke was curling. Beside it stood a couple of light carts, whilst two or three lean horses or ponies were cropping the herbage which was growing nigh. . . .

As a pendant to the landscape take a Flemish interior. The home of the Borrows had been removed in the meantime, in accordance with the roving traditions of the family, from Norman Cross to Edinburgh and from Edinburgh to Clonmel.

And to the school I went [at Clonmel], where I read the Latin tongue and the Greek letters with a nice old clergyman who sat behind a black oaken desk with a huge Elzevir Flaccus before him, in a long gloomy kind of hall with a broken stone floor, the roof festooned with cobwebs, the walls considerably dilapidated and covered over with stray figures in hieroglyphics evidently produced by the application of a burnt stick.

In Ireland, too, he made the acquaintance of the gossoon Murtagh, who taught him Irish in return for a pack of cards. In the course of his wanderings with his father's regiment he develops into a well-grown and well-favoured lad, a shrewd walker and a bold rider. "People may talk of first love—it is a very agreeable event, I dare say—but give me the flush, the triumph, and glorious sweat of a first ride." {5}

At Norwich he learns modern languages from an old emigre, a true disciple of the ancien cour, who sets Boileau high above Dante; and some misty German metaphysics from the Norwich philosopher, who consistently seeks a solace in smoke from the troubles of life. His father had already noted his tendency to fly off at a tangent which was strikingly exhibited in the lawyer's office, where "within the womb of a lofty deal desk," when he should have been imbibing Blackstone and transcribing legal documents, he was studying Monsieur Vidocq and translating the Welsh bard Ab Gwilym; he was consigning his legal career to an early grave when he wrote this elegy on the worthy attorney his master.

He has long since sunk to his place in a respectable vault, in the aisle of a very respectable church, whilst an exceedingly respectable marble slab against the neighbouring wall tells on a Sunday some eye wandering from its prayer-book that his dust lies below. To secure such respectabilities in death he passed a most respectable life, a more respectable-looking individual never was seen.

In the meantime as a sequel to his questionings on the subjects of reality and truth, the Author was asking himself "What is death?" and the query serves as a prelude to the first of the many breezy dialogues with that gipsy cousin-german to Autolycus, Jasper Petulengro.

"What is your opinion of death, Mr. Petulengro?"

"My opinion of death, brother, is much the same as that in the old song of Pharaoh . . . 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 there 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, brother."

"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 Romany chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed! a Romany chal would wish to live for ever."

"In sickness, Jasper?"

"There's the sun and 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. Daeta, 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."

Leaving Norwich and his legal trammels, a few weeks after his father's death, in 1824, Lavengro reaches London—the scene of Grub Street struggles not greatly relaxed in severity since the days of Newbery, Gardener and Christopher Smart. As the genius of Hawthorne was cooped up and enslaved for the American "Peter Parley," so that of Borrow was hag- ridden by a bookseller publisher of an even worse type, the radical alderman and philanthropic sweater, Sir Richard Phillipps. For this stony-hearted faddist he covered reams of paper with printers' copy; and we are told that the kind of compilation that he liked (and probably executed) best was that of Newgate Lives and Trials. He had well-nigh reached the end of his tether when he had the conversation with Phillipps's head factotum, Taggart, which we cite below and recommend feelingly to the consideration of every literary aspirant. Sordid and commonplace enough are the details; simple and free from every kind of inflation the language in which they are narrated. Yet how picturesque are these vignettes of London life! How vivid and yet how strange are the figures that animate them! The harsh literary impresario with his "drug in the market," who seems to have stalked straight out of Smollett, {8} the gnarled old applewoman, with every wrinkle shown, on her stall upon London Bridge, the grasping Armenian merchant who softened at the sound of his native tongue, the giddy young spendthrift Francis Ardry and the confiding young creature who had permitted him to hire her a very handsome floor in the West End, the gipsies and thimble-riggers in Greenwich Park—what moving and lifelike figures are these, stippled in with a seeming absence of art, yet as strange and as rare as a Night in Bagdad, a chapter of Balzac, or the most fantastic scene in the New Arabian Nights.

This brief recapitulation—in which it has been possible but just to touch upon a few of the inner springs of Borrow's life as revealed in the autobiographical Lavengro—brings us once again to that spring day in 1825—May 20th—when the author disposed of an unidentifiable manuscript for the sumptuous equivalent of 20 pounds. On May 22nd, after little more than a year's residence in London, he abandons the city. From London he proceeds to Amesbury, in Wiltshire, which he reaches on May 23rd; visits Stonehenge, the Roman Camp of Old Sarum and Salisbury; on May 26th he leaves Salisbury, and (after an encounter with the long-lost son of the old applewoman, returned from Botany Bay), strikes north-west. On the 30th he has been walking four days in a northerly direction, when he arrives at the inn where the maid Jenny refreshes him at the pump, and he meets the author with whom he passes the night. On the 31st he purchases the horse and cart of Jack Slingsby, whom he had previously seen but once, at Tamworth, many years ago when he was little more than a child. On June 1st he makes the first practical experience of a vagrant's life, and passes the night in the open air in a Shropshire dell; on June 5th he is visited by Leonora Herne, the grandchild of the old "brimstone hag" who was jealous of the cordiality with which the young stranger had been received by the Petulengroes and initiated in the secrets of their gipsy tribe. Three days later, betrayed to the old woman by Leonora, he is drabbed (i.e. poisoned) with the manricli or doctored cake of Mrs. Herne; his life is in imminent danger, but he is saved by the opportune arrival of Peter Williams. He passes Sunday, June 12th, with the Welsh preacher and his wife Winifred; on the 21st he departs with his itinerant hosts to the Welsh border. Before entering Wales, however, he turns back with Ambrose ("Jasper") Petulengro and settles with his own stock-in-trade as tinker and blacksmith at the foot of the dingle hard by Mumper's Lane, near Willenhall, in Staffordshire; here at the end of June 1825 takes place the classical encounter between the philologer and the flaming tinman—all this, is it not related in Lavengro, and substantiated with much hard labour of facts and dates by Dr. W. I. Knapp in his exhaustive biography of George Borrow? The allurement of his genius is such that the etymologist shall leave his roots and the philologer his Maeso-Gothic to take to the highway and dwell in the dingle with "Don Jorge."

Lavengro's triumph over the flaming tinman is the prelude to what Professor Saintsbury justly calls "the miraculous episode of Ysopel Berners," and the narrative of the author's life is thence continued, with many digressions, but with a remarkable fidelity to fact as far as the main issue is concerned, until the narrative, though not the life- story of the author, abruptly terminates at Horncastle, in August 1825. There follows what is spoken of as the veiled period of Borrow's life, from 1826 to 1833.

The years in which we drift are generally veiled from posterity. The system of psychometry carried to such perfection by Obermann and Amiel could at no time have been exactly congenial to Borrow, who spoke of himself at this period as "digging holes in the sand and filling them up again." Roughly speaking, the years appear to have been spent comparatively uneventfully, for the most part in Norfolk. In December 1832 he walked to London to interview the British and Foreign Bible Society, covering a hundred and twelve miles in twenty-seven hours on less than sixpennyworth of food and drink. He was thirty years old at the time, and the achievement was the pride of his remaining years. Six months later, on the strength of his linguistic attainments, he managed to get on the paid staff of the Society, to the bewilderment of Norwich "friends," who were inclined to be ironical on the subject of the transformation of the chum of hanged Thurtell and the disciple of godless Billy Taylor into a Bible missionary. In July 1833, then, Borrow sets out on his Eastern travels as the accredited agent of the Bible Society, goes to St. Petersburg, "the finest city in the world," and obtains the Russian imprimatur for a Manchu version of that suspicious novelty, the Bible. He carried this scheme into execution to the general satisfaction, and he returns to London in 1837; then to the south of Europe, whence he reappears, larger than life and twice as natural, in his masterly autobiographical romance of The Bible in Spain, the work which made his name, which was sold by thousands, which was eagerly acclaimed as an invaluable addition to "Sunday" literature, and pirated in a generous spirit of emulation by American publishers.

We are now come to the circumstance of the composition of Lavengro. The Bible in Spain, when it appeared in 1843, implied a wonderful background to the Author's experience, a career diversified by all kinds of wild adventures, "sorcery, Jews, Gentiles, rambles," gipsies, prisons,—what you will. {12}

The personal element in the book—so suggestive of mystery and romance—excited the strongest curiosity. Apart from this, however, the reading public of 1843 were not unnaturally startled by a book which seemed to profess to be a good, serious, missionary work, but for which it was manifest that Gil Blas and not Bishop Heber had been taken as a model. Not that any single comparison of the kind can convey the least idea of the complex idiosyncrasy of such a work. There is a substratum of Guide Book and Gil Blas, no doubt, but there are unmistakable streaks of Defoe, of Dumas, and of Dickens, with all his native prejudices and insular predilections strong upon him. A narrative so wide awake amidst a vagrant population of questionable morals and alien race suggests an affinity with Hajji Baba (a close kinsman, we conceive, of the Borrovian picaro). But, above all, as one follows the author through the mazes of his book, one is conscious of two strangely assorted figures, never far from the itinerant's side, and always ready to improve the occasion if a shadow of an opportunity be afforded. One, who is prolific of philological chippings, might be compared to a semblance of Max Muller; while the other, alternately denouncing the wickedness and deriding the toothlessness of a grim Giant Pope, may be likened, at a distance, to John Bunyan. About the whole—to conclude—is an atmosphere, not too pronounced, of the Newgate Calendar, and a few patches of sawdust from the Prize Ring. May not people well have wondered (the good pious English folk to whom Luck is a scandal, as the Bible Society's secretary wrote to Borrow),—what manner of man is this, this muleteer-missionary, this natural man with a pen in the hand of a prize-fighter, but of a prize-fighter who is afflicted with the fads of a philologer—and a pedant at that? The surprise may be compared to what that of a previous generation would have been, had it seen Johnson and Boswell and Baretti all fused into one man. The incongruity is heightened by familiarity with Borrow's tall, blonde, Scandinavian figure, and the reader is reminded of those roving Northmen of the days of simple mediaeval devotion, who were wont to signalise their conversion from heathen darkness by a Mediterranean venture, combining the characters of a piratical cruise and a pious pilgrimage.

That Curiosity exaggerated and was a marvel-monger we shall attempt to demonstrate. But, in the meantime, it was there, and it was very strong. As for Borrow, he was prepared to derive stimulus from it just as long as it maintained the unquestioning attitude of Jasper Petulengro when he expressed the sentiments of gipsydom in the well-worn "Lor', brother, how learned you are!"

In February 1843 Borrow wrote to Murray that he had begun his Life—a "kind of biography in the Robinson Crusoe style,"—and was determined that it should surpass anything that he had already written. It had been contemplated, he added, for some months already, as a possible sequel to the Bible in Spain if that proved successful. Hitherto, he wrote, the public had said "Good" (to his Gypsies of Spain, 1841), "Better" (to the Bible in Spain), and he wanted it, when No. 3 appeared, to say "Best." Five years rapidly passed away, until, in the summer of 1848, the book was announced as about to appear shortly, under the title of Lavengro: An Autobiography, which was soon changed to Life: a Drama. The difficulty of writing a book which should have "no humbug in it," proved, as may well be supposed, immense, and would in any case be quite sufficient to account for the long period of gestation. His perplexities may have often been very near akin to those ascribed to the superstitious author in the sixty-fifth chapter of Lavengro; his desire to be original sadly cramping the powers of his mind, his fastidiousness being so great that he invariably rejected whatever ideas he did not consider to be legitimately his own. As a substitute for the usual padding of humbug, sycophancy and second-hand ideas, he bethought himself of philology, and he set himself to spring fragments of philological instruction (often far from sound) upon his reader in the most unexpected places, that his ingenuity could devise. He then began to base hopes upon the book in proportion to its originality. At the last moment, however, the Author grew querulous about his work, distrustful of the reception that would be given to it, and even as to the advisability of producing it at all. Much yet remained to be done, but for a long time he refused, not only to forward new copy to Albemarle Street, but even to revise the proofs of that which he had already written, and it required all the dunning that Murray and the printer Woodfall dare apply before Lavengro with its altered sub-title (for at the last moment Borrow grew afraid of openly avowing his identity with the speaking likeness which he had created) could be announced as "just ready" in the Athenaeum of Dec. 14th, 1850.

Lavengro; the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, eventually appeared in three volumes on Feb. 7th, 1851. The autobiographical Lavengro stopped short in July 1825, at the conclusion of the hundredth chapter, with an abruptness worthy of the Sentimental Journey. The Author had succeeded in extending the area of mystery, but not in satisfying the public. Borrow's confidences were so very different in complexion from those which the critics seemed to have expected, that they were taken aback and declared to the public almost with one accord that the writer's eccentricities had developed into mannerisms, that his theories of life were political manifestoes, that his dialects were gibberish, and his defiance of the orthodox canons of autobiography scarcely less than an outrage upon the public taste.

From the general public came a fusillade of requests to solve the prevailing mystery of the book. Was it fact or fiction?—or, if fact and fiction were blended, in what proportions? Borrow ought to have been prepared for a question so natural in the mouths of literary busy-bodies at any time, and especially at a time when partisan spirit was rampant, and the vitality of the lampoon as a factor in politics so far from extinct. To show his contempt alike for the critical verdict and the popular curiosity, after a quarrel, or at least a sharp coolness with John Murray, he published in two volumes, in May 1857, The Romany Rye, which carries on the story of Lavengro for just about a month further, namely, down towards the end of August 1825, and there again stops dead. Whether we regard coherence or the rate of progress, no more attempt at amendment is perceptible than can be discerned in the later as compared with the earlier volumes of Tristram Shandy. The peculiarities of the earlier volume are, indeed, here accentuated, while the Author had evidently only been confirmed by the lapse of years in the political philosophy to which he had already given expression. At the end was printed an appendix (a sort of catalogue raisonne of Borrovian prejudices), satirising with unmeasured bitterness the critics of Lavengro.

The resumption of a story after an interval of over six years, with appendages so extravagant, whether we regard their tenor or their length, and with an indifference so sublime to the popular desire that he should get along with his personal narrative, was hardly calculated to conciliate critical opinion; but it had one capital effect. It drew from Whitwell Elwin, himself a Norfolk man, and a literary critic of the widest grasp and knowledge, this remarkable testimony: that far from exaggerating such incidents as were drawn from his own experience (not a few, as he himself could verify), Borrow's descriptions were rather within the truth than beyond it. "However picturesquely they may be drawn, the lines are invariably those of nature. . . . There can be no doubt that the larger part, and possibly the whole of the work, is a narrative of actual occurrences."

Here, then, is the heart of the mystery, or of the mystery that is apparent; the phenomenon is due primarily to the fact that Borrow's book is so abnormally true as regards the matter, while in manner of presentation it is so strikingly original. There are superficial traces, no doubt, of not a few writers of the eighteenth century. In some of his effects Borrow reproduces Sterne: essentially Sternean, for instance, is the interview between the youthful author and the experienced Mr. Taggart.

"Well, young gentleman," said Taggart to me one morning when we chanced to be alone, a few days after the affair of cancelling, "how do you like authorship?"

"I scarcely call authorship the drudgery I am engaged in," said I.

"What do you call authorship?" said Taggart.

"I scarcely know," said I; "that is, I can scarcely express what I think it."

"Shall I help you out?" said Taggart, turning round his chair, and looking at me.

"If you like," said I.

"To write something grand," said Taggart, taking snuff; "to be stared at—lifted on people's shoulders."

"Well," said I, "that is something like it."

Taggart took snuff.

"Well," said he, "why don't you write something grand?"

"I have," said I.

"What?" said Taggart.

"Why," said I, "there are those ballads."

Taggart took snuff.

"And those wonderful versions from Ab Gwilym."

Taggart took snuff again.

"You seem to be very fond of snuff," said I, looking at him angrily.

Taggart tapped his box.

"Have you taken it long?"

"Three-and-twenty years."

"What snuff do you take?"

"Universal Mixture."

"And you find it of use?"

Taggart tapped his box.

"In what respect?" said I.

"In many—there is nothing like it to get a man through; but for snuff I should scarcely be where I am now."

"Have you been long here?"

"Three-and-twenty years."

"Dear me," said I; "and snuff brought you through? Give me a pinch—pah, I don't like it," and I sneezed.

"Take another pinch," said Taggart.

"No," said I; "I don't like snuff."

"Then you will never do for authorship; at least for this kind."

"So I begin to think. What shall I do?"

Taggart took snuff.

"You were talking of a great work. What shall it be?"

Taggart took snuff.

"Do you think I could write one?"

Taggart uplifted his two forefingers as if to tap; he did not, however.

"It would require time," said I, with half a sigh.

Taggart tapped his box.

"A great deal of time. I really think that my ballads—"

Taggart took snuff.

"If published, would do me credit. I'll make an effort, and offer them to some other publisher."

Taggart took a double quantity of snuff.

Equally Sterne-like is the conclusion to a chapter: "Italy—what was I going to say about Italy?"

Less superficial is the influence of Cervantes and his successors of the Picaresque school, down to the last and most representative of them in England, namely Defoe and Smollett. Profoundest of all, perhaps, is the influence of Defoe, of whose powers of intense realisation, exhibited in the best parts of Robinson Crusoe, we get a fine counterpart amid the outcasts in Mumper's Lane. Bound up with the truthfulness and originality of the Author is that strange absence of sycophancy, which we may flatter ourselves is no exceptional thing, but which is in reality a very rare phenomenon in literature.

Apart from this independence of character which he so justly prized, and a monomania or two, such as his devotion to philology or detestation of popery, Borrow's mental peculiarities are not by any means so extravagant as has been supposed. His tastes were for the most part not unusual, though they might be assorted in a somewhat uncommon manner. He was a thorough sportsman in the best sense, but he combined with his sporting zeal an instinctive hatred of gambling, of bad language, and of tyranny or cruelty in any form. He entertained a love for the horse in the stable without bowing down to worship the stage-coachmen, the jockeys, and other ignoble heroes of "horsey" life. He loved his country and "the quiet, unpretending Church of England." He was ready to exalt the obsolescent fisticuffs and the "strong ale of Old England," but he was not blind either to the drunkenness or to the overbearing brutality which he had reason to fear might be held to disfigure the character of the swilling and prize-fighting sections among his compatriots. {20a}

Borrow was a master of whim; but it is easy to exaggerate his eccentricity. As a traveller who met with adventures upon the roads of Britain he was surpassed by a dozen writers that could be named, and in our own day—to mention one—by that truly eccentric being "The Druid." {20b} The Druid had a special affinity with Borrow, in regard to his kindness for an old applewoman. His applewoman kept a stall in the Strand to which the Druid was a constant visitor, mainly for the purpose of having a chat and borrowing and repaying small sums, rarely exceeding one shilling. As an author, again, Borrow was as jealous as one of Thackeray's heroines; he could hardly bear to hear a contemporary book praised. Whim, if you will, but scarcely an example of literary eccentricity.

Borrow developed a delightful faculty for adventure upon the high road, but such a faculty was far less singular than his gift—akin to the greatest painter's power of suggesting atmosphere—of investing each scene and incident with a separate and distinct air of uncompromising reality. Many persons may have had the advantage of hearing conversation as brilliant or as wise as that of the dinner at Dilly's: what is distinctive of genius is the power to convey the general feeling of the interlocutors, to suggest a dramatic effect, an artistic whole, as Boswell does, by the cumulative effect of infinitesimal factors. The triumph in each case is one not of opportunities but of the subtlest literary sense.

Similarly, Borrow's fixed ideas had little that was really exceptional or peculiar about them. His hatred of mumbo-jumbo and priestcraft was but a part of his steady love of freedom and sincerity. His linguistic mania had less of a philological basis than he would have us believe. Impatience that Babel should act as a barrier between kindred souls, an insatiable curiosity, prompted by the knowledge that the language of minorities was in nine cases out of ten the direct route to the heart of the secret of folks that puzzled him—such were the motives that stimulated a hunger for strange vocabularies, not in itself abnormal. The colloquial faculty which he undoubtedly possessed—for we are told by Taylor that when barely eighteen he already knew English, Welsh, Irish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Danish, French, Italian, and Portuguese—rarely goes with philological depth any more than with idiomatic purity. Borrow learnt some languages to translate, many to speak imperfectly. {22}

But as a comparative philologist, with claims to scientific equipment, his Targum, with its boasted versions from thirty languages or dialects, pales considerably before the almost contemporary Philological Grammar, based upon a comparison of over sixty tongues, by the Dorset poet William Barnes, who, like Borrow himself, was a self-taught man. To mention but two more English contemporaries of Borrow, there was Thomas Watts, of the British Museum, who could read nearly fifty languages, including Chinese; and Canon Cook, the editor of the Speaker's Commentary, who claimed acquaintance with fifty-four. It is commonly said of Cardinal Mezzofanti that he could speak thirty and understand sixty. It is quite plain from the pages of Lavengro itself that Borrow did not share Gregory XVI.'s high estimate of the Cardinal's mental qualifications, unrivalled linguist though he was. That a "word-master" so abnormal is apt to be deficient in logical sense seems to have been Borrow's deliberate opinion (with a saving clause as to exceptions), and I have often thought that it must have been Shakespeare's too, for does he not ascribe a command of tongues to the man who is perhaps the most consummate idiot in the whole range of Shakespearean portraiture?

MARIA. That quaffing and drinking will undo you: I heard my lady talk of it yesterday, and of a foolish knight that you brought in here to be her wooer.

SIR TOBY BELCH. Who? Sir Andrew Ague-cheek?

MARIA. Ay, he.

SIR TOBY. He's as tall a man as any in Illyria.

MARIA. What's that to the purpose?

SIR TOBY. Why, he has three thousand ducats a year.

MARIA. Ay, but he'll have but a year in all these ducats: he's a very fool and a prodigal.

SIR TOBY. Fie that you'll say so! He plays o' the viol de gamboys, and speaks three or four languages word for word, without book.

The extraordinary linguistic gifts of a Mezzofanti were not, it is true, concentrated in Borrow (whose powers in this direction have been magnified), but they were sufficiently prominent in him to have a determining effect upon his mind. Thus he was distinguished less for broad views than for an extraordinary faculty for detail; when he attempts to generalise we are likelier to get a flood of inconsequent prejudices than a steady flow of reasoned opinions.

We can frequently study an author with good effect through the medium of his literary admirations; we have already noticed a few of Borrow's predilections in real life. With regard to literature, his predilections (or more particularly what Zola would call his haines) were fully as protestant and as thorough. His indifference to the literature of his own time might be termed brutal; his intellectual self-sufficiency was worthy of a Macaulay or of a Donne. A fellow-denouncer of snobs, he made Thackeray very uncomfortable by his contemptuous ignorance of The Snob Papers, and even of the name of the periodical in which they were appearing. Concerning Keats he once asked, "Have they not been trying to resuscitate him?" When Miss Strickland wanted to send him her Lives, he broke out: "For God's sake don't, madam; I should not know where to put them or what to do with them." Scott's Woodstock he picked up more than once and incontinently threw down as "trashy." As a general rule he judged a modern author by his prejudices. If these differed by a hair's breadth from his own he damned the whole of his work. He had to his credit a vast fund of quaint out-of-the-way reading; not to be acquainted with this was dense unpardonable ignorance: what he had not read was scarcely knowledge. He was not what one could fairly call unread in the classical authors, for in a survey of his reviewers he compared himself complacently enough with Cervantes, Bunyan and Le Sage. He had the utmost suspicion of literary models; to try to be like somebody else was the too popular literary precept that he held in the greatest abhorrence. The gravity of his prescription of Wordsworth as a specific in cases of chronic insomnia is probably due rather to the thorough sincerity of his view than to any conscious subtlety of humour. He disliked Scott especially for his easy tolerance of Jacobites and Papists, {25} while he distrusted his portraits, those portraits of the rougher people which may have frequently been over-praised by Scott's admirers. We most of us love Scott, it is a fact, beyond the power of nice discrimination. As to the verisimilitude of a portrait such as that of Meg Merrilies we must allow Borrow to be a most competent critic, but we are at a loss to sympathise with his failure to appreciate studies of such lifelike fidelity as Edie Ochiltree and Andrew Fairservice, whose views anent "the muckle hure that sitteth on seven hills, as if ane wasna braid eneugh for her auld hinder end," had so much that was in sympathy with Borrow's own.

Of all such prejudices and peculiarities, no less than of his gifts, Borrow was ridiculously proud. In certain respects he was as vainly, querulously, and childishly assertive as Goldsmith himself; while in the haughty self-isolation with which he eschewed the society of people with endowments as great or even greater than his own, he was quite the opposite of "poor Goldy." If the latter had regarded his interlocutors straight in the eyes with a look that told them he was prepared to knock them down at a moment's notice upon the least provocation, we should probably have heard less of his absurdities. A man who even in his old age could walk off with E. J. Trelawny {27a} under his arm (as Mr. Watts- Dunton assures us Borrow could) was certainly not one to be trifled with.

Borrow's absolute unconventionality was of course an offence to many; to Englishmen, who were dreaming in the fifties of a kind of industrial millennium, with Cobden as the prophet and Macaulay as the preacher of a new gospel of commercial prosperity and universal peace and progress, Borrow's pre-railroad prejudices and low tastes appeared obscurantist, dark, squalid, unintelligible. {27b} He ran out his books upon a line directly counter to the literary current of the day, and, naturally enough, the critical billow broke over him.

Hazlitt's proposition—so readily accepted by the smug generation of his day—that London was the only place in which the child could grow up completely into the man—would have appeared the most perverse kind of nonsense to Borrow. The complexity of a modern type, such as that of a big organiser of industrial labour, did not impress him. He esteemed the primitive above the economic man, and was apt to judge a human being rather as Robinson Crusoe might have done than in the spirit of a juryman at an Industrial Exhibition. Again, his feeling for nature was intimate rather than enthusiastic, at a time when people still looked for a good deal of pretty Glover-like composition in their landscapes.

One of the most original traits of Borrow's genius was the care and obstinacy with which he defended his practical, vigorous and alert personality against the allurements of word-painting, of Nature and of Reverie. He could respond to the thrill of natural beauty, he could enjoy his mood when it veritably came upon him, just as he could enjoy a tankard of old ale or linger to gaze upon a sympathetic face; but he refused to pamper such feelings, still more to simulate them; he refused to allow himself to become the creature of literary or poetic ecstasy; he refused to indulge in the fashionable debauch of dilettante melancholy. He wrote about his life quite naturally, "as if there were nothing in it." Another and closely allied cause of perplexity and discontent to the literary connoisseurs was Borrow's lack of style. By style, in the generation of Macaulay and Carlyle, of Dickens and George Eliot, was implied something recondite—a wealth of metaphor, imagery, allusion, colour and perfume—a palette, a pounce-box, an optical instrument, a sounding-board, a musical box, anything rather than a living tongue. To a later race of stylists, who have gone as far as Samoa and beyond in the quest of exotic perfumery, Borrow would have said simply, in the words of old Montaigne, "To smell, though well, is to stink,"—"Malo, quam bene olere, nil olere." Borrow, in fact, by a right instinct went back to the straightforward manner of Swift and Defoe, Smollett and Cobbett, whose vigorous prose he specially admired; and he found his choice ill appreciated by critics whose sense of style demanded that a clear glass window should be studded with bull's-eyes. To his distinctions of being a poet well-nigh incapable of verse, and a humourist with marvellously little pathos, Borrow thus added one which we are inclined to regard as the greatest of all—that of being a great nineteenth-century prose-writer without a style.

Though he did not elaborate, or strive to attain to the cultism or polite style of contemporary genius, Borrow seems to have written with some difficulty (or at any rate a lack of facility), and, impervious as he was to criticism, he retained in his prose a number of small faults that he might easily have got rid of. His manner of introducing his generalities and conclusions is often either superfluous, or lame and clumsy. Despite his natural eloquence, his fondness for the apostrophe is excessive; he preserved an irritating habit of parading such words as eclat, penchant and monticle, and persisted in saying "of a verity," and using the word "individual" in the sense of person. Such blemishes are microscopic enough. It was not such trifles as these that proved stumbling-blocks to the "men of blood and foam," as he called his critics.

Of the generality of the critics of that day it would probably be well within the mark to aver that their equipment was more solid, and their competence more assured than that of their successors; {30} it would be safe to assert that their self-sufficiency was also decidedly more pronounced. Now for reasons which we have endeavoured to explain, the equanimity of the critical reviewers was considerably ruffled by Lavengro. Perplexed by its calling itself an autobiography, they were at the same time discontented both with its subject-matter and its style. To a not altogether misplaced curiosity on the part of the public as to Borrow's antecedents, the author of the Bible in Spain had responded by Lavengro, which he fully meant to be (what it indeed was) a masterpiece. Yet public and critics were agreed in failing to see the matter in this light. As the reader will probably have deduced from the foregoing pages, the trouble was mainly due to the following causes. First, baffled curiosity. Secondly, a dislike for Borrow's prejudices. Thirdly, a disgust at his philistinism in refusing to bow down and worship the regnant idols of 'taste.' Fourthly, the total absence in Borrow of the sentimentality for which the soul of the normal Englishman yearns. Fifthly, disappointment at not finding the critic's due from an accepted author in quotable passages of picturesque prose.

These views are appropriately summed up through the medium of the pure and scentless taste of the Athenaeum. The varied contents of Lavengro are here easily reduced to one denomination—'balderdash,' for the emission of which the Athenaeum critic proceeds (in the interests, of course, of the highest gentility), to give George Borrow a good scolding.

How sadly removed was such procedure from Borrow's own ideal of reviewing, as set forth in the very volume under consideration! Such operations should always, he held, be conducted in a spirit worthy of an editor of Quintilian, in a gentlemanly, Oxford-like manner. No vituperation! No insinuations! Occasionally a word of admonition, but gently expressed as an Oxford M.A. might have expressed it. Some one had ventured to call the Bible in Spain a grotesque book, but the utterance had been drowned in the chorus of acclamation. Now Borrow complained that he had had the honour of being rancorously abused by every unmanly scoundrel, every sycophantic lacquey, and every political and religious renegade in the kingdom. His fury was that of an angry bull tormented by a swarm of gnats. His worst passions were aroused; his most violent prejudices confirmed. His literary zeal, never extremely alert, was sensibly diminished.

This last result at least was a calamity. Nevertheless the great end had, in the main, already been accomplished. Borrow had broken through the tameness of the regulation literary memoir, and had shown the naked footprint on the sand. The 'great unknown' had gone down beneath his associations, his acquirements and his adventures, and had to a large extent revealed himself—a primitive man, with his breast by no means wholly rid of the instincts of the wild beast, grappling with the problem of a complex humanity: an epitome of the eternal struggle which alone gives savour to the wearisome process of "civilisation." For the conventional man of the lapidary phrase and the pious memoir (corrected by the maiden sister and the family divine), Borrow dared to substitute the genus homo of natural history. Perhaps it was only to be expected that, like the discoveries of another Du Chaillu, his revelations should be received with a howl of incredulity.

Almost alone, as far as we can discover, among the critics of the day Emile Montegut realised to the full the true greatness, the originality, the abiding quality and interest of Borrow's work. Writing in September 1857 upon "Le Gentilhomme Bohemien" (an essay which appears in his Ecrivains Modernes de l'Angleterre, between studies on "Mistress Browning" and Alfred Tennyson), Montegut remarks of Borrow's "humoristic Odyssey":—

"Unfinished and fragmentary, these writings can dispense with a conclusion, for they have an intrinsic value, and each page bears the impress of reality. The critic who has to give his impressions of one of Borrow's books is in much the same case as a critic who had to give his impressions in turn of the different parts of Gil Blas as they successively appeared. The work is incomplete, but each several part is excellent and can be appreciated by itself. Borrow has resuscitated a literary form which had been many years abandoned, and he has resuscitated it in no artificial manner—as a rhythmical form is rehabilitated, or as a dilettante re-establishes for a moment the vogue of the roundel or the virelay—but quite naturally as the inevitable setting for a picture which has to include the actors and the observations of the author's vagabond life. To a clear and unprejudiced mind, observation of the life of the common folk and, above all, of the itinerant population and of their equivocal moral code, of necessity and invariably, compels resort to the form and manner of the novela picaresca.

"The huge sensational romance [Sue], the creaking machinery of melodrama [Boucicault], with which it has been attempted in our own day to portray certain tableaux of the life of the people, only succeed, owing to the extravagance of their construction, in demonstrating the complete ignorance on the part of the writers of the subject which they pretend to describe. Borrow has not of set purpose adopted the picaresque form: search his pages where you will, you will find not a trace of such an intention. He has rediscovered the picaresque method, as it were instinctively, by the mere fact of his having to express sentiments of a certain description; he has indeed rediscovered it by the same process which led Cervantes and Hurtado de Mendoza to invent it—by virtue of that necessity which always enables genius to give the most appropriate clothing to its conceptions. To attain this result, however, it is necessary that genius should not be thrown off its balance by deliberate ambition, or too much preoccupied by the immediate desire to succeed. By his conformity to all these conditions, Borrow has become, without giving a thought to such purpose, the Quevedo and the Mendoza of modern England."

Beyond all this there is quite another and perhaps an even more potent reason why the critics of a later generation have felt constrained to place this work of Borrow's upon a higher pedestal than their predecessors did.

As within the four angles of a painting there is nothing more difficult to confine than sunlight and atmosphere, so in literature is it a task of the highest achievement to compass the wind on the heath, the sunshine and the rain. We know the dark background, the mystery and the awe of the forest, how powerfully they are suggested to us by some old writers and some modern ones, such as Spenser and Fouque, by the author of The Pathfinder and Thoreau; the scent of the soil, once again, in rain and in shine, is it not conveyed to us with an astonishing distinctness, that is the product of a literary endowment of the rarest order, by such writers as Izaak Walton and Robert Burns, and among recent writers in varying degrees by Richard Jefferies and by Barnes, by T. E. Brown and Thomas Hardy? And then there is the kindred touch, hardly if at all less rare, which evokes for us the camaraderie and blithe spirit of the highway: the winding road, the flashing stream, the bordering coppice, the view from the crest, the twinkling lights at nightfall from the sheltering inn. Traceable in a long line of our most cherished writers, from Chaucer and Lithgow and Nash, Defoe and Fielding, and Hazlitt and Holcroft, the fascination of the road that these writers have tried to communicate, has never perhaps been expressed with a nicer discernment than in the Confessions of Rousseau, that inveterate pedestrian who walked Europe to the rhythm of ideas as epoch-making as any that have ever emanated from the mind of man.

"La chose que je regrette le plus" (writes Rousseau) "dans les details de ma vie dont j'ai perdu la memoire, est de n'avoir pas fait des journaux de mes voyages. Jamais je n'ai tant pense, tant existe, tant vecu, tant ete moi, si j'ose ainsi dire, que dans ceux que j'ai faits seul et a pied. La marche a quelque chose qui anime et avive mes idees: je ne puis presque penser quand je reste en place; il faut que mon corps soit en branle pour y mettre mon esprit. La vue de la campagne, la succession des aspects agreables, le grand air, le grand appetit, la bonne sante que je gagne en marchant, la liberte du cabaret, l'eloignement de tout ce qui me fait sentir ma dependance, de tout ce qui me rappelle a ma situation: tout cela degage mon ame."

It is a possession in a rare degree of this wonderful open-air quality as a writer that constrains us in our generation to condone any offences against the mint and anise and cummin decrees of literary infallibility that Borrow may have from time to time committed. And when it is realised, in addition, what a unique knowledge he possessed of the daily life, the traditions, the folk-lore, and the dialects of the strange races of vagrants, forming such a picturesque element in the life of the road, the documentary value, as apart from the literary interest of Borrow's work, becomes more and more manifest.

Lavengro is not a book, it is true, to open sesame to the first comer, or to yield up one tithe of its charm upon a first acquaintance. Yet, in spite of the "foaming vipers," as Borrow styles his critics, Lavengro's roots have already struck deep into the soil of English literature, as Dr. Hake predicted that they would. {37} We know something about the dim retreating Arcady from Dr. Jessopp, we know something of the old farmers and tranters and woodlanders from Hardy, something of late Georgian London from Dickens, something of the old Lancashire mill-hands from Mrs. Gaskell, and something of provincial town-life in the forties and fifties from George Eliot. It has fallen to Borrow to hold up the mirror to wild Nature on the roadside and the heath.

"The personages in these inimitable books are not merely snap-shots, they are living pictures; and, more than that, the people are moving about amid fluttering leaves and flickering sunlight and waves of shadow and rippling brooks. One neither misses the colours of the landscapes nor the very sounds of the voices. Moreover, the characters, though we feel that they have never come within the range of our experience, yet did actually live and move and talk as they are represented; and we know, too, that such characters have passed away from our earth—improved off the face of it. And we regret, in spite of ourselves, that these gypsies are gone. The rogues will never come back! A feeling of disappointment is apt to come over us as we read, and we are ready to stop and ask angrily, 'Why can't we drop in among the tents, and see an Ursula or a Pakomovna, and have our fortunes told as of yore?' And we know that it cannot be, and that the Romany Rye is a being who lived and moved in a different age from ours, as different as the age of Hector and Achilles, when warriors fought in their chariots round the walls of Troy, and the long-haired Achaians hurled their spears and stole one another's horses in the darkness, and kings made long speeches armed to the teeth, and ran away with other kings' wives or multiplied their own. We go on to confess to ourselves that we must be content with hearing about all the strange experience of the Romany Rye at second-hand, and since it must be so, we shall do well to surrender ourselves to such a magician as this and make the best of it." {38}

After the publication of the Romany Rye in 1857, Borrow made one more contribution to Belles Lettres in the book called Wild Wales, issued in three volumes in 1862. It commemorates a journey made in the summer of 1854, while its heroic championship of the Bardic literature recalls the earlier enthusiasm for Ab Gwilym. If after his return from Spain a definite sphere of activity abroad could have been allotted to Borrow (by preference in the East, as he himself desired), we might have had from his pen contributions to the study of Eastern life that would have added lustre to a group of writers already brilliantly represented in England by Curzon and Kinglake, Lane and Morier, Palgrave and Burton. With Burton's love of roving adventure, of strange tongues, and of anthropology in its widest sense, the author of the Bible in Spain had many points in common. As it was, the later years of Borrow's life were spent somewhat moodily, and with some of the mystery of Swift's or of Rousseau's, at Oulton, near Lowestoft, whence, at Christmas 1874, he sent a message to the neighbouring hermit, Edward Fitzgerald at Woodbridge, in the vain hope of eliciting a visit. {39a} His wife, who had been won with her widow's jointure and dower during the flush of his missionary successes in 1840, died at the end of January 1869, {39b} and on July 26th, 1881, after years spent in a strange seclusion at Oulton, tended latterly by his step-daughter Henrietta, George Borrow was found dead in his bed, dying as he had lived, alone. Not long after his death, which took place when he was seventy-eight, Borrow's Oulton home was pulled down. All that now remains to mark the spot where it once stood are the old summer-house in which he wrote Lavengro, and the ragged fir-trees that sighed the requiem of his last hours. Without appealing to "the shires," but in the Eastern counties alone, he has been commemorated since his death by such writers as Henry Dutt, and Whitwell Elwin, by Egmont Hake, by Theodore Watts-Dunton, and by Dr. Jessopp. And now ere the close of the century {40} it has fallen to the lot of yet another East Anglian to place a small stone upon the cairn of George Borrow.


The two books Lavengro and Romany Rye are in reality one work, an unfinished autobiography, commenced upon a moderate and quite feasible scale; but after about a third of the ground is covered the scale is enormously increased, the narrative, encumbered by a vast amount of detail, makes less and less progress, and finally stops short, without any obvious, but rather a lame and impotent conclusion, at chapter xlvii. of the Romany Rye, or chapter cxlvii. of the work considered as one whole. The disproportion of the scale will be sufficiently indicated when we point out that the first twenty-two years of the author's life are treated pretty equally in fifty-seven chapters (i. to lvii.). The remaining ninety chapters (lviii. to cxlvii.) are wholly taken up by the incidents of less than four months, the four summer months of 1825. The first twenty-two years of the author's life are far from commonplace. The interest is well sustained, but is seldom intense,—at no point is the author's memory sufficiently teeming to cause an overflow; but with the conclusion of his sojourn in London, May 22nd, 1825, commences an itinerant life, the novelty of which graves every incident in the most vivid possible manner upon the writer's recollection. With his emancipation from town life a new graphic impulse is developed. Borrow seizes a new palette and sets to work with fresher colours upon a stupendous canvas. This canvas may be described as taking the form of a triptych. In the first compartment we have the first sensations of the roadfarer's life and some minor adventures: a visit to Stonehenge; the strange meeting with a returned convict, who turns out to be the old applewoman's son; the vignette of the hostelry, with the figures of the huge fat landlord and the handmaid Jenny; the visit to the stranger gentleman who protects himself by "touching" against evil chance; the interview with the Rev. Mr. Platitude, and the bargain struck with the travelling tinker, Jack Slingsby, whose stock-in-trade and profession the writer determines to adopt. Then comes the word-master's detection in his new sphere of life by the malignant gipsy godmother, Mrs. Herne, from whose remorseless attempt to poison him he is rescued by the kindly hearted Welsh preacher Peter Williams and his wife Winifred. In requital he manages to relieve the good man of a portion of the load of superstitious terror by which he is burdened. This section of the narrative is terminated by a graphic description of his renewal of associateship with his old friend Jasper Petulengro, the satisfaction he gives that worthy for having been the innocent cause of Mrs. Herne's death, and his decision to pitch his tent in the dingle. Chapters lviii. to lxxxii. are taken up with the foregoing incidents, which lead up to the central episode of the autobiography, the settlement in the dingle, with which the reader is here presented. This episode, forming the second panel in the detailed scheme, occupies chapters lxxxiii. to cxvi., but it is bisected near the middle by the termination of Lavengro at chapter c. The two parts are united now for the first time, and are given a prominent setting in relief from the rest of the narrative. The third compartment of the triptych, which occupies chapters cxvii. to cxlvii. (that is, chapters xvii. to xlvii. of the Romany Rye), is devoted to what we may call the horse-dealing episode. After the loss of Isopel Berners, the Romany Rye, as the author-hero is now termed, consoles himself by the purchase of a splendid horse, to obtain which he consents, much against his will, to accept a loan of 50 pounds from Jasper Petulengro, the product of that worthy's labours in the prize ring. He travels across England with the horse, meeting with adventures by the way, narrating them to others, and obtaining some curious autobiographical narratives in return. Finally he reaches Horncastle, and sells the animal at the horse fair there for 150 pounds. Here, in August 1825, the narrative of his life abruptly ends. {43}

It must not be supposed by any means that the interest of Borrow's two autobiographical volumes is concentrated in the last eighteen chapters of Lavengro and the first sixteen chapters of the Romany Rye. The quality of continuity is, it is true, best preserved in the dingle episode. Artistically the Brynhildic figure of Isopel serves as the best relief that could be found for Borrow's own "Titanic self." There is undoubtedly a feeling of unity here which is hardly to be felt in any other part of the Borrovian "Odyssey."

It is nevertheless true that, taken as a whole, a marked characteristic of the two volumes is the evenness with which the charms are scattered hither and thither betwixt the four covers. Attractive, therefore, as the Isopel Berners episode unquestionably is, and convenient as it is to the reader to have it detached for him in its unity, its perusal must not be taken for a moment to absolve the lover of good literature from traversing chapter by chapter, canto by canto, the whole of the Borrevian epic. It is outside the dingle that he will have to look for the faithfully described bewilderment of the old applewoman after the loss of her book, and for the compassionate delineation of the old man with the bees and the donkey who gave the young Rye to drink of mead at his cottage, and was unashamed at having shed tears on the road. The most heroic of the pugilistic encounters takes place, it is true, in the thick of the dingle, but it is elsewhere that the reader will have to look for the description of the memorable thrashing inflicted upon the bullying stage-coachman by the "elderly individual" who followed the craft of engraving, and learnt fisticuffs from Sergeant Broughton. In the same neighbourhood he will find the admirable vignette of the old man who could read the inscription on Chinese crockery pots, but could not tell what's o'clock, and the life narratives of the jockey and of the inexpert thimble-rigger, Murtagh, who was imprisoned three years for interrupting the Pope's game at picquet, but finally won his way by card-sharping to the very threshold of the Cardinalate. In the second half of the Romany Rye, too, he will find the noble apostrophes to youth, and ale, and England, "the true country for adventures," which he will compare, as examples of Borrovian eloquence, with the stirring description of embattled England in the third chapter of Lavengro, or the apostrophe to the Irish cob and the Author's first ride in chapter thirteen.

Borrow's is a wonderful book for one to lose one's way in, among the dense undergrowth, but it is a still grander book for the reader to lose himself in. In the dingle, best of all, he can "forget his own troublesome personality as completely as if he were in the depths of the ancient forest along with Gurth and Wamba." Labyrinthine, however, as the autobiography may at first sight appear, the true lover of Borrow will soon have little difficulty in finding the patteran or gypsy trail (for indeed the Romany element runs persistently as a chorus-thread through the whole of the autobiographical writings), which serves as a clue to the delights of which his work is so rich a storehouse. The question that really exercises Borrovians most is the relative merit of stories and sections of the narrative—the comparative excellence of the early 'life' in Lavengro and of the later detached episodes in the Romany Rye. Most are in some sort of agreement as to the supremacy of the dingle episode, which has this advantage: Borrow is always at his best when dealing with strange beings and abnormal experiences. When he is describing ordinary mortals he treats them with coldness as mere strangers. The commonplace town-dwellers seldom arouse his sympathy, never kindle his enthusiasm. He is quite another being when we wander by his side within the bounds of his enchanted dingle.

This history of certain doings in a Staffordshire dingle, during the month of July 1825, begins with a battle-royal, which places Borrow high amongst the narrators of human conflicts from the days of the Iliad to those of Pierce Egan; yet the chapters that set forth this episode of the dingle are less concerned with the "gestes" than with the sayings of its occupants. Rare, indeed, are the dramatic dialogues amid the sylvan surroundings of the tree-crowned hollow, that surpass in interest even the vivid details of the memorable fray between the flaming tinman and the pugilistic philologer. Pre-eminent amongst the dialogues are those between the male occupant of the dingle and the popish propagandist, known as the man in black. More fascinating still, perhaps, are the word- master's conversations with Jasper; most wonderful of all, in the opinion of many, is his logomachy with Ursula under the thorn bush. We shall not readily forget Jasper's complaints that all the 'old-fashioned, good-tempered constables' are going to be set aside, or his gloomy anticipations of the iron roads in which people are to 'thunder along in vehicles pushed forward by fire and smoke.' As for his comparison of the gypsies to cuckoos, the roguish charring fellows, for whom every one has a bad word, yet whom every one is glad to greet once again when the spring comes round, or Ursula's exposition of gypsy love and marriage beneath the hedge,—these are Borrow at his best, as he is most familiar to us, in the open air among gypsies. With the popish emissary it is otherwise: his portrait is the creation of Borrow's most studied hatred. Yet it must be admitted that the man in black is a triumph of complex characterisation. A joyous liver and an unscrupulous libertine, sceptical as Voltaire, as atheistic as a German professor, as practical as a Jew banker, as subtle as a Jesuit, he has as many ways of converting the folks among whom he is thrown as Panurge had of eating the corn in ear. For the simple and credulous—crosses and beads; for the hard-hearted and venal—material considerations; for the cultured and educated—a fine tissue of epigrams and anthropology; for the ladies—flattery and badinage. A spiritual ancestor of Anatole France's marvellous full-length figure of Jerome Coignard, Borrow's conception takes us back first to Rabelais and secondly to the seventeenth-century conviction of the profound Machiavellism of Jesuitry.

The man in black and Jasper are great, but the master attraction of the region that we are to traverse is admittedly Isopel Berners. It will perhaps be observed that our heroine makes her appearance on the stage rather more in the fashion of Molly Seagrim than of that other engaging Amazon of romance, Diana Vernon, whose "long hair streaming in the wind" forms one single point of resemblance to our fair Isopel. In other respects, certainly no two heroines could be more dissimilar. Unaided even by the slightest assistance from the graphic arts, the difficulty of picturing the lineaments of this muscular beauty, as she first burst on the sight of our autobiographer upon the declivity of the dingle, may be freely confessed, ere an attempt is made to describe her. We know, however, on the testimony of a sincere admirer, that she was over six feet high, with loose-flowing, flaxen hair; that she wore a tight bodice and a skirt of blue, to match the colour of her eyes; and that eighteen summers had passed over her head since she first saw the light in the great house of Long Melford, a nursery in which she learnt to fear God and take her own part, and a place the very name of which she came to regard as a synonym for a strong right arm. Borrow's first impression of her was one of immensity; she was big enough, he said, to have been born in a church; almost simultaneously, he observed her affinity to those Scandinavian divinities to which he assigned the first place in the pantheon of his affections. She reminded him, indeed, of the legendary Ingeborg, queen of Norway. It is remarkable, and well worth noticing, that the impression that she produced was instantaneous. Our wanderer had never been impressed in any similar fashion by any of the gypsy women with whom he was brought into contact, though, as many a legend and ballad can attest, such women have often exerted extraordinary attraction over Englishmen of pure blood. But it is evident that his physical admiration was reserved for a tall blonde of the Scandinavian type, to which he gave the name of a Brynhilde. Hence, notwithstanding his love of the economics of gypsy life, his gypsy women are for the most part no more than scenic characters; they clothe and beautify the scene, but they have little dramatic force about them. And when he comes to delineate a heroine, Isopel Berners, she is physically the very opposite of a Romany chi.

Fewer words will suffice to describe Isopel's first impressions of her future partner in the dingle. She unmistakably regarded him as a chaffing fellow who was not quite right in his head; and there is reason for believing, that, though she came to entertain a genuine regard for the young 'squire,' her opinions as to the condition of his brain underwent no sensible modification. She herself is fairly explicit on this subject: she seems indeed to have arrived at the deliberate conviction that, if not abnormally selfish, he was at any rate fundamentally mad; and there was perhaps a germ of truth in the conclusion, sufficient at any rate to colour Lombroso's theory of the inherent madness of men of genius. One of the testimonies that we have as to Borrow's later life at Oulton is to the effect that he got bewildered at times and fancied himself Wodin; but the substratum of sanity is strongly exhibited in the remedy which he himself applied. "What do you think I do when I get bewildered after this fashion? I go out to the sty and listen to the grunting of the pigs until I get back to myself." {49}

Of Isopel's history we know extremely little, save what she herself tells us. Her father was an officer who was killed in a naval action before he could fulfil the promise of marriage he had made to her mother, a small milliner, who died in the workhouse at Long Melford within three months of the effort of giving birth to an amazon so large and so fierce and so well able to take her own part as Isopel. At fourteen this fine specimen of workhouse upbringing was placed in service, from which she emancipated herself by knocking down her mistress. After two years more at the "large house" she was once more apprenticed; and this time knocked down her master in return for an affront. A second return to the workhouse appearing inadvisable, she traversed the highways of England in various capacities, and became acquainted with some of those remarkable though obscure characters who travelled the roads of our country at that period. A sense of loneliness drove her among unworthy travelling companions, such as the flying tinker and grey Moll, in whose society she breaks upon our notice. Some of the vagrants with whom she came into contact had occasionally attempted to lay violent hands upon her person and effects, but had been invariably humbled by her without the aid of either justice or constable.

Of her specific exploits as a bruiser we hear of at least two near Dover. Once, the cart she and her old mistress travelled with was stopped by two sailors, who would have robbed and stripped the owners. "Let me get down," she exclaimed simply, and so saying she got down, and fought with them both until they turned round and ran away. On another occasion, while combing out her long hair beneath a hedge, she was insulted by a jockey. Starting up, though her hair was unbound, she promptly gave him what he characterised as "a most confounded whopping," and "the only drubbing I ever had in my life; and lor, how with her right hand she fibbed me while she held me round the neck with her left arm! I was soon glad to beg her pardon on my knees, which she gave me in a moment when she saw me in that condition, being the most placable creature in the world, and not only her pardon but one of the hairs which I longed for, which I put through a shilling for purposes of pleasant deception at country fairs." The hair with the shilling attached to it eventually became a treasured possession of the Romany Rye.

Rude as some of these characteristics may appear, we are left in no manner of doubt as to the essential nobility, befitting her name, of Miss Berners—her character and bearing. Her carriage, especially of the neck and shoulders, reminded the postilion of the Marchioness of —-; and he took her unhesitatingly for a young lady of high rank and distinction, who had temporarily left her friends, and was travelling in the direction of Gretna Green with the fortunate Rye. The word-master, in disabusing the postilion of this idea, gave utterance to the conviction that he might search the world in vain for a nature more heroic and devoted.

Like a lady of the highest quality, the beauteous queen of the dingle was subject to the vapours and to occasional fits of inexplicable weeping; but as a general rule she shared with Borrow himself a proud contempt for that mad puppy gentility, and her predominant characteristic, like his, was the simplicity that puzzled by reason of its directness and its purity. {52} That these qualities were not unaccompanied by a considerable amount of hauteur, is shown by her uncompromising rejection of the ceremonial advances made to her by that accomplished courtier, the man in black.

"Lovely virgin," said he, with a graceful bow and stretching out his hand, "allow me to salute your fingers."

"I am not in the habit of shaking hands with strangers," said Belle.

"I did not presume to request to shake hands with you," said the man in black. "I merely wished to be permitted to salute with my lips the extremities of your two forefingers."

"I never permit anything of the kind," said Belle. "I do not approve of such unmanly ways."

His importunity is rebuked more forcibly upon another occasion, when the nymph bids the priest with asperity to "hold his mumping gibberish."

The striking beauty of Belle, especially that of her blue eyes and flaxen hair, and the impressiveness of her demeanour, calm and proud, which compelled the similitude to a serious and queenly heroine, such as 'Queen Theresa of Hungary, or Brynhilda, the Valkyrie, the beloved of Sigurd, the serpent-killer,' is emphasised by the contrast drawn between her and the handsome brunette Mrs. Petulengro, who is for the nonce subjugated by Isopel's beauty, and craves the privilege of acting as her tire-woman.

Alas, as is so often the case in life, Lavengro and the reader are only just beginning to realise the beauty and the value of the "bellissima," as the man in black calls her, when she is on the point of sinking beneath our horizon, passing away like the brief music of an aubade.

Rapidly, much too rapidly, do we approach that summer dawn when Belle, dressed neatly and plainly, her hair no longer plaited in Romany fashion or floating in the wind, but secured by a comb, uncovered no longer, but wearing a bonnet, her features very pale, allowed her cold hand to be wrung—it was for the last time—by the unconscious Rye. The latter ascended to the plain and thence looked down towards the dingle. "Isopel Berners stood at the mouth, the beams of the early morning sun shone full on her noble face and figure. I waved my hands towards her, she slowly lifted up her right arm; I turned away, and never saw Isopel Berners again."

Hardly less forlorn is the reader than the philologist when the latter arrives back at the dingle, after a visit to the tavern two miles away, to find that the tardily recognised treasure is lost to him for ever,—resolved at length, too late, to give over teasing Belle by pretending to teach her Armenian, determined, when the need is past, to regularise his "uncertificated" relations with the glorious damozel, and resigned, when concession is fruitless, to sink those objections to America which Belle had disavowed, but which he had been proud to share with disbanded soldiers, sextons, and excisemen. To this decision his tortuous conferences with Jasper, and his frank soliloquy in the dingle, had bent him fully forty-eight hours before Belle's ultimate departure, unwilling though he was to incur the yoke of matrimony.

"I figured myself in America" (says he, in his reverie over the charcoal fire), "in an immense forest, clearing the land destined by my exertions to become a fruitful and smiling plain. Methought I heard the crash of the huge trees as they fell beneath my axe; and then I bethought me that a man was intended to marry—I ought to marry; and if I married, where was I likely to be more happy as a husband and a father, than in America, engaged in tilling the ground? I fancied myself in America engaged in tilling the ground, assisted by an enormous progeny—well, why not marry and go and till the ground in America? I was young, and youth was the time to marry in and to labour in; I had the use of all my faculties; my eyes, it is true, were rather dull from early study, but I could see tolerably well with them and they were not bleared. I felt my arms and thighs and teeth—they were strong and sound enough; so now was the time to labour, to marry, eat strong flesh, and beget strong children—the power of doing all this would pass away with youth, which was terribly transitory. I bethought me that a time would come when my eyes would be bleared and perhaps sightless; my arms and thighs strengthless and sapless; when my teeth would shake in my jaws, even supposing they did not drop out. No going a-wooing then, no labouring, no eating strong flesh and begetting lusty children then; and I bethought me how, when all this should be, I should bewail the days of my youth as misspent, provided I had not in them founded for myself a home, and begotten strong children to take care of me in the days when I could not take care of myself; and thinking of these things I became sadder and sadder, and stared vacantly upon the fire until my eyes closed in a doze."

It is significant that upon his return from the dream that followed this reverie, the would-be colonist blew upon the embers and filled and heated the kettle, that he might be able to welcome Isopel with a cup of the beverage that she loved. It was the newly awakened Benedick brushing his hat in the morning; but unhappily his conversion was not so complete as Benedick's. Love-making and Armenian do not go together, and in the colloquy that ensued, Belle could not feel assured that the man who proposed to conjugate the verb "to love" in Armenian, was master of his intentions in plain English. It was even so. The man of tongues lacked speech wherewith to make manifest his passion; the vocabulary of the word- master was insufficient to convince the workhouse girl of one of the plainest meanings a man can well have. From the banter of the man of learning the queen of the dingle sought refuge in a precipitate flight. Almost simultaneously the word-master, albeit with reluctance, decided that it was high time to give over his "mocking and scoffing." When he returned with this resolve to the dingle, Isopel Berners had quitted it, never to return.

Yet ever and anon that splendid and pathetic figure will cross the sky line of his mental vision—and of ours. "Then the image of Isopel Berners came into my mind," and the thought "how I had lost her for ever, and how happy I might have been with her in the New World."



LAVENGRO, the autobiographer, scholar and philologist (Lavengro=word- master); known among the road-faring folk as the Romany rye, or young squire turned gypsy.

JASPER PETULENGRO, a Romany kral or tribal chief, horse-dealer and blacksmith (petulengro=lord of the horseshoe). "The Gypsy."

FRASER, a popish emissary or propagandist, known as the "man in black." "The Priest."

TAWNO CHIKNO, the little one, so called on account of his immense size; the "Antinous of the dusky people;" a great horseman and JASPER'S brother-in-law.

SYLVESTER, another brother-in-law, an ill-conditioned fellow, "the Lazarus of the Romany tribe."

BLACK or BLAZING JOHN BOSVILLE (Anselo Herne), "the flaming tinman" a "half-in-half" itinerant tinker and bruiser.

CATCHPOLE, the landlord of a small inn, two miles from the Dingle, and not far from Willenhall in Staffordshire.

MR. HUNTER, a radical, who wears a snuff-coloured coat and frequents the inn above named.

A postilion, whose headquarters are The Swan, Stafford.


ISOPEL or BELLE BERNERS, the beauteous queen of the Dingle.

GREY MOLL, wife of BOSVILLE, the flying tinker.

A niece of the landlord of the inn.

The three daughters of Mrs. Herne:—



URSULA, widow of LAUNCELOT LOVELL, who subsequently marries SYLVESTER.


AMBROL (in gypsy=a pear), LAVENGRO'S little gry or pony.

TRAVELLER, a donkey (gypsy, mailla), belonging to ISOPEL BERNERS.

THE SCENE is laid under the greenwood tree, in the height of an English summer.

THE DINGLE is a deep, wooded, and consequently somewhat gloomy, hollow in the middle of a very large, desolate field. The shelving sides of the hollow are overgrown with trees and bushes. A belt of sallows crowns the circular edge of the small crater. At the lowest part of the Dingle are discovered a stone and a fire of charcoal, from which spot a winding path ascends to "the plain." On either side of the fire is a small encampment. One consists of a small pony cart and a small hut-shaped tent, occupied by the word-master. On the other side is erected a kind of tent, consisting of large hoops covered over with tarpaulin, quite impenetrable to rain; hard by stands a small donkey-cart. This is "the tabernacle" of ISOPEL BERNERS. A short distance off, near a spring of clear water, is the encampment of the Romany chals and chies—the Petulengres and their small clan.

THE PLACE is about five miles from Willenhall in Staffordshire.

THE TIME is July 1825.


[In May 1825 our autobiographer, known among the gypsies as the word-master, decided to leave London, and travelled, partly on foot and partly by coach, to Amesbury; and then, after two days at Salisbury, struck northwards. A few days later, in a small beer-house, he met a tinker and his wife; the tinker was greatly depressed, having recently been intimidated by a rival, one Bosville, "the flaming tinman," and forced by threats to quit the road. The word-master, who meditated passing the summer as an amateur vagrant, and had some 15 or 16 pounds in his pocket, conceived the idea of buying the pony-cart, the implements and the beat of the tinker, one Jack Slingsby, whose face he remembered having seen some ten years before. "I want a home and work," he said to the tinker. "As for a home, I suppose I can contrive to make a home out of your tent and cart; and as for work, I must learn to be a tinker; it would not be hard for one of my trade to be a tinker: what better can I do?" "What about the naming tinman?" said the tinker. "Oh, don't be afraid on my account," said the word-master: "if I were to meet him, I could easily manage him one way or the other: I know all kinds of strange words and names, and, as I told you before, I sometimes hit people when they put me out."

He accordingly purchases Slingsby's property, and further invests in a waggoner's frock. To the pony he gives the name of Ambrol, which signifies in gypsy a pear. He spends a first night under the hedge in a drizzling rain, and then spends two or three days in endeavouring to teach himself the mysteries of his new trade. While living in this solitary way he is detected by Mrs. Herne, an old gypsy woman, "one of the hairy ones," as she terms herself, who carried "a good deal of devil's tinder" about with her, and had a bitter grudge against the word- master. She hated him for having wormed himself, as she fancied, into the confidence of the gypsies and learned their language. She regarded him further, as the cause of differences between herself and her sons-in- law—as an apple of discord in the Romany camp. She employed her grandchild, Leonora, to open relations in a friendly way with Lavengro, and then to persuade him to eat of a "drabbed" of poisoned cake. Lavengro was grievously sick, but was saved in the nick of time by the appearance upon the scene of a Welsh preacher, Peter Williams, and his wife—two good souls who wandered over all Wales and the greater part of England, comforting the hearts of the people with their doctrine, and doing all the good they could. They never slept beneath a roof, unless the weather was very severe. The preacher had a heavy burden upon his mind, to wit, "the sin against the Holy Ghost," committed when he was but a lad. Lavengro journeys for several days with the preacher and his wife, assuring the former that in common with most other boys he himself, when of tender years, had committed twenty such sins and felt no uneasiness about them. The young man's conversation had the effect of greatly lightening the despair of the old preacher. The latter begged the word- master to accompany him into Wales. On the border, however, Lavengro encountered a gypsy pal of his youthful days, Jasper Petulengro, and turned back with him. Mr. Petulengro informs him of the end of his old enemy, Mrs. Herne. Baffled in her designs against the stranger, the old woman had hanged herself.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse