George Borrow

George Borrow (1803–1881) was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, had part of his education at Norwich Grammar School, and spent much of his life in East Anglia. He became a best-selling author with The Bible in Spain (1843), a brilliant account of five remarkable years spent in the Peninsula, and followed this with two semi-autobiographical works: Lavengro (1851), meaning ‘Word-Master’, and its sequel, The Romany Rye (1857) — ‘The Gypsy Gentleman’. His last major work was Wild Wales (1862), one of the best books of its time on Wales. He is still admired for his inspirational writings on Gypsies, and for his evocation of an earlier England, that of 1825, and of Wales in the 1850s, the latter coloured by his enthusiasm for its medieval literature, and his abhorrence of its ‘dark, satanic mills’.

The true nature of Borrow’s works can be the subject of endless discussion. In a sense all his major works are journeys, interspersed with travellers’ tales, strange encounters, and graphic scenes in taverns and hostelries along his way. But it is hard to distinguish where autobiography blends with descriptive travel-writing or with fiction. There is an ambiguity in his narratives which often upset readers in his own day but for many of us provides a core of fascination. He admitted himself that Lavengro was ‘a dream of study and adventure’, a dream most Borrovians find captivating.

Borrow did not have a university education but was a notable linguist, not so much concerned with perfecting his knowledge of any language as with collecting some knowledge of a large number - there is evidence of some 100 languages which he could either speak or write, or from which he left translations, or which in some other way interested him. Many of his translations were not published until 1923, in the 16- volume Norwich edition, and whatever one thinks of his ability as a translator, his work demonstrates a remarkably wide range of interest from ancient and medieval to modern literature on a world scale. He liked to quote from the Talmud: “Who is the wise man? He who learns from every body.” He had an early passion for Welsh, Danish and Romani, worked for the Bible Society in Russia editing the New Testament in Manchu, and spent five years in Spain overseeing the printing and distribution of the scriptures at a time of intense unrest during the Carlist Wars.

The Bible in Spain still arouses considerable interest in Spain, where recent works referring to Borrow and recent translations have been published. It is much more than a travel narrative and its artistry is increasingly appreciated. In England, however, Lavengro and The Romany Rye have aroused more interest. They tell the story of a studious young man who takes to the road with a tinker’s cart and pony. He tries his hand at blacksmithing, mingles with Gypsies, pugilists and others adrift in the country, meets the tall, queenly blonde Isopel Berners, with whom he camps in a dingle, has disputes with a Jesuit priest, and after negotiating the purchase of a fine horse which he plans to sell, finds himself at Horncastle, at the horse fair, where he meets a number of shady and not so shady characters, each of whom has a story to tell. Blending lively dialogue between Gypsies, jockeys and fairground characters, with a dreamlike quality that makes it hard to distinguish fact from fancy, Lavengro and The Romany Rye have retained their fascination for a small but dedicated band of devotees.

Wild Wales was not a success when published, yet of all the many works of travel in Wales written in the 1850s and 1860s it is probably the only one which has survived and is still read, as a revealing and sympathetic account of the Welsh and their way of life at that period. Borrow had an unusual knowledge of the Welsh language and Welsh literature, largely acquired in Norwich and London, and loved to track down the places associated with the Welsh medieval poets he most admired. He had been a keen horseman until he was about 50 but remained for much longer a formidable pedestrian, undertaking walks of several hundred miles in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Unfortunately the record of these tours has only partly survived and Wild Wales is the only complete work to have emerged from this activity. He lived in London from 1860 to about 1874, but after his wife’s death in 1869 seems to have lost much of his zest and returned to Oulton in Suffolk, where he died in 1881.