Lavengro

In 1843 George Borrow had published his best-seller, The Bible in Spain.  The reading public were eager to have more from this strange mix of Bible-salesman, adventurer, and friend of gypsies.  George Borrow had also been thinking of writing an autobiography, even before The Bible in Spain was published.  On 1 December 1842 he wrote to John Murray:

I hope our book will be successful; if so, I shall put another on the stocks.  Capital subject: early life; studies and adventures; some account of my father, William Taylor, Whiter, Big Ben, etc., etc.

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 4

William Knapp says that George Borrow was originally thinking of a three-volume work, each volume being around 400 pages.  The first volume was to cover his life up to his father’s death (1803–March 1824)—and Volume 1 of Lavengro does indeed cover this period.  The planned second volume was to cover the struggles in London, the gypsy tramp of Lavengro, and an account of his travels abroad.  The third volume would then have been his work in Russia.

According to George Borrow the substance of Lavengro was planned and the bulk written in 1842 and 1843:

The author begs leave to state that Lavengro was planned in the year 1842, and all the characters sketched before the conclusion of the year 1843

source: Advertisement for Lavengro, 1851,
included in Lavengro ed. by Knapp, p. vi

But on 21 January 1843, George Borrow wrote to John Murray:

I meditate shortly a return to Barbary in quest of the Witch Hamlet, and my adventures in that land of wonders will serve capitally to fill the Third Volume of ‘My Life, a DramaBy George Borrow.’

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 8

i.e. George Borrow was proposing to make new adventures, so that he can then put them into his autobiography.  By March 1843 George Borrow was working spasmodically on the book (writing to John Murray):

Occasionally I write a page or two of my Life

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 8

At other times Borrow reported that the book was coming on well, only to then delay any advertisements etc.  By 15 January 1844, with still no sign of the work, he wrote to Dawson Turner of Great Yarmouth:

The work on which I am at present engaged is a kind of Biography in the Robinson Crusoe style

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 11

Writing to John Murray on 15 March 1845, we have:

Lavengro progresses steadily; but I am in no hurry

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 13

On 19 September 1846 he’s writing to John Murray:

My work will be ready next year

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 13

John Murray first advertised Lavengro on 1 July 1848 as a new work in preparation, in October it’s advertised in the list of forthcoming books, in July 1849 it appears as “works in press,” in November and December 1849 it’s advertised (in the Athenæum), as to be published in January 1850, in January 1850 it’s advertised as “nearly ready for publication.”  In 26 November 1850, John Murray writes to Mary Borrow (George Borrow’s wife):

My present object in writing is to tell you that, relying upon the speedy publication of Mr. Borrow’s book without further delay, I have determined on engraving Phillips’ portrait (of him) as a frontispiece to it.  I trust that this will not be disagreeable to you and the author—in fact I do it in confident expectation that it will meet with your assent; I do not ask Mr. Borrow’s leave, remember. . . . I beg and entreat that the proof may be quickly returned.  My sale is fixed for December 12th, and if I cannot show the book then—I must throw up ...

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 20

In the Athenæum for 14 December 1850 it’s announced as “Just Ready,” and on 7 February 1851 John Murray published the book, in three volumes, of an edition of 3,000 copies.

The very long time taken from conception to publication (1 December 1842 to 7 February 1851), thwarted any hope that it would enjoy sales on the back of George Borrow’s best-seller The Bible in Spain (published December 1842), and the reading public were no longer eager for more of George Borrow.  The book didn’t include George Borrow’s overseas travels, and covered only the first 22 years of George Borrow’s life, with the narrative taking place in England, Scotland and Ireland only.  The reviews were mixed but disappointment after such a built-up was evident:

The Athenæum.—Few books have excited warmer expectations than this long-talked-of autobiography; and great is the disappointment which it will leave in the minds of those who expected anything beyond a collection p. 30of bold picaresque sketches.  It is not an autobiography, even with the licence of fiction. . . . Since the interest of autobiography is lost and the book comes to us seemingly as a work of fiction, it must, in spite of some striking scenes, be pronounced a failure.  It can scarcely be called a book at all . . .

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 29

George Borrow was deeply hurt and angered, writing later (in 1855):

If ever a book experienced infamous and undeserved treatment, it was that book.  It was attacked in every form that envy and malice could suggest

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 29

Of the first edition, 2,098 of the 3,000 copies sold in the first year (1851), with George Borrow’s half share of the profits being £533 19s. 1d.  By 1854 John Murray still had 250 unsold copies.  A third edition (which was actually the second), appeared in 1872.

American publishers had pirated George Borrow’s previous works (British copyright not applying in America at the time), so for Lavengro John Murray made an agreement with G. P. Putnam to bring out the American edition, which they duly did in 1851. Various re-issues appeared in America, from different publishers.

Miscellaneous

Lavengro has been covered numerous times in the George Borrow Bulletin: 7, 31ff; 8, 31; 9, 19, 27-30, 35; 10, 22, 31-43, 69; 11, 7-12, 12-29; 12, 23-42; 13, 2, 16-21; 16, 30, 65, 71-74; 17, 10, 46; 18, 18-21, 37-45, 57, 82, 84, 92f; 19, 32f, 37-59; 21, 4-6, 12-16, 63-82, 82-95; 22, 13-24, 43-52, 57, 79; 23, 22-30, 30-41, 68, 91f; 25, 12-25, 76ff; 26, 28-39; 39-48, 48-52, 54-70; 27, 16f; 29, 13f, 34f, 58, 77, 98; 30, 57.

George Borrow continued the story of Lavengro into his next book, The Romany Rye.

There’s a fictional continuation of the story in Travelling Men, by George William Dowsley (1925).

George Borrow’s biographer, William Knapp, edited a version of Lavengro which restored a number of passages which George Borrow omitted from the published edition (Knapp’s edition is the one in the Useful links).

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, pp. 3–36.

source: George Borrow, A Bibliographic Study, pp. 51–66.