The Life of George Borrow by Herbert Jenkins

This etext was produced by David Price, email, from the 1912 John Murray edition. THE LIFE OF GEORGE BORROW by Herbert Jenkins PREFACE During the whole of Borrow’s manhood there was probably only one period when he was unquestionably happy in his work and content with his surroundings. He may almost be said to
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This etext was produced by David Price, email, from the 1912 John Murray edition.


by Herbert Jenkins


During the whole of Borrow’s manhood there was probably only one period when he was unquestionably happy in his work and content with his surroundings. He may almost be said to have concentrated into the seven years (1833-1840) that he was employed by the British and Foreign Bible Society in Russia, Portugal and Spain, a lifetime’s energy and resource. From an unknown hack-writer, who hawked about unsaleable translations of Welsh and Danish bards, a travelling tinker and a vagabond Ulysses, he became a person of considerable importance. His name was acclaimed with praise and enthusiasm at Bible meetings from one end of the country to the other. He developed an astonishing aptitude for affairs, a tireless energy, and a diplomatic resourcefulness that aroused silent wonder in those who had hitherto regarded him as a failure. His illegal imprisonment in Madrid nearly brought about a diplomatic rupture between Great Britain and Spain, and later his missionary work in the Peninsula was referred to by Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons as an instance of what could be achieved by courage and determination in the face of great difficulties.

Those seven rich and productive years realised to the full the strange talents and unsuspected abilities of George Borrow’s unique character. He himself referred to the period spent in Spain as the “five happiest years” of his life. When, however, his life came to be written by Dr Knapp, than whom no biographer has approved himself more loyal or enthusiastic, it was found that the records of that period were not accessible. The letters that he had addressed to the Bible Society had been mislaid. These came to light shortly after the publication of Dr Knapp’s work, and type-written copies were placed at my disposal by the General Committee long before they were given to the public in volume form.

A systematic search at the Public Record Office has revealed a wealth of unpublished documents, including a lengthy letter from Borrow relating to his imprisonment at Seville in 1839. From other sources much valuable information and many interesting anecdotes have been obtained, and through the courtesy of their possessor a number of unpublished Borrow letters are either printed in their entirety or are quoted from in this volume.

My thanks are due in particular to the Committee of British and Foreign Bible Society for placing at my disposal the copies of the Borrow Letters, and also for permission to reproduce the interesting silhouette of the Rev. Andrew Brandram, and to the Rev. T. H. Darlow, M.A. (Literary Superintendent), whose uniform kindness and desire to assist me I find it impossible adequately to acknowledge. My thanks are also due to the Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Grey, M.P., for permission to examine the despatches from the British Embassy at Madrid at the Record Office, and the Registers of Passports at the Foreign Office, and to Mr F. H. Bowring (son of Sir John Bowring), Mr Wilfrid J. Bowring (who has placed at my disposal a number of letters from Borrow to his grandfather), Mr R. W. Brant, Mr Ernest H. Caddie, Mr William Canton, Mr S. D. Charles, an ardent Borrovian from whom I have received much kindness and many valuable suggestions, Mr A. I. Dasent, the editors of The Athenaeum and The Bookman, Mr Thomas Hake, Mr D. B. Hill of Mattishall, Norfolk, Mr James Hooper, Mr W. F. T. Jarrold (for permission to reproduce the hitherto unpublished portrait of Borrow painted by his brother), Dr F. G. Kenyon, C.B., Mr F. A. Mumby, Mr George Porter of Denbigh (for interesting particulars about Borrow’s first visit to Wales), Mr Theodore Rossi, Mr Theodore Watts-Dunton, Mr Thomas Vade-Walpole, who have all responded to my appeal for help with great willingness.

To one friend, who elects to be nameless, I am deeply grateful for many valuable suggestions and much help; but above all for the keen interest he has taken in a work which he first encouraged me to write. To her who gave so plentifully of her leisure in transcribing documents at the Record Office and in research work at the British Museum and elsewhere, I am indebted beyond all possibility of acknowledgment. To no one more than to Mr John Murray are my acknowledgments due for his unfailing kindness, patience and assistance. It is no exaggeration to state that but for his aid and encouragement this book could not have been written.

January, 1912.

CHAPTER I: 1678-MAY 1816

On 28th July 1783 was held the annual fair at Menheniot, and for miles round the country folk flocked into the little Cornish village to join in the festivities. Among the throng was a strong contingent of young men from Liskeard, a town three miles distant, between whom and the youth of Menheniot an ancient feud existed. In days when the bruisers of England were national heroes, and a fight was a fitting incident of a day’s revelry, the very presence of their rivals was a sufficient challenge to the chivalry of Menheniot, and a contest became inevitable. Some unrecorded incident was accepted by both parties as a sufficient cause for battle, and the two factions were soon fighting furiously midst collapsing stalls and tumbled merchandise. Women shrieked and fainted, men shouted and struck out grimly, whilst the stall-holders, in a frenzy of grief and despair, wrung their hands helplessly as they saw their goods being trampled to ruin beneath the feet of the contestants.

Slowly the men of Liskeard were borne back by their more numerous opponents. They wavered, and just as defeat seemed inevitable, there arrived upon the scene a young man who, on seeing his townsmen in danger of being beaten, placed himself at their head and charged down upon the enemy, forcing them back by the impetuosity of his attack.

The new arrival was a man of fine physique, above the medium height and a magnificent fighter, who, later in life, was to achieve something of which a Mendoza or a Belcher might have been proud. He fought strongly and silently, inspiring his fellow townsmen by his example. The new leader had entirely turned the tide of battle, but just as the defeat of the men of Menheniot seemed certain, a diversion was created by the arrival of the local constables. Now that their own villagers were on the verge of disaster, there was no longer any reason why they should remain in the background. They made a determined effort to arrest the leader of the Liskeard contingent, and were promptly knocked down by him.

At that moment Mr Edmund Hambley, a much-respected maltster and the headborough of Liskeard, was attracted to the spot. Seeing in the person of the outrageous leader of the battle one of his own apprentices, he stepped forward and threatened him with arrest. Goaded to desperation by the scornful attitude of the young man, the master-maltster laid hands upon him, and instantly shared the fate of the constables. With great courage and determination the headborough rose to his feet and again attempted to enforce his authority, but with no better result. When he picked himself up for a second time, it was to pass from the scene of his humiliation and, incidentally, out of the life of the young man who had defied his authority.

The young apprentice was Thomas Borrow (born December 1758), eighth and posthumous child of John Borrow and of Mary his wife, of Trethinnick (the House on the Hill), in the neighbouring parish of St Cleer, two and a half miles north of Liskeard. At the age of fifteen, Thomas had begun to work upon his father’s farm. At nineteen he was apprenticed to Edmund Hambley, maltster, of Liskeard, who five years later, in his official capacity as Constable of the Hundred of Liskeard, was to be publicly defied and twice knocked down by his insubordinate apprentice.

A trifling affair in itself, this village fracas was to have a lasting effect upon the career of Thomas Borrow. He was given to understand by his kinsmen that he need not look to them for sympathy or assistance in his wrongdoing. The Borrows of Trethinnick could trace back further than the parish registers record (1678). They were godly and law-abiding people, who had stood for the king and lost blood and harvests in his cause. If a son of the house disgrace himself, the responsibility must be his, not theirs. In the opinion of his family, Thomas Borrow had, by his vigorous conduct towards the headborough, who was also his master, placed himself outside the radius of their sympathy. At this period Trethinnick, a farm of some fifty acres in extent, was in the hands of Henry, Thomas’ eldest brother, who since his mother’s death, ten years before, had assumed the responsibility of launching his youngest brother upon the world.

Fearful of the result of his assault on the headborough, Thomas Borrow left St Cleer with great suddenness, and for five months disappeared entirely. On 29th December he presented himself as a recruit before Captain Morshead, {3a} in command of a detachment of the Coldstream Guards, at that time stationed in the duchy.

Thomas Borrow was no stranger to military training. For five years he had been in the Yeomanry Militia, which involved a short annual training. In the regimental records he is credited with five years “former service.” He remained for eight years with the Coldstream Guards, most of the time being passed in London barracks. He had no money with which to purchase a commission, and his rise was slow and deliberate. At the end of nine months he was promoted to the rank of corporal, and five years later he became a sergeant. In 1792 he was transferred as Sergeant-Major to the First, or West Norfolk Regiment of Militia, whose headquarters were at East Dereham in Norfolk.

It was just previous to this transfer that Sergeant Borrow had his famous encounter in Hyde Park with Big Ben Bryan, the champion of England; he “whose skin was brown and dusky as that of a toad.” It was a combat in which “even Wellington or Napoleon would have been heartily glad to cry for quarter ere the lapse of five minutes, and even the Blacksmith Tartar would, perhaps, have shrunk from the opponent with whom, after having had a dispute with him,” Sergeant Borrow “engaged in single combat for one hour, at the end of which time the champions shook hands and retired, each having experienced quite enough of the other’s prowess.” {4a}

At East Dereham Thomas Borrow met Ann {4b} Perfrement, {4c} a strikingly handsome girl of twenty, whose dark eyes first flashed upon him from over the footlights. It was, and still is, the custom for small touring companies to engage their supernumeraries in the towns in which they were playing. The pretty daughter of Farmer Perfrement, whose farm lay about one and a half miles out of East Dereham, was one of those who took occasion to earn a few shillings for pin-money. The Perfrements were of Huguenot stock. On the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, their ancestors had fled from their native town of Caen and taken refuge in East Anglia, there to enjoy the liberty of conscience denied them in their beloved Normandy. Thomas Borrow made the acquaintance of the young probationer, and promptly settled any aspirations that she may have had towards the stage by marrying her. The wedding took place on 11th February 1793 at East Dereham church, best known as the resting- place of the poet Cowper, Ann being twenty-one and Thomas thirty-four years of age.

For the next seven years Thomas and Ann Borrow moved about with the West Norfolk Militia, which now marched off into Essex, a few months later doubling back again into Norfolk. Then it dived into Kent and for a time hovered about the Cinque Ports, Thomas Borrow in the meantime being promoted to the rank of quarter-master (27th May 1795). It was not until he had completed fourteen years of service that he received a commission. On 27th February 1798 he became Adjutant in the same regiment, a promotion that carried with it a captain’s rank.

Whilst at Sandgate Mrs Borrow became acquainted with John Murray, the son of the founder of the publishing house from which, forty-four years later, were to be published the books of her second son, then unborn. The widow of John Murray the First had married in 1795 Lieutenant Henry Paget of the West Norfolk Militia. Years later (27th March 1843) George Borrow wrote to John Murray, Junr., third of the line:

“I am at present in Norwich with my mother, who has been ill, but is now, thank God, recovering fast. She begs leave to send her kind remembrances to Mr Murray. She knew him at Sandgate in Kent FORTY- SIX years ago, when he came to see his mother, Mrs P[aget]. She was also acquainted with his sister, Miss Jane Murray, {5a} who used to ride on horseback with her on the Downs. She says Captain [sic] Paget once cooked a dinner for Mrs P. and herself; and sat down to table with his cook’s apron on. Is not this funny? Does it not ‘beat the Union,’ as the Yankees say?”

The first child of the marriage was born in 1800, it is not known exactly when or where. This was John, “the brother some three years older than myself,” whose beauty in infancy was so great “that people, especially those of the poorer classes, would follow the nurse who carried him about in order to look at and bless his lovely face,” {6a} with its rosy cheeks and smiling, blue-eyed innocence. On one occasion even, an attempt was made to snatch him from the arms of his nurse as she was about to enter a coach. The parents became a prey to anxiety; for the child seems to have possessed many endearing qualities as well as good looks. He was quick and clever, and when the time came for instruction, “he mastered his letters in a few hours, and in a day or two could decipher the names of people on the doors of houses and over the shop windows.” {6b} His cleverness increased as he grew up, and later he seems to have become, in the mind of Captain Borrow at least, a standard by which to measure the shortcomings of his younger son George, whom he never was able to understand.

For the next three years, 1800-3, the regiment continued to hover about the home counties. The Peace of Amiens released many of the untried warriors, who had enlisted “until the peace,” their adjutant having to find new recruits to fill up the gaps. War broke out again the following year (18th May 1803), and the Great Terror assumed a phase so critical as to subdue almost entirely all thought of party strife. On 5th July Ann Borrow gave birth to a second son, in the house of her father. At the time Captain Borrow was hunting for recruits in other parts of Norfolk, in order to send them to Colchester, where the regiment was stationed. In due course the child was christened George Henry {7a} at the church of East Dereham, and, within a few weeks of his birth, he received his first experience of the vicissitudes of a soldier’s life, by accompanying his father, mother, and brother to Colchester to rejoin the regiment. The whole infancy of George Borrow was spent in the same trailing restlessness. Napoleon was alive and at large, and the West Norfolks seemed doomed eternally to march and countermarch in the threatened area, Sussex, Kent, Essex.

No efforts appear to have been made to steal the younger brother, although “people were in the habit of standing still to look at me, ay, more than at my brother.” {7b} Unlike John in about everything that one child could be unlike another, George was a gloomy, introspective creature who considerably puzzled his parents. He compares himself to “a deep, dark lagoon, shaded by black pines, cypresses and yews,” {7c} beside which he once paused to contemplate “a beautiful stream . . . sparkling in the sunshine, and . . . tumbling merrily into cascades,” {7d} which he likened to his brother.

Slow of comprehension, almost dull-witted, shy of society, sometimes bursting into tears when spoken to, George became “a lover of nooks and retired corners,” {7e} where he would sit for hours at a time a prey to “a peculiar heaviness . . . and at times . . . a strange sensation of fear, which occasionally amounted to horror,” {7f} for which there was no apparent cause. In time he grew to be as much disliked as his brother was admired. On one occasion an old Jew pedlar, attracted by the latent intelligence in the smouldering eyes of the silent child, who ignored his questions and continued tracing in the dust with his fingers curious lines, pronounced him “a prophet’s child.” This carried to the mother’s heart a quiet comfort; and reawakened in her hope for the future of her second son.

The early childhood of George Borrow was spent in stirring times. Without, there was the menace of Napoleon’s invasion; within, every effort was being made to meet and repel it. Dumouriez was preparing his great scheme of defence; Captain Thomas Borrow was doing his utmost to collect and drill men to help in carrying it into effect. Sometimes the family were in lodgings; but more frequently in barracks, for reasons of economy. Once, at least, they lived under canvas.

The strange and puzzling child continued to impress his parents in a manner well-calculated to alarm them. One day, with a cry of delight, he seized a viper that, “like a line of golden light,” was moving across the lane in which he was playing. Whilst making no effort to harm the child, who held and regarded it with awe and admiration, the reptile showed its displeasure towards John, his brother, by hissing and raising its head as if to strike. This happened when George was between two and three years of age. At about the same period he ate largely of some poisonous berries, which resulted in “strong convulsions,” lasting for several hours. He seems to have been a source of constant anxiety to his parents, who were utterly unable to understand the strange and gloomy child who had been vouchsafed to them by the inscrutable decree of providence.

In the middle of the year 1809 the regiment returned from Essex to Norfolk, marching first to Norwich and thence to other towns in the county. Captain Borrow and his family took up their quarters once more at Dereham. George was now six years old, acutely observant of the things that interested him, but reluctant to proceed with studies which, in his eyes, seemed to have nothing to recommend them. Books possessed no attraction for him, although he knew his alphabet and could even read imperfectly. The acquirement of book-learning he found a dull and dolorous business, to which he was driven only by the threats or entreaties of his parents, who showed some concern lest he should become an “arrant dunce.”

The intelligence that the old Jew pedlar had discovered still lay dormant, as if unwilling to manifest itself. The boy loved best “to look upon the heavens, and to bask in the rays of the sun, or to sit beneath hedgerows and listen to the chirping of the birds, indulging the while in musing and meditation.” {9a} Meanwhile John was earning golden opinions for the astonishing progress he continued to make at school, unconsciously throwing into bolder relief the apparent dullness of his younger brother. George, however, was as active mentally as the elder. The one was studying men, the other books. George was absorbing impressions of the things around him: of the quaint old Norfolk town, its “clean but narrow streets branching out from thy modest market-place, with thine old-fashioned houses, with here and there a roof of venerable thatch”; of that exquisite old gentlewoman Lady Fenn, {9b} as she passed to and from her mansion upon some errand of bounty or of mercy, “leaning on her gold-headed cane, whilst the sleek old footman walked at a respectful distance behind.” {9c) On Sundays, from the black leather-covered seat in the church-pew, he would contemplate with large-eyed wonder the rector and James Philo his clerk, “as they read their respective portions of the venerable liturgy,” sometimes being lulled to sleep by the monotonous drone of their voices.

On fine Sundays there was the evening walk “with my mother and brother–a quiet, sober walk, during which I would not break into a run, even to chase a butterfly, or yet more a honey-bee, being fully convinced of the dread importance of the day which God had hallowed. And how glad I was when I had got over the Sabbath day without having done anything to profane it. And how soundly I slept on the Sabbath night after the toil of being very good throughout the day.” {10a}

During these early years there was being photographed upon the brain of George Borrow a series of impressions which, to the end of his life, remained as vivid as at the moment they were absorbed. What appeared to those around him as dull-witted stupidity was, in reality, mental surfeit. His mind was occupied with other things than books, things that it eagerly took cognisance of, strove to understand and was never to forget. {10b} Hitherto he had taken “no pleasure in books . . . and bade fair to be as arrant a dunce as ever brought the blush of shame into the cheeks of anxious and affectionate parents.” {10c} His mind was not ready for them. When the time came there was no question of dullness: he proved an eager and earnest student.

One day an intimate friend of Mrs Borrow’s, who was also godmother to John, brought with her a present of a book for each of the two boys, a history of England for the elder and for the younger Robinson Crusoe. Instantly George became absorbed.

“The true chord had now been touched . . . Weeks succeeded weeks, months followed months, and the wondrous volume was my only study and principal source of amusement. For hours together I would sit poring over a page till I had become acquainted with the import of every line. My progress, slow enough at first, became by degrees more rapid, till at last, under a ‘shoulder of mutton sail,’ I found myself cantering before a steady breeze over an ocean of enchantment, so well pleased with my voyage that I cared not how long it might be ere it reached its termination. And it was in this manner that I first took to the paths of knowledge.” {11a}

In the spring of 1810 the regiment was ordered to Norman Cross, in Huntingdonshire, situated at the junction of the Peterborough and Great North Roads. At this spot the Government had caused to be erected in 1796 an extensive prison, covering forty acres of ground, in which to confine some of the prisoners made during the Napoleonic wars. There were sixteen large buildings roofed with red tiles. Each group of four was surrounded by a palisade, whilst another palisade “lofty and of prodigious strength” surrounded the whole. At the time when the West Norfolk Militia arrived there were some six thousand prisoners, who, with their guards, constituted a considerable-sized township. From time to time fresh batches of captives arrived amid a storm of cheers and cries of “Vive L’Empereur!” These were the only incidents in the day’s monotony, save when some prisoner strove to evade the hospitality of King George, and was shot for his ingratitude.

Captain Borrow rejoined his regiment at Norman C Cross, leaving his family to follow a few days later. At the time the country round Peterborough was under water owing to the recent heavy rains, and at one portion of the journey the whole party had to embark in a species of punt, which was towed by horses “up to the knees in water, and, on coming to blind pools and ‘greedy depths,’ were not unfrequently swimming.” {11b} But they were all old campaigners and accepted such adventures as incidents of a soldier’s life.

At Norman Cross George made the acquaintance of an old snake-catcher and herbalist, a circumstance which, insignificant in itself, was to exercise a considerable influence over his whole life. Frequently this curious pair were to be seen tramping the countryside together; a tall, quaint figure with fur cap and gaiters carrying a leathern bag of wriggling venom, and an eager child with eyes that now burned with interest and intelligence–and the talk of the two was the lore of the viper. When the snake-catcher passed out of the life of his young disciple, he left behind him as a present a tame and fangless viper, which George often carried with him on his walks. It was this well-meaning and inoffensive viper that turned aside the wrath of Gypsy Smith, {12a} and awakened in his heart a superstitious awe and veneration for the child, the Sap-engro, who might be a goblin, but who certainly would make a most admirable “clergyman and God Almighty,” who read from a book that contained the kind of prayers particularly to his taste–perhaps the greatest encomium ever bestowed upon the immortal Robinson Crusoe. Thus it came about that George Borrow was proclaimed brother to the gypsy’s son Ambrose, {12b} who as Jasper Petulengro figures so largely in Lavengro and The Romany Rye, and is credited with that exquisitely phrased pagan glorification of mere existence:

“Life is sweet, brother . . . There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?” {13a}

The Borrows were nomads, permitted by God and the king to tarry not over long in any one place. In the following July (1811) the West Norfolks proceeded to Colchester via Norfolk, after fifteen months of prison duty and straw-plait destroying. {13b} Captain Borrow betook himself to East Dereham again to seek for likely recruits. In the meantime George made his first acquaintance with that universal specific for success in life, for correctness of conduct, for soundness of principles–Lilly’s Latin Grammar, which to learn by heart was to acquire a virtue that defied evil. The good old pedagogue who advocated Lilly’s Latin Grammar as a remedy for all ills, would have traced George Borrow’s eventual success in life entirely to the fact that within three years of the date that the solemn exhortation was pronounced the boy had learned Lilly by heart, although without in the least degree comprehending him.

Early in 1812 the regiment turned its head north, and by slow degrees, with occasional counter marchings, continued to progress towards Edinburgh, which was reached thirteen months later (6th April 1813). “With drums beating, colours flying, and a long train of baggage-waggons behind,” {13c} the West Norfolk Militia wound its way up the hill to the Castle, the adjutant’s family in a chaise forming part of the procession. There in barracks the regiment might rest itself after long and weary marches, and the two young sons of the adjutant be permitted to continue their studies at the High School, without the probability that the morrow would see them on the road to somewhere else.

Whilst at Edinburgh George met with his first experience of racial feeling, which, under uncongenial conditions, develops into race- hatred. He discovered that one English boy, when faced by a throng of young Scots patriots, had best be silent as to the virtues of his own race. He joined in and enjoyed the fights between the “Auld and the New Toon,” and incidentally acquired a Scots accent that somewhat alarmed his loyal father, who had named him after the Hanoverian Georges. Proving himself a good fighter, he earned the praise of his Scots acquaintances, and a general invitation to assist them in their “bickers” with “thae New Toon blackguards.”

He loved to climb and clamber over the rocks, peeping into “all manner of strange crypts, crannies, and recesses, where owls nestled and the weasel brought forth her young.” He would go out on all-day excursions, enjoying the thrills of clambering up to what appeared to be inaccessible ledges, until eventually he became an expert cragsman. One day he came upon David Haggart {14a} sitting on the extreme verge of a precipice, “thinking of Willie Wallace.”

For fifteen months the regiment remained at Edinburgh. In the spring of 1814 the waning star of Napoleon had, to all appearances, set, and he was on his way to his miniature kingdom, the Isle of Elba (28th April). Europe commenced to disband its huge armies, Great Britain among the rest. On 21st June the West Norfolks received orders to proceed to Norwich by ship via Leith and Great Yarmouth. The Government, relieved of all apprehension of an invasion, had time to think of the personal comfort of the country’s defenders. With marked consideration, the orders provided that those who wished might march instead of embarking on the sea. Accordingly Captain Borrow and his family chose the land route. Arrived at Norwich, the regiment was formally disbanded amid great festivity. The officers, at the Maid’s Head, the queen of East Anglian inns, and the men in the spacious market-place, drank to the king’s health and peace. The regiment was formally mustered out on 19th July.

The Borrows took up their quarters at the Crown and Angel in St Stephen’s Street, a thoroughfare that connects the main roads from Ipswich and Newmarket with the city. George, now eleven years old, had an opportunity of continuing his education at the Norwich Grammar School, whilst his brother proceeded to study drawing and painting with a “little dark man with brown coat . . . and top-boots, whose name will one day be considered the chief ornament of the old town,” {15a} and whose works are to “rank among the proudest pictures of England,”–the Norwich painter, “Old Crome.” {15b}

Whilst the two boys were thus occupied, Louis XVIII. was endeavouring to reorder his kingdom, and on a little island in the Mediterranean, Napoleon was preparing a bombshell that was to shatter the peace of Europe and send Captain Borrow hurrying hither and thither in search of the men who, a few months before, had left the colours, convinced that a generation of peace was before them.

On 1st March Napoleon was at Cannes; eighteen days later Louis XVIII. fled from Paris. Everywhere there were feverish preparations for war. John Borrow threw aside pencil and brush and was gazetted ensign in his father’s regiment (29th May). Europe united against the unexpected and astonishing danger. By the time Captain Borrow had finished his task, however, the crisis was past, Waterloo had been won and Napoleon was on his way to St Helena.

By a happy inspiration it was decided to send the West Norfolks to Ireland, where “disturbances were apprehended” and private stills flourished. On 31st August the regiment, some eight hundred strong, sailed in two vessels from Harwich for Cork, the passage occupying eight days. The ship that carried the Borrows was old and crazy, constantly missing stays and shipping seas, until it seemed that only by a miracle she escaped “from being dashed upon the foreland.”

After a few days’ rest at Cork, the “city of contradictions,” where wealth and filth jostled one another in the public highways and “boisterous shouts of laughter were heard on every side,” the regiment marched off in two divisions for Clonmel in Tipperary. Walking beside his father, who was in command of the second division, and holding on to his stirrup-leather, George found a new country opening out before him. On one occasion, as they were passing through a village of low huts, “that seemed to be inhabited solely by women and children,” he went up to an old beldam who sat spinning at the door of one of the hovels and asked for some water. She “appeared to consider for a moment, then tottering into her hut, presently reappeared with a small pipkin of milk, which she offered . . . with a trembling hand.” When the lad tendered payment she declined the money, and patted his face, murmuring some unintelligible words. Obviously there was nothing in the boy’s nature now that appeared strange to simple-minded folk. Probably the intercourse with other boys at Edinburgh and Norwich had been beneficial in its effect. Keenly interested in everything around him, George fell to speculating as to whether he could learn Irish and speak to the people in their own tongue.

At Clonmel the Borrows lodged with an Orangeman, who had run out of his house as the Adjutant rode by at the head of his men, and proceeded to welcome him with flowery volubility. On the advice of his host Captain Borrow sent George to a Protestant school, where he met the Irish boy Murtagh, who figures so largely in Lavengro and The Romany Rye. Murtagh settled any doubts that Borrow may have had as to his ability to acquire Erse, by teaching it to him in exchange for a pack of cards.

On 23rd December 1815 Ensign John Thomas Borrow was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he being then in his sixteenth year. In the following January, after only a few months’ stay, the West Norfolks were moved on to Templemore. It was here that George learned to ride, and that without a saddle, and had awakened in him that “passion for the equine race” that never left him. {17a}

The nine months spent in Ireland left an indelible mark upon Borrow’s imagination. In later life he repeatedly referred to his knowledge of the country, its people, and their language. In overcoming the difficulties of Erse, he had opened up for himself a larger prospect than was to be enjoyed by a traveller whose first word of greeting or enquiry is uttered in a hated tongue.

On 11th May 1816 the West Norfolk Militia was back again at Norwich. Peace was now finally restored to Europe, and every nation was far too impoverished, both as regards men and money, to nourish any schemes of aggression. Napoleon was safe at St Helena, under the eye of that instinctive gaoler, Sir Hudson Lowe. The army had completed its work and was being disbanded with all possible speed. The turn of the West Norfolk Militia came on 17th June, when they were formally mustered out for the second time within two years. Three years later their Adjutant was retired upon full-pay–eight shillings a day.


For the first time since his marriage, Captain Borrow found himself at liberty to settle down and educate his sons. He had spent much of his life in Norfolk, and he decided to remain there and make Norwich his home. It was a quiet and beautiful old-world city: healthy, picturesque, ancient, and, above all, possessed of a Grammar School, where George could try and gather together the stray threads of education that he had acquired at various times and in various dialects. It was an ideal city for a warrior to take his rest in; but probably what counted most with Captain Borrow was the Grammar School–more than the Norman Cathedral, the grim old Castle that stands guardian-like upon its mound, the fact of its being a garrison town, or even the traditions that surrounded the place. He had two sons who must be appropriately sent out into the world, and Norwich offered facilities for educating both. He accordingly took a small house in Willow Lane, to which access was obtained by a covered passage then called King’s, but now Borrow’s Court.

During the most nomadic portion of his life, when, with discouraging rapidity, he was moving from place to place, Captain Borrow never for one moment seems to have forgotten his obligations as a father. Whenever he had been quartered in a town for a few months, he had sought out a school to which to send John and George, notably at Huddersfield and Sheffield. Had he known it, these precautions were unnecessary; for he had two sons who were of what may be called the self-educating type: John, by virtue of the quickness of his parts; George, on account of the strangeness of his interests and his thirst for a knowledge of men and the tongues in which they communicate to each other their ideas. It would be impossible for an unconventional linguist, such as George Borrow was by instinct, to remain uneducated, and it was equally impossible to educate him.

Quite unaware of the trend of his younger son’s genius, Captain Borrow obtained for him a free-scholarship at the Grammar School, then under the headmastership of the Rev. Edward Valpy, B.D., whose principal claims to fame are his severity, his having flogged the conqueror of the “Flaming Tinman,” and his destruction of the School Records of Admission, which dated back to the Sixteenth Century. Among Borrow’s contemporaries at the Grammar School were “Rajah” Brooke of Sarawak (for whose achievements he in after life expressed a profound admiration), Sir Archdale Wilson of Delhi, Colonel Charles Stoddart, Dr James Martineau, and Thomas Borrow Burcham, the London Magistrate.

Borrow was now thirteen, and, it would appear, as determined as ever to evade as much as possible academic learning. He was “far from an industrious boy, fond of idling, and discovered no symptoms by his progress either in Latin or Greek of that philology, so prominent a feature of his last work (Lavengro).” {20a} Borrow was an idler merely because his work was uncongenial to him. “Mere idleness is the most disagreeable state of existence, and both mind and body are continually making efforts to escape from it,” he wrote in later years concerning this period. He wanted an object in life, an occupation that would prove not wholly uncongenial. That he should dislike the routine of school life was not unnatural; for he had lived quite free from those conventional restraints to which other boys of his age had always been accustomed. Occupation of some sort he must have, if only to keep at a distance that insistent melancholy that seems to have been for ever hovering about him, and the tempter whispered “Languages.” {21a} One day chance led him to a bookstall whereon lay a polyglot dictionary, “which pretended to be an easy guide to the acquirement of French, Italian, Low Dutch, and English.” He took the two first, and when he had gleaned from the old volume all it had to teach him, he longed for a master. Him he found in the person of an old French emigre priest, {21b} a study in snuff-colour and drab with a frill of dubious whiteness, who attended to the accents of a number of boarding-school young ladies. The progress of his pupil so much pleased the old priest that “after six months’ tuition, the master would sometimes, on his occasional absences to teach in the country, request his so forward pupil to attend for him his home scholars.” {21c} It was M. D’Eterville who uttered the second recorded prophecy concerning George Borrow: “Vous serez un jour un grand philologue, mon cher,” he remarked, and heard that his pupil nourished aspirations towards other things than mere philology.

In the study of French, Spanish, and Italian, Borrow spent many hours that other boys would have devoted to pleasure; yet he was by no means a student only. He found time to fish and to shoot, using a condemned, honey-combed musket that bore the date of 1746. His fishing was done in the river Yare, which flowed through the estate of John Joseph Gurney, the Quaker-banker of Earlham Hall, two miles out of Norwich. It was here that he was reproached by the voice, “clear and sonorous as a bell,” of the banker himself; not for trespassing, but “for pulling all those fish out of the water, and leaving them to gasp in the sun.”

At Harford Bridge, some two miles along the Ipswich Road, lived “the terrible Thurtell,” a patron and companion of “the bruisers of England,” who taught Borrow to box, and who ultimately ended his own inglorious career by being hanged (9th January 1824) for the murder of Mr Weare, and incidentally figuring in De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.” It was through “the king of flash-men” that Borrow saw his first prize-fight at Eaton, near Norwich.

The passion for horses that came suddenly to Borrow with his first ride upon the cob in Ireland had continued to grow. He had an opportunity of gratifying it at the Norwich Horse Fair, held each Easter under the shadow of the Castle, and famous throughout the country. {22a} It was here, in 1818, that Borrow encountered again Ambrose Petulengro, an event that was to exercise a considerable influence upon his life. Mr Petulengro had become the head of his tribe, his father and mother having been transported for passing bad money. He was now a man, with a wife, a child, and also a mother-in- law, who took a violent dislike to the tall, fair-haired gorgio. Borrow’s life was much broadened by his intercourse with Mr Petulengro. He was often at the gypsy encampment on Mousehold, a heath just outside Norwich, where, under the tuition of his host, he learned the Romany tongue with such rapidity as to astonish his instructor and earn for him among the gypsies the name of “Lav- engro,” word-fellow or word-master. He also boxed with the godlike Tawno Chikno, who in turn pronounced him worthy to bear the name “Cooro-mengro,” fist-fellow or fist-master. He frequently accompanied Mr Petulengro to neighbouring fairs and markets, riding one of the gypsy’s horses. At other times the two would roam over the gorse-covered Mousehold, discoursing largely about things Romany.

The departure of Mr Petulengro and his retinue from Norwich threw Borrow back once more upon his linguistic studies, his fishing, his shooting, and his smouldering discontent at the constraints of school life. It was probably an endeavour on Borrow’s part to make himself more like his gypsy friends that prompted him to stain his face with walnut juice, drawing from the Rev. Edward Valpy the question: “Borrow, are you suffering from jaundice, or is it only dirt?” The gypsies were not the only vagabonds of Borrow’s acquaintance at this period. There were the Italian peripatetic vendors of weather- glasses, who had their headquarters at Norwich. In after years he met again more than one of these merchants. They were always glad to see him and revive old memories of the Norwich days.

About this time he saved a boy from drowning in the Yare. {23a} It may be this act with which he generously credits his brother John when he says –

“I have known him dash from a steep bank into a stream in his full dress, and pull out a man who was drowning; yet there were twenty others bathing in the water, who might have saved him by putting out a hand, without inconvenience to themselves, which, however, they did not do, but stared with stupid surprise at the drowning one’s struggles.” {24a}

From the first Borrow had shown a strong distaste for the humdrum routine of school life. In a thousand ways he was different from his fellows. He had been accustomed to meet strange and, to him, deeply interesting people. Now he was bidden adopt a course of life against which his whole nature rebelled. It was impossible. He missed the atmosphere of vagabondage that had inspired and stimulated his early boyhood.

The crisis came at last. There was only one way to avoid the awkward and distasteful destiny that was being forced upon him. He entered into a conspiracy with three school-fellows, all younger than himself, to make a dash for a life that should offer wider opportunities to their adventurous natures. The plan was to tramp to Great Yarmouth and there excavate on the seashore caves for their habitation. From these headquarters they would make foraging expeditions, and live on what they could extract from the surrounding country, either by force or by the terror that they inspired. One morning the four started on their twenty-mile trudge to the sea; but, when only a few miles out, one of their number became fearful and turned back.

Encouraged by their leader, the others continued on their way. The father of the other two boys appears to have got wind of the project and posted after them in a chaise. He came up with them at Acle, about eleven miles from Norwich. When they were first seen, Borrow was striving to hearten his fellow buccaneers, who were tired and dispirited after their long walk. The three were unceremoniously bundled into the chaise and returned to their homes and, subsequently, to the wrath of the Rev. Edward Valpy. {25a}

The names of the three confederates were John Dalrymple (whose heart failed him) and Theodosius and Francis Purland, sons of a Norwich chemist. The Purlands are credited with robbing “the paternal till,” while Dalrymple confined himself to the less compromising duty of “gathering horse-pistols and potatoes.” If the boys robbed their father’s till, why did they beg? In the ballad entitled The Wandering Children and the Benevolent Gentleman, Borrow depicts the “eldest child” as begging for charity for these hungry children, who have had “no breakfast, save the haws.” This does not seem to suggest that the boys were in the possession of money. Again, it was the father of one of their schoolfellows who was responsible for their capture, according to Dr Knapp, by asking them to dinner whilst he despatched a messenger to the Rev. Edward Valpy. The story of Borrow’s being “horsed” on Dr Martineau’s back is apocryphal. Martineau himself denied it. {25b}

There is no record of how Captain Borrow received the news of his younger son’s breach of discipline. It probably reminded him that the boy was now fifteen and it was time to think about his future. The old soldier was puzzled. Not only had his second son shown a great partiality for acquiring Continental tongues, but he had learned Irish, and Captain Borrow seemed to think that by learning the language of Papists and rebels, his son had sullied the family honour. To his father’s way of thinking, this accomplishment seemed to bar him from most things that were at one and the same time honourable and desirable.

The boy’s own inclinations pointed to the army; but Captain Borrow had apparently seen too much of the army in war time, and the slowness of promotion, to think of it as offering a career suitable to his son, now that there was every prospect of a prolonged peace. He thought of the church as an alternative; but here again that fatal facility the boy had shown in learning Erse seemed to stand out as a barrier. “I have observed the poor lad attentively and really I do not see what to make of him,” Captain Borrow is said to have remarked. What could be expected of a lad who would forsake Greek for Irish, or Latin for the barbarous tongue of homeless vagabonds? Certainly not a good churchman. At length it became obvious to the distressed parents that there was only one choice left them–the law.

About this period Borrow fell ill of some nameless and unclassified disease, which defied the wisdom of physicians, who shook their heads gravely by his bedside. An old woman, however, cured him by a decoction prepared from a bitter root. The convalescence was slow and laborious; for the boy’s nerves were shattered, and that deep, haunting melancholy, which he first called the “Fear” and afterwards the “Horrors,” descended upon him.

On the 30th of March 1819 Borrow was articled for five years to Simpson & Rackham, solicitors, of Tuck’s Court, St Giles, Norwich. {26a} He consequently left home to take up his abode at the house of the senior partner in the Upper Close. {27a} Mr William Simpson was a man of considerable importance in the city; for besides being Treasurer of the County, he was Chamberlain and Town Clerk, whilst his wife was famed for her hospitality, in particular her expensive dinners.

With that unerring instinct of contrariety that never seemed to forsake him, Borrow proceeded to learn, not law but Welsh. When the eyes of authority were on him he transcribed Blackstone, but when they were turned away he read and translated the poems of Ab Gwilym. He performed his tasks “as well as could be expected in one who was occupied by so many and busy thoughts of his own.”

At the end of Tuck’s Court was a house at which was employed a Welsh groom, a queer fellow who soon attracted the notice of Simpson & Rackham’s clerks, young gentlemen who were bent on “mis-spending the time which was not legally their own.” {27b} They would make audible remarks about the unfortunate and inoffensive Welsh groom, calling out after him “Taffy”–in short, rendering the poor fellow’s life a misery with their jibes, until at last, almost distracted, he had come to the determination either to give his master notice or to hang himself, that he might get away from that “nest of parcupines.” Borrow saw in the predicament of the Welsh groom the hand of providence. He made a compact with him, that in exchange for lessons in Welsh, he, Borrow, should persuade his fellow clerks to cease their annoyance.

From that time, each Sunday afternoon, the Welsh groom would go to Captain Borrow’s house to instruct his son in Welsh pronunciation; for in book Welsh Borrow was stronger than his preceptor. Borrow had learned the language of the bards “chiefly by going through Owen Pugh’s version of ‘Paradise Lost’ twice” with the original by his side. After which “there was very little in Welsh poetry that I could not make out with a little pondering.” {28a} This had occupied some three years. The studies with the groom lasted for about twelve months, until he left Norwich with his family. {28b}

Captain Borrow’s thoughts were frequently occupied with the future of his younger son, a problem that had by no means been determined by signing the articles that bound him to Simpson & Rackham. The boy was frank and honest and did not scruple to give expression to ideas of his own, and it was these ideas that alarmed his father. Once at the house of Mr Simpson, and before the assembled guests, he told an archdeacon, worth 7000 pounds a year, that the classics were much overvalued, and compared Ab Gwilym with Ovid, to the detriment of the Roman. To Captain Borrow the possession of ideas upon any subject by one so young was in itself a thing to be deplored; but to venture an opinion contrary to that commonly held by men of weight and substance was an unforgivable act of insubordination.

The boy had been sent to Tuck’s Court to learn law, and instead he persisted in acquiring languages, and such languages! Welsh, Danish, Arabic, Armenian, Saxon; for these were the tongues with which he occupied himself. None but a perfect mother such as Mrs Borrow could have found excuses for a son who pursued such studies, and her husband pointed out to her, it is “in the nature of women invariably to take the part of the second born.”

In one of those curiously self-revelatory passages with which his writings abound, Borrow tells how he continued to act as door-keeper long after it had ceased to be part of his duty. As a student of men and a collector of strange characters, it was in keeping with his genius to do so, although he himself was unable to explain why he took pleasure in the task. No one was admitted to the presence of the senior partner who did not first pass the searching scrutiny of his articled clerk. Those who pleased him were admitted to Mr Simpson’s private room; to those who did not he proved himself an almost insuperable obstacle. Unfortunately Borrow’s standards were those of the physiognomist rather than the lawyer; he inverted the whole fabric of professional desirability by admitting the goats and refusing the sheep. He turned away a knight, or a baronet, and admitted a poet, until at last the distressed old gentleman in black, with the philanthropical head, his master, was forced to expostulate and adjure his clerk to judge, not by faces but by clothes, which in reality make the man. Borrow bowed to the ruling of “the prince of English solicitors,” revised his standards and continued to act as keeper of the door.

Mr Simpson seems to have earned Borrow’s thorough regard, no small achievement considering in how much he differed from his illustrious articled-clerk in everything, not excepting humour, of which the delightful, old-world gentleman seems to have had a generous share. He was doubtless puzzled to classify the strange being by whose instrumentality a stream of undesirable people was admitted to his presence, whilst distinguished clients were sternly and rigorously turned away. He probably smiled at the story of the old yeoman and his wife who, in return for some civility shown to them by Borrow, presented him with an old volume of Danish ballads, which inspired him to learn the language, aided by a Danish Bible. {30a} He was not only “the first solicitor in East Anglia,” but “the prince of all English solicitors–for he was a gentleman!” {30b} In another place Borrow refers to him as “my old master . . . who would have died sooner than broken his word. God bless him!” {30c} And yet again as “my ancient master, the gentleman solicitor of East Anglia.” {30d}

Borrow was always handsome in everything he did. If he hated a man he hated him, his kith and kin and all who bore his name. His friendship was similarly sweeping, and his regard for William Simpson prompted him to write subsequently of the law as “a profession which abounds with honourable men, and in which I believe there are fewer scamps than in any other. The most honourable men I have ever known have been lawyers; they were men whose word was their bond, and who would have preferred ruin to breaking it.” {31a}

Fortunately for Borrow there was at the Norwich Guildhall a valuable library consisting of a large number of ancient folios written in many languages. “Amidst the dust and cobwebs of the Corporation Library” he studied earnestly and, with a fine disregard for a librarian’s feelings, annotated some of the volumes, his marginalia existing to this day. One of his favourite works was the Danica Literatura Antiquissima of Olaus Wormius, 1636, which inspired him with the idea of adopting the name Olaus, his subsequent contributions to The New Magazine being signed George Olaus Borrow.

Whilst Borrow was striving to learn languages and avoid the law, {31b} the question of his brother’s career was seriously occupying the mind of their father. Borrow loved and admired his brother. There is sincerity in all he writes concerning John, and there is something of nobility about the way in which he tells of his father’s preference for him. “Who,” he asks, “cannot excuse the honest pride of the old man–the stout old man?” {31c}

The Peace had closed to John Borrow the army as a profession, and he had devoted himself assiduously to his art. Under Crome the elder he had made considerable progress, and had exhibited a number of pictures at the yearly exhibitions of the Norwich Society of Artists. He continued to study with Crome until the artist’s death (22nd April 1821), when a new master had to be sought. With his father’s blessing and 150 pounds he proceeded to London, where he remained for more than a year studying with B. R. Haydon. {32a} Later he went to Paris to copy Old Masters.

About this time Borrow had an opportunity of seeing many of “the bruisers of England.” In his veins flowed the blood of the man who had met Big Ben Bryan and survived the encounter undefeated. “Let no one sneer at the bruisers of England,” Borrow wrote–“What were the gladiators of Rome, or the bull-fighters of Spain, in its palmiest days, compared to England’s bruisers?” {32b} he asks. On 17th July 1820 Edward Painter of Norwich was to meet Thomas Oliver of London for a purse of a hundred guineas. On the Saturday previous (the 15th) the Norwich hotels began to fill with bruisers and their patrons, and men went their ways anxiously polite to the stranger, lest he turn out to be some champion whom it were dangerous to affront. Thomas Cribb, the champion of England, had come to see the fight, “Teucer Belcher, savage Shelton, . . . the terrible Randall, . . . Bulldog Hudson, . . . fearless Scroggins, . . . Black Richmond, . . . Tom of Bedford,” and a host of lesser lights of the “Fancy.”

On the Monday, upwards of 20,000 men swept out of the old city towards North Walsham, less than twenty miles distant, among them George Borrow, striding along among the varied stream of men and vehicles (some 2000 in number) to see the great fight, which was to end in the victory of the local man and a terrible storm, as if heaven were thundering its anger against a brutal spectacle. The sportsmen were left to find their way to shelter, Borrow and Mr Petulengro, whom he had encountered just after the fight, with them, talking of dukkeripens (fortunes).

Some time during the year 1820, a Jew named Levy (the Mousha of Lavengro), Borrow’s instructor in Hebrew, introduced him to William Taylor, {33a} one of the most extraordinary men that Norwich ever produced. In the long-limbed young lawyer’s clerk, whose hair was rapidly becoming grey, Taylor showed great interest, and, as an act of friendship, undertook to teach him German. He was gratified by the young man’s astonishing progress, and much interested in his remarkable personality. As a result Borrow became a frequent visitor at 21 King Street, Norwich, where Taylor lived and many strange men assembled.

It is doubtful if William Taylor ever found another pupil so apt, or a disciple so enthusiastic among all the “harum-scarum young men” {33b} that he was so fond of taking up and introducing “into the best society the place afforded.” {33c} He was much impressed by Borrow’s extraordinary memory and power of concentration. Speaking one day of the different degrees of intelligence in men he said:- “I cannot give you a better example to explain my meaning than my two pupils (there was another named Cooke, who was said to be ‘a genius in his way’); what I tell Borrow once he ever remembers; whilst to the fellow Cooke I have to repeat the same thing twenty times, often without effect; and it is not from want of memory either, but he will never be a linguist.” {33d}

To a correspondent Taylor wrote:-

“A Norwich young man is construing with me Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, with the view of translating it for the press. His name is George Henry Borrow, and he has learnt German with extraordinary rapidity; indeed, he has the gift of tongues, and, though not yet eighteen, understands twelve languages–English, Welsh, Erse, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; he would like to get into the Office for Foreign Affairs, but does not know how.” {34a}

This was in 1821; two years later Borrow is said to have “translated with fidelity and elegance from twenty different languages.” {34b} In spite of his later achievements in learning languages, it seems scarcely credible that he acquired eight separate languages in two years, although it must be remembered that with him the learning of a language was to be able to read it after a rather laborious fashion. Taylor, however, uses the words “facility and elegance.”

In the autobiographical notes that Borrow supplied to Mr John Longe in 1862 there appears the following passage:-

“At the expiration of his clerkship he knew little of the law, but he was well versed in languages, being not only a good Greek and Latin scholar, but acquainted with French, Italian, Spanish, all the Celtic and Gothic dialects, and likewise with the peculiar language of the English Romany Chals or gypsies.”

At William Taylor’s table Borrow met “the most intellectual and talented men of Norwich, as also those of note who visited the city.” {34c} Taylor was much interested in young men, into whose minds he did not hesitate to instil his own ideas, ideas that not only earned for him the name of “Godless Billy,” but outraged his respectable fellow-citizens as much as did his intemperate habits. “His face was terribly bloated from drink, and he had a look as if his intellect was almost as much decayed as his body,” wrote a contemporary. {35a} “Matters grew worse in his old age,” says Harriet Martineau, “when his habits of intemperance kept him out of the sight of ladies, and he got round him a set of ignorant and conceited young men, who thought they could set the whole world right by their destructive propensities. One of his chief favourites was George Borrow.” {35b} Borrow has given the following convincing picture of Taylor:

“Methought I was in a small, comfortable room wainscotted with oak; I was seated on one side of a fireplace, close by a table on which were wine and fruit; on the other side of the fire sat a man in a plain suit of brown, with the hair combed back from the somewhat high forehead; he had a pipe in his mouth, which for some time he smoked gravely and placidly, without saying a word; at length, after drawing at the pipe for some time rather vigorously, he removed it from his mouth, and emitting an accumulated cloud of smoke, he exclaimed in a slow and measured tone: ‘As I was telling you just now, my good chap, I have always been an enemy of humbug.'” {35c}

William Taylor appears to have flattered “the harum-scarum young men” with whom he surrounded himself by talking to them as if they were his intellectual equals. He encouraged them to form their own opinions, in itself a thing scarcely likely to make him popular with either parents or guardians, least of all with discipline-loving Captain Borrow, who declined even to return the salute of his son’s friend on the public highway.

Borrow now began to look to the future and speculate as to what his present life would lead to. His cogitations seem to have ended, almost invariably, in a gloomy mist of pessimism and despair–in other words, an attack of the “Horrors.” If Mr Petulengro were encamped upon Mousehold, the antidote lay near to hand in his friend’s pagan optimism; if, on the other hand, the tents of Egypt were pitched on other soil, there was no remedy, unless perhaps a prize-fight supplied the necessary stimulus to divert his thoughts from their melancholy trend.

Borrow met at the house of his tutor and friend, in July 1821, Dr Bowring {36a} (afterwards Sir John) at a dinner given in his honour. Bowring had recently published Specimen of Russian Poets, in recognition of which the Czar (Alexander I.) had presented him with a diamond ring. He had a considerable reputation as a linguist, which naturally attracted Borrow to him. Dr Bowring was told of Borrow’s accomplishments, and during the evening took a seat beside him. Borrow confessed to being “a little frightened at first” of the distinguished man, whom he described as having “a thin weaselly figure, a sallow complexion, a certain obliquity of vision, and a large pair of spectacles.” It would be dangerous to accept entirely the account that Borrow gives of the meeting, {36b} because when that was written he had come to hate and despise the man whom he had begun by regarding with such awe. Bowring appears to have ventilated his views with some freedom, and to have had a rather serious passage of arms with another guest whom he had rudely contradicted. It is very probable that Borrow’s dislike of Bowring prompted him to exaggerate his account of what happened at Taylor’s house that evening.

Whilst Borrow was industriously occupied in collecting vagabonds and imbibing the dangerous beliefs of William Taylor, there sat in an easy-chair in the small front-parlour of the little house in Willow Lane, in a faded regimental coat, a prematurely old man, whose frame still showed signs of the magnificent physique of his vigorous manhood. “Sometimes in prayer, sometimes in meditation, and sometimes in reading the Scriptures,” with his dog beside him, Captain Thomas Borrow, now sixty-five, was preparing for the end that he felt to be approaching. He frequently meditated upon what was to become of his younger son George, who held his father in such awe as to feel ill at ease when alone with him.

One day the inevitable interrogation took place. “What do you propose to do?” and the equally inevitable reply followed, “I really do not know what I shall do.” In the course of a somewhat lengthy cross-examination, Captain Borrow discovered that his son knew the Armenian tongue, for which he very cunningly strove to enlist his father’s interest by telling him that in Armenia was Mount Ararat, whereon the ark rested. Captain Borrow also discovered that his son could not only shoe a horse, but also make the shoes; but, what was most important, he found that George had learned “very little” law. When asked if he thought he could support himself by Armenian or his “other acquirements,” the younger man was not very hopeful, and horrified the old soldier by suggesting that if all else failed there was always suicide.

The dying man was thus left to yearn for the return of his elder son, in whom all his hopes lay centred. John appears to have been by no means dutiful to his parents in the matter of letters. For six months he left them unacquainted even with his address in Paris, where he was still copying Old Masters in the Louvre.

After their talk the father and younger son seem to have come to a better understanding. George would frequently read aloud from the Bible, whilst Captain Borrow would tell about his early life. His son “had no idea that he knew and had seen so much; my respect for him increased, and I looked upon him almost with admiration. His anecdotes were in general highly curious; some of them related to people in the highest stations, and to men whose names are closely connected with some of the brightest glories of our native land.” {38a}

At last John arrived, apparently a little disillusioned with the world; but the coming of his favourite son produced no change for the better in Captain Borrow s health. He was content and happy that God had granted his wish. There remained nothing now to do but “to bless my little family and go.” George learned “that it is possible to feel deeply and yet make no outward sign.”

The end came on the morning of 28th February 1824. It was by a strange chance that the old man should die in the arms of his younger son, who had run down on hearing his mother’s anguished screams. Borrow has given a dramatic account of his father’s last moments:-

“At the dead hour of night, it might be about two, I was awakened from sleep by a cry which sounded from the room immediately below that in which I slept. I knew the cry, it was the cry of my mother, and I also knew its import; yet I made no effort to rise, for I was for the moment paralysed. Again the cry sounded, yet still I lay motionless–the stupidity of horror was upon me. A third time, and it was then that, by a violent effort bursting the spell which appeared to bind me, I sprang from the bed and rushed downstairs. My mother was running wildly about the room; she had awoke and found my father senseless in the bed by her side. I essayed to raise him, and after a few efforts supported him in the bed in a sitting posture. My brother now rushed in, and snatching a light that was burning, he held it to my father’s face. ‘The surgeon, the surgeon!’ he cried; then dropping the light, he ran out of the room followed by my mother; I remained alone, supporting the senseless form of my father; the light had been extinguished by the fall, and an almost total darkness reigned in the room. The form pressed heavily against my bosom–at last methought it moved. Yes, I was right, there was a heaving of the breast, and then a gasping. Were those words which I heard? Yes, they were words, low and indistinct at first, and then audible. The mind of the dying man was reverting to former scenes. I heard him mention names which I had often heard him mention before. It was an awful moment; I felt stupified, but I still contrived to support my dying father. There was a pause, again my father spoke: I heard him speak of Minden, and of Meredith, the old Minden sergeant, and then he uttered another name, which at one period of his life was much on his lips, the name of–but this is a solemn moment! There was a deep gasp: I shook, and thought all was over; but I was mistaken–my father moved and revived for a moment; he supported himself in bed without my assistance. I make no doubt that for a moment he was perfectly sensible, and it was then that, clasping his hands, he uttered another name clearly, distinctly–it was the name of Christ. With that name upon his lips, the brave old soldier sank back upon my bosom, and, with his hands still clasped, yielded up his soul.” {39a}


On 2nd April 1824, George Borrow was cast upon the world of London by the death of his father, “with an exterior shy and cold, under which lurk much curiosity, especially with regard to what is wild and extraordinary, a considerable quantity of energy and industry, and an unconquerable love of independence.” {40a}

It had become necessary for him to earn his own livelihood. Captain Borrow’s pension had ceased with his death, and the old soldier’s savings of a lifetime were barely sufficient to produce an income of a hundred pounds a year for his widow. The provision made in the will for his younger son during his minority would operate only for about four months, as he would be of age in the following July. {40b} The clerkship with Simpson & Rackham would expire at the end of March. Borrow had outlined his ambitions in a letter written on 20th January 1824, when he was ill and wretched, to Roger Kerrison, then in London: “If ever my health mends [this has reference to a very unpleasant complaint he had contracted], and possibly it may by the time my clerkship is expired, I intend to live in London, write plays, poetry, etc., abuse religion and get myself prosecuted,” for he was tired of the “dull and gloomy town.” It was therefore with a feeling of relief that, on the evening of 1st April, he took his seat on the top of the London coach, his hopes centred in a small green box that he carried with him. It contained his stock-in-trade as an author: his beloved manuscripts, “closely written over in a singular hand.”

Among the bundles of papers were:

(i.) The Ancient Songs of Denmark, heroic and romantic, translated by himself, with notes philological, critical and historical.

(ii.) The Songs of Ab Gwilym, the Welsh Bard, also translated by himself, with notes critical, philological and historical. {41a}

(iii.) A romance in the German style.

In addition to his manuscripts, Borrow had some twenty or thirty pounds, his testimonials, and a letter from William Taylor to Sir Richard Phillips, the publisher, to whose New Magazine he had already contributed a number of translations of poems. He had also printed in The Monthly Magazine and The New Monthly Magazine translations of verse from the German, Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Spanish, and an essay on Danish ballad writing.

On the morning of 2nd April there arrived at 16 Milman Street, Bedford Row, London, W.C.,

“A lad who twenty tongues can talk,
And sixty miles a day can walk;
Drink at a draught a pint of rum,
And then be neither sick nor dumb;
Can tune a song and make a verse,
And deeds of Northern kings rehearse; Who never will forsake his friend
While he his bony fist can bend;
And, though averse to broil and strife, Will fight a Dutchman with a knife;
O that is just the lad for me,
And such is honest six-foot-three.” {42a}

It was through the Kerrisons that Borrow went to 16 Milman Street, where Roger was lodging. His apartments seem to have been dismal enough, consisting of “a small room, up two pair of stairs, in which I was to sit, and another, still smaller, above it, in which I was to sleep.” After the first feeling of loneliness had passed, dispelled largely by a bright fire and breakfast, he sallied forth, the contents of the green box under his arm, to present his letter of introduction to Sir Richard Phillips, {42b} in whom centred his hopes of employment.

On arriving at the publisher’s house in Tavistock Square, he was immediately shown into Sir Richard’s study, where he found “a tall, stout man, about sixty, dressed in a loose morning gown,” and with him his confidential clerk Bartlett (the Taggart of Lavengro). Sir Richard was at first enthusiastic and cordial, but when he learned from William Taylor’s letter that Borrow had come up to earn his livelihood by authorship, his manner underwent a marked change. The bluff, hearty expression gave place to “a sinister glance,” and Borrow found that within that loose morning gown there was a second Sir Richard.

He learned two things–first, that Sir Richard Phillips had retired from publishing and had reserved only The Monthly Magazine; {43a} secondly, that literature was a drug upon the market. With airy self-assertiveness, the ex-publisher dismissed the contents of the green box that Borrow had brought with him, which had already aroused considerable suspicion in the mind of the maid who had admitted him to the publisher’s presence.

When he had thoroughly dashed the young author’s hopes of employment, Sir Richard informed him of a new publication he had in preparation, The Universal Review [The Oxford Review of Lavengro], which was to support the son of the house and the wife he had married. With a promise that he should become a contributor to the new review, an earnest exhortation to write a story in the style of The Dairyman’s Daughter, and an invitation to dinner for the following Sunday, the first interview between George Borrow and Sir Richard Phillips ended, and Borrow left the great man’s presence to begin his exploration of London, first leaving his manuscripts at Milman Street. During the rest of the day he walked “scarcely less than thirty miles about the big city.” It was late when he returned to his lodgings, thoroughly tired, but with a copy of The Dairyman’s Daughter, for “a well- written tale in the style” of which Sir Richard Phillips “could afford as much as ten pounds.” The day had been one of the most eventful in Borrow’s life.

On the following Sunday Borrow dined at Tavistock Square, and met Lady Phillips, young Phillips and his bride. He learned that Sir Richard was a vegetarian of twenty years’ standing and a total abstainer, although meat and wine were not banished from his table. When publisher and potential author were left alone, the son having soon followed the ladies into the drawing-room, Borrow heard of Sir Richard’s amiable intentions towards him. He was to compile six volumes of the lives and trials of criminals [the Newgate Lives and Trials of Lavengro], each to contain not less than a thousand pages. {44a} For this work he was to receive the munificent sum of fifty pounds, which was to cover all expenses incurred in the purchase of books, papers and manuscripts necessary to the compilation of the work. This was only one of the employments that the fertile brain of the publisher had schemed for him. He was also to make himself useful in connection with the forthcoming Universal Review. “Generally useful, sir–doing whatever is required of you”; for it was not Sir Richard’s custom to allow young writers to select their own subjects.

With impressive manner and ponderous diction, Sir Richard Phillips unfolded his philanthropic designs regarding the young writer to whom his words meant a career. He did not end with the appointment of Borrow as general utility writer upon The Universal Review; but proceeded to astonish him with the announcement that to him, George Borrow, understanding German in a manner that aroused the “strong admiration” of William Taylor, was to be entrusted the translating into that tongue of Sir Richard Phillips’ book of Philosophy. {44b} If translations of Goethe into English were a drug, Sir Richard Phillips’ Proximate Causes was to prove that neither he nor his book would be a drug in Germany. For this work the remuneration was to be determined by the success of the translation, an arrangement sufficiently vague to ensure eventual disagreement.

When Sir Richard had finished his account of what were his intentions towards his guest, he gave him to understand that the interview was at an end, at the same time intimating how seldom it was that he dealt so generously with a young writer. Borrow then rose from the table and passed out of the house, leaving his host to muse, as was his custom on Sunday afternoons, “on the magnificence of nature and the moral dignity of man.”

For the next few weeks Borrow was occupied in searching in out-of- the-way corners for criminal biography. If he flagged, a visit from his philosopher-publisher spurred him on to fresh effort. He received a copy of Proximate Causes, with an injunction that he should review it in The Universal Review, as well as translate it into German. He was taken to and introduced to the working editor {45a} of the new publication, which was only ostensibly under the control of young Phillips.

In the provision that he should purchase at his own expense all the necessary materials for Celebrated Trials, Borrow found a serious tax upon his resources; but a harder thing to bear with patience and good-humour were the frequent visits he received from Sir Richard himself, who showed the keenest possible interest in the progress of the compilation. He had already caused a preliminary announcement to be made {45b} to the effect that:

“A Selection of the most remarkable Trials and Criminal Causes is printing, in five volumes. {46a} It will include all famous cases, from that of Lord Cobham, in the reign of Henry the Fifth, to that of John Thurtell: and those connected with foreign as well as English jurisprudence. Mr Borrow, the editor, has availed himself of all the resources of the English, German, French, and Italian languages; and his work, including from 150 to 200 {46b} of the most interesting cases on record, will appear in October next.” {46c}

Sir Richard’s visits to Milman Street were always accompanied by numerous suggestions as to criminals whose claims to be included in this literary chamber of horrors were in his, Sir Richard’s, opinion unquestionable. The English character of the compilation was soon sacrificed in order to admit notable malefactors of other nationalities, and the drain upon the editor’s small capital became greater than ever.

The leisure that he allowed himself, Borrow spent in exploring the city, or in the company of Francis Arden (Ardrey in Lavengro), whom he had met by chance in the coffee-room of a hotel. The two appear to have been excellent friends, perhaps because of the dissimilarity of their natures. “He was an Irishman,” Borrow explains, “I an Englishman; he fiery, enthusiastic and opened-hearted; I neither fiery, enthusiastic, nor open-hearted; he fond of pleasure and dissipation, I of study and reflection.” {46d}

They went to the play together, to dog-fights, gaming-houses, in short saw the sights of London. The arrival of Francis Arden at 16 Milman Street was a signal for books and manuscripts to be thrown aside in favour either of some expedition or an hour or two’s conversation. Borrow, however, soon tired of the pleasures of London, and devoted himself almost entirely to work. Although he saw less of Francis Arden in consequence, they continued to be excellent friends.

After being some four weeks in London, Borrow received a surprise visit (29th April) from his brother, whom he found waiting for him one morning when he came down to breakfast. John told him of his mother’s anxiety at receiving only one letter from him since his departure, of her fits of crying, of the grief of Captain Borrow’s dog at the loss of his master. He also explained the reason for his being in London. He had been invited to paint the portrait of Robert Hawkes, an ex-mayor of Norwich, for a fee of a hundred guineas. Lacking confidence in his own ability, he had declined the honour and suggested that Benjamin Haydon should be approached. At the request of a deputation of his fellow citizens, which had waited upon him, he had undertaken to enter into negotiations with Haydon. He even undertook to come up to London at his own expense, that he might see his old master and complete the bargain. Borrow subsequently accompanied his brother when calling upon Haydon, and was enabled to give a thumbnail-sketch of the painter of the Heroic at work that has been pronounced to be photographic in its faithfulness.

John returned to Norwich about a fortnight later accompanied by Haydon, who was to become the guest of his sitter, {47a} and George was left to the compilation of Celebrated Trials. Sir Richard Phillips appears to have been a man as prolific of suggestion as he was destitute of tact. He regarded his authors as the instruments of his own genius. Their business it was to carry out his ideas in a manner entirely congenial to his colossal conceit. His latest author he exposed “to incredible mortification and ceaseless trouble from this same rage for interference.”

The result of all this was an attack of the “Horrors.” Towards the end of May, Roger Kerrison received from Borrow a note saying that he believed himself to be dying, and imploring him to “come to me immediately.” The direct outcome of this note was, not the death of Borrow, but the departure from Milman Street of Roger Kerrison, lest he should become involved in a tragedy connected with Borrow’s oft- repeated threat of suicide. Kerrison became “very uneasy and uncomfortable on his account, so that I have found it utterly impossible to live any longer in the same lodgings with him.” {48a} Looked at dispassionately it seems nothing short of an act of cowardice on Kerrison’s part to leave alone a man such as Borrow, who might at any moment be assailed by one of those periods of gloom from which suicide seemed the only outlet. On the other hand, from an anecdote told by C. G. Leland (“Hans Breitmann”), there seems to be some excuse for Kerrison’s wish to live alone. “I knew at that time [about 1870],” he writes, {48b} “a Mr Kerrison, who had been as a young man, probably in the Twenties, on intimate terms with Borrow. He told me that one night Borrow acted very wildly, whooping and vociferating so as to cause the police to follow him, and after a long run led them to the edge of the Thames, ‘and there they thought they had him.’ But he plunged boldly into the water and swam in his clothes to the opposite shore, and so escaped.”

A serious misfortune now befell Borrow in the premature death of The Universal Review, which expired with the sixth number (March 1824– January 1825). It is not known what was the rate of pay to young and impecunious reviewers {49a} certainly not large, if it may be judged by the amount agreed upon for Celebrated Trials. Still, its end meant that Borrow was now dependent upon what he received for his compilation, and what he merited by his translation into German of Proximate Causes.

There appears to have been some difficulty about payment for Borrow’s contributions to the now defunct review, which considerably widened the breach that the Trials had created. Sir Richard became more exacting and more than ever critical. {49b} The end could not be far off. Borrow had come to London determined to be an author, and by no juggling with facts could his present drudgery be considered as authorship. Occasionally his mind reverted to the manuscripts in the green box, his faith in which continued undiminished. He made further efforts to get his translations published, but everywhere the answer was the same, in effect, “A drug, sir, a drug!”

At last he determined to approach John Murray (the Second), “Glorious John, who lived at the western end of the town”; but he called many times without being successful in seeing him. Another seventeen years were to elapse before he was to meet and be published by John Murray.

Yet another dispute arose between Borrow and Sir Richard Phillips. Neither appeared to have realised the supreme folly of entrusting to a young Englishman the translation into German of an English work. A novel would have presented almost insurmountable difficulties; but a work of philosophy! The whole project was absurd. The diction of philosophy in all languages is individual, just as it is in other branches of science, and a very thorough knowledge of, and deep reading in both languages are necessary to qualify a man to translate from a foreign tongue into his own. To expect an inexperienced youth to reverse the order seems to suggest that Sir Richard Phillips must have been a publisher whose enthusiasm was greater than his judgment.

One day when calling at Tavistock Square, Borrow found Sir Richard in a fury of rage. He had submitted the first chapter of the translation of Proximate Causes to some Germans, who found it utterly unintelligible. This was only to be expected, as Borrow confesses that, when he found himself unable to comprehend what was the meaning of the English text, he had translated it LITERALLY INTO GERMAN!

The result of the interview was that Borrow, after what appears to be a tactless, not to say impertinent, rejoinder, {50a} relapsed into silence and finally left the house, ordered back to his compilation by Sir Richard, as soon as he became sufficiently calm to appear coherent, and Borrow walked away musing on the “difference in clever men.”

The discovery of the inadequacy of the German translation apparently urged Borrow to hasten on with Celebrated Trials. The Universal Review was dead, the German version of Proximate Causes {50b} had passed out of his hands. It was desirable, therefore, that the remaining undertaking should be completed as soon as possible, that the two might part. The last of the manuscript was delivered, the proofs passed for press, and on 19th March the work appeared, the six volumes, running to between three and four thousand pages, containing accounts of some four hundred trials, including that of Borrow’s old friend Thurtell for the murder of Mr Weare.

Borrow’s name did not appear. He was “the editor,” and as such was referred to in the preface contributed by Sir Richard himself. Among other things he tells of how, in some cases, “the Editor has compressed into a score of pages the substance of an entire volume.” Sir Richard was a philosopher as well as a preface-writing publisher, and it was only natural that he should speculate as to the effect upon his editor’s mind of months spent in reading and editing such records of vice. “It may be expected,” he writes, “that the Editor should convey to his readers the intellectual impressions which the execution of his task has produced on his mind. He confesses that they are mournful.” Sir Richard was either a master of irony, or a man of singular obtuseness.

One effect of this delving into criminal records had been to raise in Borrow’s mind strange doubts about virtue and crime. When a boy, he had written an essay in which he strove to prove that crime and virtue were mere terms, and that we were the creatures of necessity or circumstance. These broodings in turn reawakened the theory that everything is a lie, and that nothing really exists except in our imaginations. The world was “a maze of doubt.” These indications of an overtaxed brain increased, and eventually forced Borrow to leave London. His work was thoroughly uncongenial. He disliked reviewing; he had failed in his endeavours to render Proximate Causes into intelligible German; and it had taken him some time to overcome his dislike of the sordid stories of crime and criminals that he had to read and edit. He became gloomy and depressed, and prone to compare the real conditions of authorship with those that his imagination had conjured up.

The most important result of his labours in connection with Celebrated Trials was that upon his literary style. There is a tremendous significance in the following passage. It tells of the transition of the actual vagabond into the literary vagabond, with power to express in words what proved so congenial to Borrow’s vagabond temperament:

“Of all my occupations at this period I am free to confess I liked that of compiling the Newgate Lives and Trials [Celebrated Trials] the best; that is, after I had surmounted a kind of prejudice which I originally entertained. The trials were entertaining enough; but the lives–how full were they of wild and racy adventures, and in what racy, genuine language were they told. What struck me most with respect to these lives was the art which the writers, whoever they were, possessed of telling a plain story. It is no easy thing to tell a story plainly and distinctly by mouth; but to tell one on paper is difficult indeed, so many snares lie in the way. People are afraid to put down what is common on paper, they seek to embellish their narratives, as they think, by philosophic speculations and reflections; they are anxious to shine, and people who are anxious to shine can never tell a plain story. ‘So I went with them to a music booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin, and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand,’ {52a} says, or is made to say, Henry Simms, executed at Tyburn some seventy years before the time of which I am speaking. I have always looked upon this sentence as a masterpiece of the narrative style, it is so concise and yet so clear.” {52b}

By the time the work was published and Borrow had been paid his fee, all relations between editor and publisher had ceased, and there was “a poor author, or rather philologist, upon the streets of London, possessed of many tongues,” which he found “of no use in the world.” {52c} A month after the appearance of Celebrated Trials (18th April), and a little more than a year after his arrival in London, Borrow published a translation of Klinger’s Faustus. {53a} He himself gives no particulars as to whether it was commissioned or no. It may even have been “the Romance in the German style” from the Green Box. It is known that he received payment for it by a bill at five or six months, {53b} but there is no mention of the amount. It would appear that the translation had long been projected, for in The Monthly Magazine, July 1824, there appeared, in conjunction with the announcement of Celebrated Trials, the following paragraph: “The editor of the preceding has ready for the press, a Life of Faustus, his Death and Descent into Hell, which will also appear the next winter.”

Faustus did not meet with a very cordial reception. The Literary Gazette (16th July 1825) characterised it as “another work to which no respectable publisher ought to have allowed his name to be put. The political allusion and metaphysics, which may have made it popular among a low class in Germany, do not sufficiently season its lewd scenes and coarse descriptions for British palates. We have occasionally publications for the fireside,–these are only fit for the fire.”

Borrow had apparently been in some doubt about certain passages, for in a note headed “The Translator to the Public,” he defends the work as moral in its general teaching:

“The publication of the present volume may at first sight appear to require some brief explanation from the Translator, inasmuch as the character of the incidents may justify such an expectation on the part of the reader. It is, therefore, necessary to state that, although scenes of vice and crime are here exhibited, it is merely in the hope that they may serve as beacons, to guide the ignorant and unwary from the shoals on which they might otherwise be wrecked. The work, when considered as a whole, is strictly moral.”

It must be confessed that Faustus does not err on the side of restraint. Many of its scenes might appear “lewd . . . and coarse” to anyone who for a moment allowed his mind to wander from the morality of “its general teaching.” The attacks upon the lax morals of the priesthood must have proved particularly congenial to the translator.

The more Borrow read his translations of Ab Gwilym, the more convinced he became of their merit and the profit they would bring to him who published them. The booksellers, however, with singular unanimity, declined the risk of introducing to the English public either Welsh or Danish ballads; and their translator became so shabby in consequence, that he refrained from calling upon his friend Arden, for whom he had always cherished a very real friendship. He began to lose heart. His energy left him and with it went hope. He was forced to review his situation. Authorship had obviously failed, and he found himself with no reasonable prospect of employment.

There is no episode in Borrow’s life that has so exercised the minds of commentators and critics as his account of the book he terms in Lavengro, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell, the Great Traveller. Some dismiss the whole story as apocryphal; others see in it a grain of truth distorted into something of vital importance; whilst there are a number of earnest Borrovians that accept the whole story as it is written. Dr Knapp has said that Joseph Sell “was not a book at all, and the author of it never said that it was.” This was obviously an error, for the bookseller is credited with saying, “I think I shall venture on sending your book to the press,” {55a} referring to it as a “book” four times in nine lines. Again, in another place, Borrow describes how he rescued himself “from peculiarly miserable circumstances by writing a book, an original book, within a week, even as Johnson is said to have written his Rasselas and Beckford his Vathek.” {55b} This removes all question of the Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell being included in a collection of short stories. The title would not be the same, the date is most probably wrongly given, as in the case of Marshland Shales; but the general accuracy of the account as written seems to be highly probable. Many efforts have been made to trace the story; but so far unsuccessfully. It must be remembered that Borrow loved to stretch the long arm of coincidence; but he loved more than anything else a dramatic situation. He was always on the look out for effective “curtains.”

In favour of the story having been actually written, is the knowledge that Borrow invented little or nothing. Collateral evidence has shown how little he deviated from actual happenings, although he did not hesitate to revise dates or colour events. The strongest evidence, however, lies in the atmosphere of truth that pervades Chapters LV.-LVII. of Lavengro. They are convincing. At one time or another during his career, it would appear that Borrow wrote against time from grim necessity; otherwise he must have been a master of invention, which everything that is known about him clearly shows that he was not.

Joseph Sell has disappeared, a most careful search of the Registers at Stationers’ Hall can show no trace of that work, or any book that seems to suggest it, and the contemporary literary papers render no assistance.

According to Borrow’s own account, one morning on getting up he found that he had only half a crown in the world. It was this circumstance, coupled with the timely notice that he saw affixed to a bookseller’s window to the effect that “A Novel or Tale is much wanted,” that determined him to endeavour to emulate Dr Johnson and William Beckford. He had tired of “the Great City,” and his thoughts turned instinctively to the woods and the fields, where he could be free to meditate and muse in solitude.

When he returned to Milman Street after seeing the bookseller’s advertisement, he found that his resources had been still further reduced to eighteen-pence. He was too proud to write home for assistance, he had broken with Sir Richard Phillips, and he had no reasonable expectation of obtaining employment of any description; for his accomplishments found no place in the catalogue of everyday wants. He was a proper man with his hands, and knew some score or more languages. No matter how he regarded the situation, the facts were obvious. Between him and actual starvation there was the inconsiderable sum of eighteen-pence and the bookseller’s advertisement. The gravity of the situation banished the cloud of despondency that threatened to settle upon him, and also the doubts that presented themselves as to whether he possessed the requisite ability to produce what the bookseller required. The all-important question was, could he exist sufficiently long on eighteen-pence to complete a story? Sir Richard Phillips had told him to live on bread and water. He now did so.

For a week he wrote ceaselessly at the Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell, the Great Traveller. He wrote with the feverish energy of a man who sees the shadow of actual starvation cast across his manuscript. When the tale was finished there remained the work of revision, and after that, worst of all, fears lest the bookseller were already suited.

Fortune, however, was kind to him, and he was successful in extracting for his story the sum of twenty pounds. Borrow had not mixed among gypsies for nothing. He, a starving and unknown author, succeeded in extracting from a bookseller twenty pounds for a story, twice the amount offered by Sir Richard Phillips for a novel on the lines of The Dairyman’s Daughter. It was an achievement.

The first argument against the story, as related by Borrow, is that he was not without resources at the time. Why should he be so impoverished a few weeks after receiving payment for Celebrated Trials? {57a} Above all, why did he not realise upon Simpkin & Marshall’s bill for Faustus? He would have experienced no difficulty in discounting a bill accepted by such a firm. It seems hardly conceivable that he should preserve this piece of paper when he had only eighteen-pence in the world. Everything seems to point to the fact that in May 1825 Borrow was not in want of money, and if he were not, why did he almost kill himself by writing the Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell? Again, at that period he had met with no adventures such as might be included in the life of a “Great Traveller,” and Borrow was not an inventive writer. Later he possessed plenty of material; for there can be no question that he roamed about the world for a considerable portion of those seven mysterious years of his life that came to be known as the “Veiled Period.” His accuracy as to actual occurrences has been so emphasised that this particular argument holds considerable significance.

The strongest evidence against Joseph Sell having been written in 1825, however, lies in the fact that Greenwich Fair was held on 23rd May, and not 12th May, as given by Dr Knapp. By his error Dr Knapp makes Borrow leave London a day before the Fair took place that he describes. Borrow must have left London on the day following Greenwich Fair (24th May). If he left later, then those things which tend to confirm his story of the life in the Dingle do not fit in, as will be seen. He certainly could not have left before Greenwich Fair was held.

In one of his brother John’s letters, written at the end of 1829, there is a significant passage, “Let me know how you sold your manuscript.” {58a} What manuscript is it that is referred to? There is no record of George having sold a manuscript in the autumn of 1829. The passage can scarcely have reference to some article or translation; it seems to suggest something of importance, an event in George’s life that his brother is anxious to know more about. If this be Joseph Sell, then it explains where Borrow got the money from to go up to London at the end of 1829, when he entered into relations with Dr Bowring. It is merely a theory, it must be confessed; but there is certain evidence that seems to support it. In the first place, Borrow was a chronicler before all else. He possessed an amazing memory and a great gift for turning his experiences into literary material. If he coloured facts, he appears to have done so unconsciously, to judge from those portions of The Bible in Spain that were covered by letters to the Bible Society. Not only are the facts the same, but, with very slight changes, the words in which he relates them. He never hesitated to change a date if it served his purpose, much as an artist will change the position of a tree in a landscape to suit the exigencies of composition. His five volumes of autobiography bristle with coincidences so amazing that, if they were actually true, he must have been the most remarkable genius on record for attracting to himself strange adventures. He met the sailor son of the old Apple-Woman returning from his enforced exile; Murtagh tells him of how the postilion frightened the Pope at Rome by his denunciation, a story Borrow had already heard from the postilion himself; the Hungarian at Horncastle narrates how an Armenian once silenced a Moldavian, the same Moldavian whom Borrow had encountered in London; the postilion meets the man in black again. There are scores of such coincidences, which must be accepted as dramatic embellishments.


Fourteen months in London had shown Borrow how hard was the road of authorship. He confessed that he was not “formed by nature to be a pallid indoor student.” “The peculiar atmosphere of the big city” did not agree with him, and this fact, together with the anxiety and hard work of the past twelve months, caused him to flag, and his first thought was how to recover his health. He was disillusioned as to the busy world, and the opportunities it offered to a young man fired with ambition to make a stir in it. He determined to leave London, which he did towards the end of May, {60a} first despatching his trunk “containing a few clothes and books to the old town [Norwich].” He struck out in a south-westerly direction, musing on his achievements as an author, and finding that in having preserved his independence and health, he had “abundant cause to be grateful.”

Throughout his life Borrow was hypnotised by independence. Like many other proud natures, he carried his theory of independence to such an extreme as to become a slave to it and render himself unsociable, sometimes churlish. It was this virtue carried to excess that drove Borrow from London. He must tell men what was in his mind, and his one patron, Sir Richard Phillips, he had mortally offended in this manner.

Finding that he was unequal to much fatigue, after a few hours’ walking he hailed a passing coach, which took him as far as Amesbury in Wiltshire. From here he walked to Stonehenge and on to Salisbury, “inspecting the curiosities of the place,” and endeavouring by sleep and good food to make up the wastage of the last few months. The weather was fine and his health and spirits rapidly improved as he tramped on, his “daily journeys varying from twenty to twenty-five miles.” He encountered the mysterious stranger who “touched” against the evil eye. F. H. Groome asserts, on the authority of W. B. Donne, that this was in reality William Beckford. Borrow must have met him at some other time and place, as he had already left Fonthill in 1825. It is, however, interesting to recall that Borrow himself “touched” against the evil eye. Mr Watts-Dunton has said:

“There was nothing that Borrow strove against with more energy than the curious impulse, which he seems to have shared with Dr Johnson, to touch the objects along his path in order to save himself from the evil chance. He never conquered the superstition. In walking through Richmond Park he would step out of his way constantly to touch a tree, and he was offended if the friend he was with seemed to observe it.” {61a}

The chance meeting with Jack Slingsby (in fear of his life from the Flaming Tinman, and bound by oath not to continue on the same beat) gave Borrow the idea of buying out Slingsby, beat, plant, pony and all. “A tinker is his own master, a scholar is not,” {61b} he remarks, and then proceeds to draw tears and moans from the dispirited Slingsby and his family by a description of the joys of tinkering, “the happiest life under heaven . . . pitching your tent under the pleasant hedge-row, listening to the song of the feathered tribes, collecting all the leaky kettles in the neighbourhood, soldering and joining, earning your honest bread by the wholesome sweat of your brow.” {62a}

By the expenditure of five pounds ten shillings, plus the cost of a smock-frock and some provisions, George Borrow, linguist, editor and translator, became a travelling tinker. With his dauntless little pony, Ambrol, he set out, a tinkering Ulysses, indifferent to what direction he took, allowing the pony to go whither he felt inclined. At first he experienced some apprehension at passing the night with only a tent or the stars as a roof. Rain fell to mar the opening day of the adventure, but the pony, with unerring instinct, led his new master to one of Slingsby’s usual camping grounds.

In the morning Borrow fell to examining what it was beyond the pony and cart that his five pounds ten shillings had purchased. He found a tent, a straw mattress and a blanket, “quite clean and nearly new.” There were also a frying-pan, a kettle, a teapot (broken in three pieces) and some cups and saucers. The stock-in-trade “consisted of various tools, an iron ladle, a chafing-pan, and small bellows, sundry pans and kettles, the latter being of tin, with the exception of one which was of copper, all in a state of considerable dilapidation.” The pans and kettles were to be sold after being mended, for which purpose there was “a block of tin, sheet-tin, and solder.” But most precious of all his possessions was “a small anvil and bellows of the kind which are used in forges, and two hammers such as smiths use, one great, and the other small.” {62b} Borrow had learned the blacksmith’s art when in Ireland, and the anvil, bellows and smith’s hammers were to prove extremely useful.

A few days after pitching his tent, Borrow received from his old enemy Mrs Herne, Mr Petulengro’s mother-in-law, a poisoned cake, which came very near to ending his career. He then encountered the Welsh preacher (“the worthiest creature I ever knew”) and his wife, who were largely instrumental in saving him from Mrs Herne’s poison. Having remained with his new friends for nine days, he accompanied them as far as the Welsh border, where he confessed himself the translator of Ab Gwilym, giving as an excuse for not accompanying them further that it was “neither fit nor proper that I cross into Wales at this time, and in this manner. When I go into Wales, I should wish to go in a new suit of superfine black, with hat and beaver, mounted on a powerful steed, black and glossy, like that which bore Greduv to the fight of Catraeth. I should wish, moreover,” he continued, “to see the Welshmen assembled on the border ready to welcome me with pipe and fiddle, and much whooping and shouting, and to attend me to Wrexham, or even as far as Machynllaith, where I should wish to be invited to a dinner at which all the bards should be present, and to be seated at the right hand of the president, who, when the cloth was removed, should arise, and amidst cries of silence, exclaim–‘Brethren and Welshmen, allow me to propose the health of my most respectable friend the translator of the odes of the great Ab Gwilym, the pride and glory of Wales.'” {63a}

He returned with Mr Petulengro, who directed him to Mumber Lane (Mumper’s Dingle), near Willenhall, in Staffordshire, “the little dingle by the side of the great north road.” Here Borrow encamped and shod little Ambrol, who kicked him over as a reminder of his clumsiness.

He had refused an invitation from Mr Petulengro to become a Romany chal and take a Romany bride, the granddaughter of his would-be murderess, who “occasionally talked of” him. He yearned for solitude and the country’s quiet. He told Mr Petulengro that he desired only some peaceful spot where he might hold uninterrupted communion with his own thoughts, and practise, if so inclined, either tinkering or the blacksmith’s art, and he had been directed to Mumper’s Dingle, which was to become the setting of the most romantic episode in his life.

In the dingle Borrow experienced one of his worst attacks of the “Horrors”–the “Screaming Horrors.” He raged like a madman, a prey to some indefinable, intangible fear; clinging to his “little horse as if for safety and protection.” {64a} He had not recovered from the prostrating effects of that night of tragedy when he was called upon to fight Anselo Herne, “the Flaming Tinman,” who somehow or other seemed to be part of the bargain he had made with Jack Slingsby, and encounter the queen of road-girls, Isopel Berners. The description of the fight has been proclaimed the finest in our language, and by some the finest in the world’s literature.

Isopel Berners is one of the great heroines of English Literature. As drawn by Borrow, with her strong arm, lion-like courage and tender tearfulness, she is unique. However true or false the account of her relations with Borrow may be, she is drawn by him as a living woman. He was incapable of conceiving her from his imagination. It may go unquestioned that he actually met an Isopel Berners, {64b} but whether or no his parting from her was as heart-rendingly tragic as he has depicted it, is open to very grave question.

With this queen of the roads he seems to have been less reticent and more himself than with any other of his vagabond acquaintance, not excepting even Mr Petulengro. To the handsome, tall girl with “the flaxen hair, which hung down over her shoulders unconfined,” and the “determined but open expression,” he showed a more amiable side of his character; yet he seems to have treated her with no little cruelty. He told her about himself, how he “had tamed savage mares, wrestled with Satan, and had dealings with ferocious publishers,” bringing tears to her eyes, and when she grew too curious, he administered an antidote in the form of a few Armenian numerals. If his Autobiography is to be credited, Isopel loved him, and he was aware of it; but the knowledge did not hinder him from torturing the poor girl by insisting that she should decline the verb “to love” in Armenian.

Borrow’s attitude towards Isopel was curiously complex; he seemed to find pleasure in playing upon her emotions. At times he appeared as deliberately brutal to her, as to the gypsy girl Ursula when he talked with her beneath the hedge. He forced from Isopel a passionate rebuke that he sought only to vex and irritate “a poor ignorant girl . . . who can scarcely read or write.” He asked her to marry him, but not until he had convinced her that he was mad. How much she had become part of his life in the dingle he did not seem to realise until after she had left him. Isopel Berners was a woman whose character was almost masculine in its strength; but she was prepared to subdue her spirit to his, wished to do so even. With her strength, however, there was wisdom, and she left Borrow and the dingle, sending him a letter of farewell that was certainly not the composition of “a poor girl” who could “scarcely read or write.” The story itself is in all probability true; but the letter rings false. Isopel may have sent Borrow a letter of farewell, but not the one that appears in The Romany Rye.

Among Borrow’s papers Dr Knapp discovered a fragment of manuscript in which Mr Petulengro is shown deliberating upon the expediency of emulating King Pharaoh in the number of his wives. Mrs Petulengro desires “a little pleasant company,” and urges her husband to take a second spouse. He proceeds:-

“Now I am thinking that this here Bess of yours would be just the kind of person both for my wife and myself. My wife wants something gorgiko, something genteel. Now Bess is of blood gorgious; if you doubt it, look at her face, all full of pawno ratter, white blood, brother; and as for gentility, nobody can make exceptions to Bess’s gentility, seeing she was born in the workhouse of Melford the Short.”

Mr Petulengro sees in Bess another advantage. If “the Flaming Tinman” {66a} were to descend upon them, as he once did, with the offer to fight the best of them for nothing, and Tawno Chikno were