1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Borrow, George Henry
BORROW, GEORGE HENRY (1803–1881), English traveller, linguist and author, was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, on the 5th of July 1803, of a middle-class Cornish family. His father was a recruiting officer, and his mother a Norfolk lady of French extraction. From 1816 to 1818 Borrow attended, with no very great profit, the grammar school at Norwich. After leaving school he was articled to a firm of Norwich solicitors, where he neglected the law, but gave a great deal of desultory attention to languages. He was encouraged in these studies by William Taylor, the friend of Southey. On the death of his father, in 1824 he went to London to seek his fortune as a literary adventurer. In 1826 he published a volume of Romantic Ballads translated from the Danish. Engaged by Sir Richard Phillips, the publisher, as a hack-writer at starvation wages, his experiences in London were bitter indeed. His struggles at last became so dire that if he would escape Chatterton's doom, he must leave London and either return to Norwich and share his mother's narrow income, or turn to account in some way the magnificent physical strength with which nature had endowed him. Determining on the latter of these courses, he left London on tramp. As he stood considerably more than 6 ft. in height, was a fairly trained athlete, and had a countenance of extraordinary impressiveness, if not of commanding beauty—Greek in type with a dash of the Hebrew—we may assume that there had never before appeared on the English high-roads so majestic-looking a tramp as he who, on an afternoon in May, left his squalid lodging with bundle and stick to begin life on the roads. Shaping his course to the south-west, he soon found himself on Salisbury Plain. And then his extraordinary adventures began. After a while he became a travelling hedge-smith, and it was while pursuing this avocation that he made the acquaintance of the splendid road-girl, born at Long Melford workhouse, whom he has immortalized under the name of Isopel Berners. He was now brought much into contact with the gipsies, and this fact gave him the most important subject-matter for his writings. For picturesque as is Borrow's style, it is this subject-matter of his, the Romany world of Great Britain, which—if his pictures of that world are true—will keep his writings alive. Now that the better class of gipsies are migrating so rapidly to America that scarcely any are left in England, Borrow's pictures of them are challenged as being too idealistic. It is unfortunate that no one who knew Borrow, and the gryengroes or horse-dealers with whom he associated, and whom he depicted, has ever written about him and them. Full of “documents” as is Dr Knapp's painstaking biography, it cannot be said to give a vital picture of Borrow and his surroundings during this most interesting period of his life. It is this same peculiar class of gipsies (the gryengroes) with whom the present writer was brought into contact, and he can only refer, in justification of Borrow's descriptions of them, to certain publications of his own, where the whole question is discussed at length, and where he has set out to prove that Borrow's pictures of the section of the English gipsies he knew are not idealized. But there is one great blemish in all Borrow's dramatic scenes of gipsy life, wheresoever they may be laid. This was pointed out by the gentleman who “read” Zincali for Mr Murray, the publisher:—
several of them the tone of the speakers, of those especially who are in humble life, is too correct and elevated, and therefore out of character. This takes away from their effect. I think it would be very advisable that Mr Borrow should go over them with reference to this point, simplifying a few of the terms of expression and introducing a few contractions—don'ts, can'ts, &c. This wouldimprove them greatly.”
It is the same with his pictures of the English gipsies. The reader has only to compare the dialogues between gipsies given in that photographic study of Romany life, In Gipsy Tents, by F. H. Groome, with the dialogues in Lavengro and The Romany Rye, to see how the illusion in Borrow's narrative is disturbed by the uncolloquial locutions of the speakers. It is true, no doubt, that all Romanies, especially perhaps the English and Hungarian, have a passion for the use of high-sounding words, and the present writer has shown this in his remarks upon the Czigany Czindol, who is said to have taught the Czigany language to the archduke Joseph, often called the “Gipsy Archduke.” But after all allowance is made for this racial peculiarity, Borrow's presentation of it considerably weakens our belief in Mr and Mrs Petulengro, Ursula, and the rest, to find them using complex sentences and bookish words which, even among English people, are rarely heard in conversation. As to the deep impression that Borrow made upon his gipsy friends, that is partly explained by the singular nobility of his appearance, for the gipsies of all countries are extremely sensitive upon matters of this kind. The silvery whiteness of the thick crop of hair which Borrow retained to the last seemed to add in a remarkable way to the nobility of his hairless face, but also it gave to the face a kind of strange look “not a bit like a Gorgio's,” to use the words of one of his gipsy friends. Moreover, the shy, defiant, stand-off way which Borrow assumed in the company of his social equals left him entirely when he was with the gipsies. The result of this was that these wanderers knew him better than did his own countrymen.
Seven years after the events recorded in Lavengro and The Romany Rye Borrow obtained the post of agent to the Bible Society, in which capacity he visited St Petersburg (1833–1835) (where he published Targum, a collection of translations), and Spain, Portugal and Morocco (1835–1839). From 1837 to 1839 he acted as correspondent to the Morning Herald. The result of these travels and adventures was the publication, in 1841, of Zincali, or The Gypsies in Spain, the original MS. of which, in the hands of the present writer, shows how careful was Borrow's method of work. In 1843 appeared The Bible in Spain, when suddenly Borrow became famous. Every page of the book glows with freshness, picturesqueness and vivacity. In 1840 he married Mary Clarke, the widow of a naval officer, and permanently settled at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, with her and her daughter. Here he began to write again. Very likely Borrow would never have told the world about his vagabond life in England as a hedge-smith had not The Bible in Spain made him famous as a wanderer. Lavengro appeared in 1851 with a success which, compared with that of The Bible in Spain, was only partial. He was much chagrined at this, and although Lavengro broke off in the midst of a scene in the Dingle, and only broke off there because the three volumes would hold no more, it was not until 1857 that he published the sequel, The Romany Rye. In 1844 he travelled in south-eastern Europe, and in 1854 he made a tour with his step-daughter in Wales. This tour he described in Wild Wales, published in 1862. In 1874 he brought out a volume of ill-digested material upon the Romany tongue, Romano Lavo-lil, or Word-book of the Gypsy Language, a book which has been exhaustively analysed and criticized by Mr John Sampson. In the summer of 1874 he left London, bade adieu to Mr Murray and a few friends, and returned to Oulton. On the 26th of July 1881 he was found dead in his house at Oulton, in his seventy-ninth year.
Borrow was indisputably a linguist of wide knowledge, though he was not a scholar in the strict sense. The variety of his attainments is shown by his translation of the Church of England Homilies into Manchu, of the Gospel of St Luke into the Git dialect of the Gitanos, of The Sleeping Bard from the Cambrian-British, and of Bluebeard into Turkish. But it is not Borrow's linguistic accomplishments that have kept his name fresh, and will continue to keep it fresh for many a generation to come. It is his character, his unique character as expressed, or partially expressed, in his books. Among all the “remarkable individuals” (to use his favourite expression) who during the middle of the 19th century figured in the world of letters, Borrow was surely the most eccentric, the most whimsical, and in many ways the most extraordinary. There was scarcely a point in which he resembled any other writer of his time. With regard to Lavengro and The Romany Rye, there has been very much discussion as to how much Dichtung is mingled with the Wahrheit in those fascinating books. Had it not been for the amazingly clumsy pieces of fiction which he threw into the narrative, few readers would have doubted the autobiographical nature of the two books. Such incidents as are here alluded to shed an air of unreality over the whole. It has been said by Dr Knapp that Borrow never created a character, and that to one who thoroughly knows the times and Borrow's writings the originals are easily recognizable. This is true, no doubt, as regards people whom he knew at Norwich, and indeed generally as regards those he knew before the period of his gipsy wanderings. It must not be supposed, however, that such a character as the man who “touched” to avert the evil chance is in any sense a portrait of an individual with whom he had been brought into contact. The character has so many of Borrow's own eccentricities that it might rather be called a portrait of himself. 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 with the present writer 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. Many of the peculiarities of the man who taught himself Chinese in order to distract his mind from painful thoughts were also Borrow's own. (T. W.-D.)