Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Borrow, George
BORROW, GEORGE (1803–1881), philologist, was, according to his own account, of a Cornish family on his father’s side, and of a Norman stock on the side of his mother, whose name was Parffrement, and who died at Oulton at the age of 87. He was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, in 1803, where only the first years of his life were passed. His father, some time a recruiting officer,was constantly shifting his residence, and his two sons, with the rest of the family, accompanied him from one quarter to another. They made a long stay in Edinburgh, where Borrow received no small share of his education at the high school. No further reminiscences of these days are at hand save those given by the author of ‘Lavengro’ in the first chapters of that strange romance, After a sojourn in Scotland, Ireland, and many parts of England, the family seems to have again settled near the author's birthplace, for at the age of seventeen Borrow was articled to a solicitor at Norwich. Some insight into his life at this time may be gathered from ‘Wild Wales,’ in which he describes the solicitors office, and alludes to those studies in language already so fondly dwelt on in ‘Lavengro.' The savant who encouraged and aided him in the pursuit of philology, and to whom he affectionately alludes, was the well-known William Taylor, the friend of Southey. Borrow must have gone far into these studies, for in 1826 a book containing some of the fruits of his industry appeared. It was entitled ‘Romantic Ballads, from the Danish. There can be no doubt that the companionship of William Taylor led Borrow's thoughts in the direction of literature as s profession. At any rate, on the death of his father he quitted Norwich for the metropolis, to seek his fortune among the publishers. Much that happened to him in London at this time is recorded in ‘Lavengro,' though the sufferings he endured are never likely to be fully known, The humorous account of his dealings with the publishers is based on his experiences with Sir Richard Phillips, in whose employ he acted as compiler and hack. Whether such a book as the ‘Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell’ ever emanated from his pen is a question not worth asking; it was a fiction, and Mrs. Borrow used to laugh at the idea that hookworms had set up a search for the work; but it is certain that he had a hand in compiling the ‘Newgate Calendar,’ and that the work had no small influence in confirming the bent of his mind. But his spirit chafed under the confinement. Worn out and angry at the treatment he received, he set out on a tour through England. What adventures he had and how he managed to live during the year thus employed can best be gathered by a perusal of ‘Lavengro’ and the ‘Romany Rye,’ though they are rather an idealisation than a strict record of his doings. He had long yearned after travel and adventure. His excursion through England at an end, he next visited France, Germany, Russia, and the East. While on these travels he seems to have worked hard at the language of each country through which he passed, for in 1835 he published in St. Petersburg ‘Targum,’ a series of translations from thirty languages and dialects. While on his travels he acted as agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society, and was the first of the ‘correspondents.’ In the latter capacity he sent letters (1837-9) to the ‘Morning Herald,’ which are said to have often anticipated the government despatches.
In 1840 Borrow married Mary Clarke, the widow of a naval officer whom he met in Spain. With the proceeds from the sale of his works he completed the purchase of an estate on Oulton Broad, a share in which his wife had already inherited. Here he allowed the gipsies to pitch their tents, mingling with them as friends. Indeed he gave a welcome to all comers, and his hospitable and charitable deeds will long be remembered in the neighbourhood. It was here that he lived and wrote ‘Lavengro,’ ‘The Romany Rye,’ ‘Wild Wales,’ ‘Romano Lavo-Lil,’ and other works. He afterwards removed to Hereford Square, Brompton, where in 1869 Mrs. Borrow died.
It was by his publication of the ‘Gipsies in Spain,’ but more especially by the ‘Bible in Spain,' that Borrow won a high place in literature. The romantic interest of these two works drew the public towards the man as much as towards the writer, and he was the Wonder' of a few years. But in the writings which followed he went too far. ‘Lavengro,’ which followed his first successes in 1850, and which, besides being a personal narrative, was a protest against the ‘kid-glove’ literature introduced by Bulwer and Disraeli, made him many enemies and lost him not a few friends. The book, which has been called an ‘epic of ale,’ glorified boxing, spoke up for an open-air life, and assailed the ‘gentility nonsense of the time.’ Such things were unpardonable, and Borrow, the hero of a season before, was tabooed as the high-priest of vulgar tastes. In the sequel to the book which had caused so much disfavour he chastised those who had dared to ridicule him and his work. But it was of no avail. He was sing into another age, and the critics could now afford ignore his onslaught. ‘Wild Wales,’ published in 1862, though a desultory work, contained much of the old vigorous stuff which characterised his previous writings, but it attracted small attention, and 'Romano Lavo-Lil,' when it appeared in 1872, was known only to the specially interested and the curious. Still Borrow remained unchanged. His strong individuality asserted itself in his narrowed circle. His love for the roadside, the heath, the gipsies' dingle, was as true as in other days. He was the same lover of strange books, the same passionate wanderer among strange people, the same champion of English manliness, and the same hater of genteel humbug and philistinism. Few men have put forth so many high qualities and maintained them untarnished throughout so long a career as did this striking figure of the nineteenth century. He died at Oulton in August 1881.
Probably Borrow was not a scientific philologist in the modern sense of the term, but it cannot be disputed that he was a great linguist. His work 'Targum' affords a proof of this, and the assertion is further borne out by the fact that at this time he translated and printed the New Testament, as well as some of the Homilies of the church of England, into Manchu, the court language of China. Among other of his translations were the Gospel of St. Luke into the dialect of the Gitanos, a work which he presented to the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1871; 'The Sleeping Bard' from the Cambrian-British of Ellis Wynn into English, as well as many Russian tales; Ewald's mythological poem, 'The Death of Balder,' from the Danish; and our own 'Blue Beard' into Turkish.
The most authentic account of travel is that which he gives us in his 'Bible in Spain,' a country in which he passed through many notable adventures, and where he was imprisoned for sending home a too faithful account of General Quesada's exploits.
The following is a complete list of Borrow's works: 1. 'Faustus. His Life, Death . . . translated from the German of F. M. von Klinger, by G. B.,' 1825, 8vo. 2. 'Romantic Ballads ' (translated from the Danish of A. G. Ohlenslager and from the Kiempé Viser) and Miscellaneous Pieces from the Danish of Ewald and others, Norwich, 1826, 8vo. 3. 'Targum; or Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialects. With the author's autograph presentation in Danish to S. Magnusson,' St. Petersburg, 1835, 8vo. 4. New Testament (Luke): 'Embéo e Majaró Lucas ... El Evangelio segun S. Lucas traducido al Romani, by G. B.,' 1837, 16mo. 5. 'The Bible in Spain,' 3 vols. London, 1843, 12mo. 6. 'The Zincali; or an Account of the Gypsies in Spain,' 2 vols. London, 1841, 12mo. 7. 'Lavengro, the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest,' London, 1851, 12mo. 8. 'The Romany Rye, a sequel to Lavengro,' 2 vols. 1867, 12mo. 9. 'The Sleeping Bard, translated from the Cambrian-British by G. B.,' 1860, 12mo. 10. 'Wild Wales : its People, Language, and Society,' 3 vols. London, 1862, 8vo. 11. 'Romano Lavo-Lil, word-book of the Romany; or English Gipsy Language, &c,' London, 1874, 8vo. In 1867 was advertised as ready for the press 'Penquite and Pentyre; or the Head of the Forest and the Headland. A book on Cornwall,' 2 vols.
[The information contained in this sketch is derived from personal knowledge of the author himself and of his life, and from information given to the writer by his father, Dr. Gordon Hake, Borrow's old friend, and by Borrow's step-daughter, Mrs. MacAubrey, who is his sole representative, and is in possession of several valuable manuscripts by him which have not been published.]