Borrow’s principal study was himself, and in all his best books he is the chief subject and the chief object. — Edward Thomas, p. 6
George Borrow as a young man. Source: Thomas, frontispiece.
George Henry Borrow (1803–1881), writer, linguist, traveller (and horse-whisperer), was one of the more idiosyncratic of the many Victorian men of genius. He is best known now as the author of Wild Wales, first published in 1862, but there were four other important works before that: his first book, The Zincali, or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain (two volumes, 1841); his first real success, The Bible in Spain, or The Journeys, Adventures, and Imprisonments of an Englishman, in an Attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula (three volumes, 1843); and then Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851), about his wanderings nearer home, and its sequel, The Romany Rye (1857). This is not to mention various collections, journal articles and reviews, and translations from an extraordinary range of languages, including Russian, Welsh and Romany.
Borrow's Early Life
George Borrow's birthplace (photo by H. T. Cave, E. Dereham). Source: Thomas, facing p.56. Right: The Grammar School [Norwich], by the permission of Mr Murray. Source: Hooper, facing p. 13.
Apart from the translations, most of Borrow's work is semi-autobiographical, not plot driven but simply a string of episodes featuring the unusual people he encountered on his various travels. He was always cut out for a peripatetic life. Born in East Dereham, Norfolk, on 5 July 1803, he was the second son of Captain Thomas Borrow (1758–1824), an officer in the West Norfolk militia, and his wife, Ann (1772–1858), described by Edward Thomas as "an actress of Huguenot extraction" (5) — and in more detail elsewhere as having been attached to a "company of strolling players" (Hopkins 43). Since this was the era of the Napoleonic wars, Captain Borrow himself was always on the march. During more settled periods, he saw to it that his younger son attended good schools: Edinburgh High School for one year, and Norwich Grammar School for another. When the wars ended, the family returned to Norfolk in May 1816, allowing the boy to return to the Norwich school to finish his education. Fortunately, he learnt very readily.
Some of what he learned in these years was acquired outside the classroom. In 1810, when his father was guarding French prisoners in Yaxley, near Peterborough, he met a gypsy boy, Ambrose Smith, with whom he swore brotherhood. During his father's last posting in Ireland, his affinity with the "vagabond element" — and their horses — grew (see Shorter 50). The dislocations of these years, both geographically and socially, took a certain toll. He fell prey to "nervous exhaustion" in 1818, and this left him prone to spells of depression and anxiety in later life. He referred to these unwelcome episodes as "the shadow" (Thomas 61) or "the horrors" (Shorter 13-14). Since he could also become "manic ... when the mood was on him" (Williams 81), it may be that he suffered from what we now call bi-polar disorder.
In March 1819, Borrow was articled to a firm of Norwich solicitors, Simpson and Rackham, and he remained with the firm for five years. But his heart was on the study of languages, which he undertook with the scholar, translator of German Romantic literature and essayist William Taylor. Moreover, unusually enough for a trainee solicitor, he would rove the swathe of land to the north of Norwich called Mousehold Heath, and mingle with the Romanies who encamped there. In 1818 he had met Ambrose again, and often went to the heath with him (see Thomas 64). Ambrose, would appear in his work as the Gypsy Petulengro, and Borrow would never lose his fascination with the Romani.
Nevertheless, in 1824, soon after his father's death, and immediately after having served his articles, Borrow left Norfolk and set off to London, hoping to live by the pen. By then his translations were appearing in Sir Richard Phillips's Monthly Magazine, and under Sir Richard's direction he undertook the mammoth task of compiling six volumes of Celebrated Trials, and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence, from the Earliest Records to the Year 1825. That same year, he completed a translation of F. M. von Klinger's Faustus: His Life, Death, and Descent into Hell. Clement Shorter suspects he translated it from a French version, rather than the original (103-04), but, even so, he accomplished a great deal of work during his first stay in London.
Borrow's Years with the Bible Society
Title page of Targum. Source: Wise, facing p. 47.
After this, Borrow returned to East Anglia. He seems to have floundered for a while, perhaps simply tramping the roads and earning his upkeep by his hands: William Knapp puts this "veiled period" down to the "unclean spirit" that entered him through the influence of Taylor and his unorthodox opinions (I: 72-73). Only when he was thirty could Borrow start to act in society again. The opportunity came to him from an unlikely source: the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was by no means an Evangelical, but it seems to have been just what he needed at that time, and he served the Society well. First he went to St Petersburg to oversee the printing of the New Testament in Manchu. Then, in 1835, he went to Portugal and Spain, on a mission to distribute the Bible. Angus Fraser writes, "In Russia and the Peninsula Borrow worked energetically, and sometimes heroically, on the society's behalf. In Spain, civil war made his expeditions risky, while the hostile attitude of the authorities, coupled with his own provocative approach, led twice to his imprisonment" ("Borrow, George Henry").
Borrow had not given up translation. On the contrary, his two-year stay in St Petersburg (1835-37) resulted in the remarkable feat of Targum; or, Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialect, and The Talisman, a translation of Pushkin's verse, to which he added "The Renegade" from the Polish of Adam Mickiewicz. Then in Spain there was his translation of St Luke into Spanish Romani, which annoyed the Spanish government and attracted much attention (see Thomas 140-41). He also edited a Basque version of it, although Wise says "Borrow did little more than see it through the press" (66).
Having run into difficulties with the Bible Society, Borrow was now looking ahead to a more independent life, and turning his mind to projects unrelated to the scriptures. He was no longer alone. In mid-1839, on his last stay in Spain, he was joined in Seville by Mary Clarke, a widow several years older than himself, and her grown-up daughter Henrietta. He and Mary had met before his employment by the Bible Society, and had been in touch ever since. They were married on 23 April 1840 after returning to London, and she proved to be a competent and altogether ideal companion and helpmeet, no mean accomplishment for the wife of such a complex character. Thomas describes him at about this time as a "white-haired young man, with dark eyes of almost supernatural penetration and lustre ... who spoke English, French, Italian, Spanish German, and Romaic to those who best understood these languages" (141).
George Borrow's house, Oulton, nr. Lowestoft, by the permission of Mr Murray. Source: Hooper, following p. 40.
Borrow now settled down for a while in his wife's property beside Oulton Broad in Suffolk. His first big success was the account of his adventures in the Iberian Peninsula, The Bible in Spain. Here was the way forward, by using his own experiences with a twist of fiction, so subtly entwined that it was hard for his readers to know where the joins were. For many, this was an intriguing formula. However, as Fraser says so well, Borrow "had set himself a standard of unusual incident which was difficult to maintain" ("Borrow, George Henry). One possibility was to take more travels, but somehow a long trip across Europe in 1844 failed to answer, and he returned to Oulton to write from older material: that is to say, his own earlier years. The results were Lavengro and The Romany Rye. The autobiographical element in these books was closely tied to his experiences of gypsy life: Deborah Epstein Nord believes that gypsies constituted "an anchor for his identity" as well as a "unifying motif for his encounters with the disparate peoples of the world" (73).
Borrow would still "revert ... to wandering" (Williams 139), disappearing for long spells, and satisfying his restless nature and need to escape from conventional life by embarking on more planned walking tours. After the family moved to Great Yarmouth in 1853, he went on many such trips, not only in Norfolk, but all over the British Islesl. Wales proved particularly rewarding. Following his translation of Ellis Wynne's portentously titled The Sleeping Bard; or Visions of the World, Death and Hell (published in the original Welsh in 1703), which Borrow printed at his own cost in 1860 (see Wise 93), he published his own classic, Wild Wales, two years later. Again, he had been drawn to outsiders, the non-"Saxons" and their mysterious and lasting cultural heritage. During this period too he completed his ambitious Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings, although it would not appear until 1928, long after his death.
The Later Years
The Gypserie of Battersea. Photo: W. F. Roberts. Source: Thomas, facing p. 318.
In 1860, Borrow and his wife moved to a house in Hereford Square, Brompton, in London. These later years saw Borrow working mainly on translations. Life now began to close in on him: in 1865 his step-daughter got married to a Dr. MacOubrey, and his wife died in early 1869. Lonely and bereft, the widowed Borrow proposed to Lucy Brightwell, the author and etcher, a long-time family friend in Norwich, but her brother "most strongly opposed it" (qtd. in Fraser. "George Borrow," 109) and she rejected him. He found relief by mingling with the gypsy folk of London (whom he allowed to camp in his own garden). Still, after completing Romano Lavo-Lil: Word Book of the Romany; or, English Gypsy Language (1874), Borrow returned to Oulton.
Solitary and unkempt in old age, he was eventually joined and cared for, towards the end of his life, by his step-daughter and her husband. Shorter mentions that Henrietta was an "affectionate companion" to him (xix) at this time. He died in Oulton on 26 July 1881, but Henrietta arranged for him to be buried with his wife in Brompton cemetery.
The Borrows' headstone as represented by Knapp (II: 388). It has been restored, possibly replaced, and looks different today.
Fraser concludes his account of Borrow by saying that his "enduring legacy was a handful of original works unlike any others, episodic narratives capturing the imagination with strange and at times superbly presented characters and powerful picaresque sketches. Pervading them all is the opinionated but compelling personality of their narrator" ("Borrow, George Henry"). That sums up the nature of Borrow's work admirably, but does nowhere near enough justice to his long-term literary legacy.
Borrow, George. Wild Wales, Its People, Language and Scenery. 1862. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1955.
"Borrow's Grave." George Borrow Society. Web. 15 May 2020.
Fraser, Angus. "Borrow, George Henry (1803–1881), writer and traveller." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 15 May 2020.
—–––. "George Borrow and Lucy Brightwell." Notes & Queries. 220/3 (1975): 109–11.
Hooper, James. Souvenir of the George Borrow Celebration. London and Norwich: Jarrold & Sons, 1913. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 13 May 2020.
Knapp, William, I. Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow (1803-1881).... Vol. I. London: John Murray, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harvard University Library. Web. 13 May 2020.
Knapp, William, I. Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow (1803-1881).... Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harvard University Library. Web. 13 May 2020.
Nord, Deborah Epstein. Gypsies and the British Imagination, 1807-1930. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Shorter, Clement. George Borrow and His Circle. London and New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 13 May 2020.
Thomas, Edward. George Borrow, the Man and His Books. London: Chapman & Hall, 1912. Project Gutenberg. Web. 15 May 2020.
Williams, David. A World of His Own: The Double Life of George Borrow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Wise, Thomas J. A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of George Henry Borrow. London: Richard Clay & Sons, 1914. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 15 May 2020.
Created 13 May 2020