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Title: George Borrow in East Anglia
Author: Dutt, William A. (William Alfred), 1870-1939
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcribed from the 1896 David Nutt edition by David Price, email


_A few passages in this monograph are taken from a short article on_
“_George Borrow_” _which appeared in_ “_Good Words_.”

                                                                _W. A. D._

                             GEORGE BORROW IN
                               EAST ANGLIA

                             WILLIAM A. DUTT

    “The foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we,
    through their eyes.  Why should we not also enjoy an original
    relation to the universe? . . . The sun shines to-day also.  There is
    more wool and flax in the fields.  Let us demand our own works, and
    laws, and worship.”—EMERSON.

                       DAVID NUTT, 270–271, STRAND


CHAP.                                        PAGE
I.         EAST ANGLIA                                  7
II.        EARLY DAYS                                  12
III.       THE LAWYER’S CLERK                          19
IV.        DAYS IN NORWICH                             29
V.         LIFE AT OULTON                              39
VI.        BORROW AND PUGILISM                         60

    “_Apart from Borrow’s undoubted genius as a writer_, _the
    subject-matter of his writings has an interest that will not wane_,
    _but will go on growing_.  _The more the features of our_ ‘_Beautiful
    England_,’ _to use his own phrase_, _are changed by the multitudinous
    effects of the railway system_, _the more attraction will readers
    find in books which depict her before her beauty was marred_—_books
    which picture her in those antediluvian days when there was such a
    thing as space in the island_—_when in England there was a sense of
    distance_, _that sense without which there can be no romance_—_when
    the stage-coach was in its glory_, _when the only magician that could
    convey man and his belongings at any rate of speed beyond man’s own
    walking rate was the horse_—_the beloved horse whose praises Borrow
    loved to sing_, _and whose ideal was reached in the mighty_
    ‘_Shales_’—_when the great high roads were alive_, _not merely with
    the bustle of business_, _but with real adventure for the
    traveller_—_days and scenes which Borrow_, _better than any one
    else_, _could paint_.”

                                                           THEODORE WATTS.


It is a trite saying, the truth of which is so universally admitted that
it is hardly worth repeating, that a man’s memory, above all things,
retains most vividly recollections of the scenes amidst which he passed
his early days.  Amidst the loneliness of the African veldt or American
prairie solitudes, the West-countryman dreams of Devon’s grassy tors and
honeysuckle lanes, and Cornish headlands, fretted by the foaming waves of
the grey Atlantic; in teaming cities, where the pulse of life beats loud
and strong, the Scotsman ever cherishes sweet, sad thoughts of the braes
and burns about his Highland home; between the close-packed roofs of a
London alley, the Italian immigrant sees the sunny skies and deep blue
seas of his native land, the German pictures to himself the loveliness of
the legend-haunted Rhineland, and the Scandinavian, closing his eyes and
ears to the squalor and misery, wonders whether the sea-birds still
circle above the stone-built cottage in the Nordland cleft, and cry
weirdly from the darkness as they sweep landward in the night.  Many a
wanderer, whatever else he may let go, holds in his heart the hope that
one day he may go back to the place where his boyhood’s days were spent,
even though it be but to dwell alone amidst the phantoms of long dead
dreams and long lost loves.

East Anglia may well be compared to a sad-faced mother, who sees her
children, whom she would fain keep with her, one by one go out into the
wide world to seek those things that cannot be found in her humble home.
For years the youths of Eastern England have had to leave the hamlet
hall, the village rectory, the marshland farmstead, and the cottage home,
and wander far and wide to gain their daily bread.  Toil as they might,
farm and field could give them little for their labour, the
mother-country’s breast was dry.  And yet they loved her—loved her
dearly.  Deeply and firmly rooted in his heart is the love of the East
Anglian for East Anglia.  The outside world has but recently discovered
the charm of the Broadland: by the dweller there it has been felt since
the day when he first gazed with seeing eyes across its dreamy, silent
solitudes.  The secrets of the marshland wastes have been whispered in
his ears by the wind in the willows, and have been sung to him by the
sighing sedge.  He knows the bird voices of reed rond and hover, and has
read the lesson of the day’s venture in the brightening sunrise and
sunset glow.  Amidst scenes that have little changed since the Iceni hid
in the marshland-bordering woods, and crept out in their coracles on the
rush-fringed meres, he is at home with Nature, and becomes her friend,
her lover.  She holds back no secret from him if he wills that he should
learn it; she charms him with her many moods.  Her laughter is the
sunlight, and ere it has died away she has hidden coyly in a veil of
mist; now she is tearful with the raindrops falling on her changeful
face, but the light comes back with the silvery gleaming of her winding
rivers.  When her lover leaves her, and wanders off to wooings far away,
she reproaches him by her silence; and when he has time to think, he
remembers with regret and longing the restful loveliness that was once
about him like a mantle of peace.

Flowering meads, wide-reaching marshland solitudes, lonely heaths and
sandhills sloping downward to the sea; wildfowl-haunted shores and flats,
rivers and lagoons through which the wherries glide, the calling of the
herdman and the sighing of the sea-wind through bracken, gorse, and fir
ridge—these are East Anglia, and, like voices heard in childhood, they
are with her children wherever they may wander, until all earthly voices
are for ever lost in silence.

No one felt the charm of peaceful Eastern England more fully and deeply
than did George Borrow.  An East Anglian born, he was nurtured within the
borders of Norfolk during many of the most impressionable years of his
life, and when world-worn and weary, he sought rest from his wanderings,
he came back to East Anglia to die.  During his latter days, he became
rather inaccessible; but an East Englishman always had a better chance of
successfully approaching him than any one not so fortunate as to have
been born within the compass of East Anglia.  Mr. Theodore Watts
discovered this when Borrow and he were the guests of Dr. Hake at

“When I went on to tell him,” writes Mr. Watts, “that I once used to
drive a genuine Shales mare, a descendant of that same famous Norfolk
trotter who could trot fabulous miles an hour, to whom he, with the
Norfolk farmers, raised his hat in reverence at the Norwich horse fair;
and when I promised to show him a portrait of this same East Anglian mare
with myself behind her in a dogcart—an East Anglian dogcart; when I
praised the stinging saltness of the sea-water of Yarmouth, Lowestoft,
and Cromer, the quality of which makes it the best, the most delightful
of all sea-water to swim in; when I told him that the only English river
in which you could see reflected the rainbow he loved was ‘the glassy
Ouse’ of East Anglia, and the only place in England where you could see
it reflected in the wet sand was the Norfolk coast; and when I told him a
good many things showing that I was in very truth not only an Englishman
but an East Englishman, my conquest of the ‘walking lord of gipsy lore’
was complete, and from that moment we became friends.”

“It is on sand alone,” said Borrow, “that the sea strikes its true
music—Norfolk sand.”

“The best of the sea’s lutes,” chimed in the artful Watts, “is made by
the sands of Cromer.”


The eighteenth century had almost run its course when the exigencies of
England’s conflict with the French brought Thomas Borrow, a stalwart
Cornishman, into East Anglia, on recruiting service.  For several years
the worthy West-countryman had served his king in the rank and file of
the British army before he was appointed sergeant-major of the newly
raised body of West Norfolk Militia.  The headquarters of this regiment
was East Dereham, a pleasant little country town situated about sixteen
miles from the Norfolk capital.

Thomas Borrow came of a good Cornish family, and explanation of his
having attained nothing better than non-commissioned rank is to be found
in the fact that he preferred to enter the army as a private soldier—some
say that he ran away from home in order to enlist.  That his duties as a
sergeant-major were performed in a creditable and satisfactory manner we
are justified in believing, knowing that in 1798 he was raised to the
position of captain and adjutant of the regiment.

While in Dereham, Sergeant-major Borrow made the acquaintance of Ann
Parfrement, the daughter of a small farmer of French Huguenot extraction,
living at Dumpling Green, an open neighbourhood in the outskirts of the
town.  This acquaintance ripened into a mutual attachment, and on Borrow
receiving promotion the two were united in marriage.  Two children were
born to them; the younger of whom, George Henry Borrow, was born on July
5th, 1803.

The wandering instinct that George afterwards developed may well have
been the natural outcome of the roving life of his early years.  Before
he was many months old, his parents, obedient to the dictates of military
command, had moved from Dereham to Canterbury.  The year 1809, however,
saw them back again in the little Norfolk town with which Borrow’s
earliest recollections were associated.

East Dereham is a town of Anglo-Saxon foundation, and strange legends and
traditions are interwoven with its history.  To-day it is chiefly known
for the fact that the bones of the poet Cowper rest beneath the chancel
of its ancient church.  To this church of St. Nicholas, George was taken
by his parents every Sunday.  Writing in after years, he says, “Twice
every Sunday I was regularly taken to the church, where, from a corner of
the large spacious pew, lined with black leather, I would fix my eyes on
the dignified High-church rector, and the dignified High-church clerk,
and watch the movement of their lips, from which, as they read their
respective portions of the venerable Liturgy, would roll many a
portentous word descriptive of the wondrous works of the Most High.”

The vicar of Dereham at this time was the Rev. Charles Hyde Wollaston.
The “dignified High-church clerk” was George Philo (spelt Philoh in
“Lavengro”), an old soldier, retired on a pension.

The Borrows remained in Dereham only a few months, but their stay in the
place was ever after a memorable one in George’s mind, for the occurrence
of a great event.  A young lady, a friend of the family, presented him
with a copy of “Robinson Crusoe.”  This book first aroused in him a
desire for knowledge.  For hours together he sat poring over its pages,
until, “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

After settling down for a time at Norman Cross in Huntingdonshire and in
Edinburgh, Captain Borrow retired into private life; but not for long.
Elba failed to hold the fiery Corsican, Napoleon again burst upon the
battlefield of Europe, the demon of war and ravage was again abroad.
Borrow’s corps was levied anew, and his eldest son, John, became one of
its officers.  Before the regiment saw service, however, the escaped lion
was again caged.  But it was not disbanded, and, being in a thoroughly
efficient state, was ordered to Ireland, where local trouble was feared.
The autumn of 1815 saw the Borrows sail from Harwich.  After a voyage of
eight days, during which a terrific storm was encountered and the
transports nearly foundered, the military force of eight hundred men was
landed on the Irish coast.  After a lengthy stay at Clonmel, where, as in
Edinburgh, George was sent to school, the corps moved their quarters to

During the following year, Captain Borrow returned to Norfolk, and
settled down with his family in a small house which is still standing in
Willow Lane, Norwich.  George was at once entered as a pupil at King
Edward’s Grammar School, then conducted by Dr. Valpy, and remained a
scholar there till 1818, when he attained his fifteenth year.  As a
schoolboy he appears to have been an apter pupil of Defoe than of the
reverend headmaster of the Norwich academy.  Dr. James Martineau, who was
one of his schoolfellows, has related how Borrow once persuaded several
of his companions to rob their father’s tills, and run away to join the
smugglers of the East Anglian coast.  For this escapade he was awarded
due punishment, which he received hoisted on the back of the future
celebrated Unitarian divine.  Miss Frances Cobbe, who knew both Borrow
and Dr. Martineau in after years, says in her Autobiography, “The early
connection between the two old men as I knew them was irresistibly comic
to my mind.  When I asked Mr. Borrow once to come andmeet some friends at
our house, he accepted our invitation as usual, but, on finding that Dr.
Martineau was to be of the party, hastily withdrew his acceptance on a
transparent excuse, nor did he ever after attend our little assemblies
without first ascertaining that Dr. Martineau would not be present.”

On another occasion, George—probably in emulation of the East Anglian
Iceni—dyed his face with walnut juice, causing Dr. Valpy to inquire
whether he was “suffering from jaundice, or if it was only dirt.”  Dr.
Jessop, who was afterwards headmaster of the school, says that there was
a tradition that Borrow was indolent and even stupid.  There is little
doubt that he was a dreamy youth, much given to introspective thought and
wild imaginings; but, in spite of these drawbacks in the dominie’s eyes,
he was a very human boy, fond of outdoor life and sports.  Some of his
pursuits, however—such as his liking for philological studies, and for
the company of gipsies and horsey men generally—might well trouble his
father, who was a steady-going old gentleman of strictly conventional
methods and ideas.  George stood in considerable awe of him, and always
felt ill at ease in his presence.  No doubt the old soldier frequently
remonstrated with him for his indulgence in idle pleasures and lax ideas
of duty.  As a lad, he probably found it hard to justify himself in his
father’s eyes, but there is a passage in “Lavengro,” written
five-and-twenty years later, which clearly expresses his views:

“I have heard talk of the pleasures of idleness, yet it is my own firm
belief that no one ever yet took pleasure in it.  Mere idleness is the
most disagreeable state of existence, and both mind and body are
continually making efforts to escape from it.  It has been said that
idleness is the parent of mischief, which is very true; but mischief
itself is merely an attempt to escape from the dreary vacuum of idleness.
There are many tasks and occupations which a man is unwilling to perform,
but let no one think that he is therefore in love with idleness; he turns
to something which is more agreeable to his inclination, and doubtless
more suited to his nature, but he is not in love with idleness.  A boy
may play the truant from school because he dislikes his books and study;
but, depend upon it, he intends doing something the while—to go fishing,
or perhaps to take a walk; and who knows but that from such excursions
both his mind and body may derive more benefit than from books and

Contemporary with Borrow at Norwich Grammar School were several lads
whose names were afterwards written in large and shining letters on the
scroll of fame.  Amongst these were James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak,
Sir Archdale Wilson, and, as has already been said, Dr. James Martineau.
The old city has always borne itself with dignity during the passage of
events that have gone to make up its history, as though conscious of its
ability to send forth into the world sons who would do honour to her
record and old foundations and traditions.  From that old school they
have gone out into every walk of life, carrying with them over land and
sea, into court and pulpit, to bench and bar, hallowed memories of days
spent within its walls.  Not ten years before Borrow’s name was entered
on its roll, its most brilliant star had set at Trafalgar, where Nelson
found amidst the hailing death that poured upon the decks of the battered
_Victory_ the passport to immortal fame and glory.


When, at the end of his fifteenth year, George Borrow completed his term
of study at the Norwich Grammar School, his parents had considerable
difficulty in determining upon a profession for their erratic son.  In
the solution of this problem he, himself, could help them but little
towards a satisfactory conclusion.  His strange disposition and tastes
were a source of continual astonishment and mystification to the old
people.  What, they asked themselves, could be done with a lad whose only
decided bent was in the direction of philological studies, who at an
early age had attained a knowledge of Erse, and whose great pleasure it
was to converse in Romany with the gipsies whom he met at the fair-ground
on Norwich Castle Hill?  His father was anxious that he should enter the
Church; but George’s unsettled disposition was an effectual bar against
his taking such a step, for he would never have been able to apply
himself with sufficient attention to the necessary routine course of
college study.

In the midst of the warm controversy that the question excited he fell
ill, and firmly believed that he was going to die.  His near approach to
dissolution found him quite resigned.  A listless willingness to let life
go, grew upon him during the dreary days of helpless inactivity.
“Death,” he said, “appeared to him little else than a pleasant sleep, and
he wished for sleep.”  But a long life was before him, and, after
spending weeks upon his bed, his strength came back to him, and with it
the still unsolved problem of a suitable vocation.  It was at last
decided that he should enter upon a legal career.

There is little doubt that the legal profession was one for which Borrow
was the least adapted, and of this he was well aware.  When, however, in
1819, the time arrived for him to be articled to Messrs. Simpson and
Rackham of Tuck’s Court, St. Giles, he apparently offered no objection,
and his recollections of the years when he was tied to a lawyer’s desk
were always pleasant to him in after-life.

But these pleasant recollections had little to do with the duties of his
calling—they arose rather from the fact that his work was easy, and so
intermittent as to give him ample opportunity for indulging in his
day-dreams.  Who can doubt the personal basis of that passage in
“Lavengro” in which he says: “Yes, very pleasant times were those, when
within the womb of a lofty desk, behind which I sat for some hours every
day, transcribing (when I imagined eyes were upon me) documents of every
description in every possible hand.  Blackstone kept company with Ab
Gwilym—the polished English lawyer of the last century, who wrote long
and prosy chapters on the rights of things—with a certain wild Welshman,
who some four hundred years before that time indited immortal cowydds or
odes to the wives of Cambrian chieftains—more particularly to one
Morfydd, the wife of a certain hunch-backed dignitary called by the poet
facetiously Bwa Bach—generally terminating with the modest request of a
little private parlance beneath the greenwood bough, with no other
witness than the eos, or nightingale; a request which, if the poet may be
believed, rather a doubtful point, was seldom, very seldom, denied.  And
by what strange chance had Gwilym and Blackstone, two personages so
exceedingly different, been thus brought together?  From what the reader
already knows of me, he may be quite prepared to find me reading the
former; but what could have induced me to take up Blackstone, or rather

Yes, there was little in Borrow’s nature that was in common with that of
the followers of the legal profession.  What food for his wild
imagination could he find in the prosy records and dry-as-dust documents
of a lawyer’s office?  They contained words that to him, as to many of
his master’s clients, were without meaning: his thoughts wandered beyond
their mazy entanglements into a realm where the law that restrained was
that of Nature alone, and whose only order was planned by the spirit that
sent forth shadows and dreams.  He had been too much of a rover, had seen
too many strange sights in his young life, to be able to satisfy his
cravings for knowledge in musty law tomes and dusty deeds.  His curiosity
had been aroused by many things he had seen in his early travels, he had
had glimpses into so many wide fields of interest that led his mind
astray.  But none of these seemed to the steady-going old Militia captain
to show a practical opening for his second son, whom, therefore, we find
copying legal documents in a “strange old house occupying one side of a
long and narrow court,” instead of going a-viking with the Norseman or
roving with the wild Welsh bard.

Borrow has left us a striking picture of the head of the firm of Simpson
and Rackham; a picture drawn with that wealth of detail and
uncompromising truthfulness which would have made the worthy gentleman
tremble had he known at the time what a keen observer he was receiving
beneath his roof.  “A more respectable-looking individual was never
seen,” writes his erstwhile pupil; “he really looked what he was, a
gentleman of the law—there was nothing of the pettifogger about him:
somewhat under middle size, and somewhat rotund in person, he was always
dressed in a full suit of black, never worn long enough to become
threadbare.  His face was rubicund, and not without keenness; but the
most remarkable thing about him was his head, which was bald, and shone
like polished ivory, nothing more white, smooth and lustrous.  Some
people have said that he wore false calves, probably because his black
silk stockings never exhibited a wrinkle; they might as well have said
that he waddled because his shoes creaked, for these last, which were
always without a speck, and polished as his crown, though of a different
hue, did creak, as he walked rather slowly.  I cannot say that I ever saw
him walk fast.”

And then follows a little glimpse into the provincial life of the old
Norfolk capital that shows how little change there has been in the aims
and habits of a certain portion of the middle class since the first
quarter of the century.  “He had a handsome practice, and might have died
a very rich man, much richer than he did, had he not been in the habit of
giving rather expensive dinners to certain great people, who gave him
nothing in return, except their company.”

This worthy old gentleman must have been sorely puzzled as to what he
should make of the tall, spare, serious-looking lad who was placed under
his charge.  He confessed to the old captain that the latter’s son was “a
very extraordinary youth, a most remarkable youth, indeed;” and we can
well believe him.  On one occasion, Borrow showed a one-eyed beggar into
his master’s private room, and installed him in an armchair “like a
justice of the peace.”  At another time, when invited to Mr. Simpson’s
house, he electrified a learned archdeacon and the company generally by
maintaining that his favourite Ab Gwilym was a better poet than Ovid, and
that many of the classic writers were greatly over-valued.  Borrow often
distinguished himself later on by his blunt way of expressing his
opinions, and the habit seems to have grown upon him early in life.

A sense of duty towards those who were responsible for his upbringing,
does not seem to have been a strong point with George Borrow.  He
disliked the profession to which he was apprenticed, and it is evident
that his mind was as absent from his duties as was his heart.  He was
always dreaming of sagas and sea-rovers, battles and bards.  Shut up in
his dull and dusty desk, he would

             “catch in sudden gleams
    The sheen of the far-surrounding seas,
    And islands that were the Hesperides
       Of all (his) boyish dreams.”

No one will deny that “the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,”
for have we not all thought such thoughts, and dreamt our dreams?  But
they are not as a rule conducive to the attainment of a mastery of the
details and subtleties of law.

One day an old countryman from the coast brought George a book of Danish
ballads, left at his coast-line cottage by a crew of shipwrecked Danes.
Once possessed of this work, he could not rest satisfied until he had
mastered the Danish language in order that he might unearth its
historical and legendary treasures.  “The Danes, the Danes!” he exclaims
to himself, as he holds the priceless volume in his hands.  “And was I at
last to become acquainted, and in so singular a manner, with the speech
of a people which had, as far back as I could remember, exercised the
strongest influence over my imagination.  For the book was a book of
ballads, about the deeds of knights and champions, and men of huge
stature; ballads which from time immemorial had been sung in the North,
and which some two centuries before the time of which I am speaking, had
been collected by one Anders Vedel, who lived with a certain Tycho Brahe,
and assisted him in making observations upon the heavenly bodies, at a
place called Uranias Castle on the little island of Hveen, in the

No, Borrow was never meant to be a lawyer; but no calling that was
possible to him could have suited him so well at the time with which we
are dealing.  Apparently the tasks set him were so light that he had
ample opportunity for the pursuance of the philological investigations
that he delighted in.  His efforts in this direction attracted the
attention of Dr. William Taylor, who had returned to his native city
after his wanderings in France and Germany.  As is well known, the
accomplished scholar and translator was an intimate friend of Southey’s,
and it was to the poet he 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

Describing Taylor, when he and Lavengro are discussing together the
possibility of becoming a good German scholar without being an ardent
smoker, Borrow writes: “The forehead of the elder individual was high,
and perhaps appeared more so than it really was, from the hair being
carefully brushed back, as if for the purpose of displaying to the best
advantage that part of the cranium; his eyes were large and full, and of
a light brown, and might have been called heavy and dull, had they not
been occasionally lighted up by a sudden gleam not so brilliant, however,
as that which at every inhalation shone from the bowl of a long clay pipe
which he was smoking, but which, from a certain sucking sound which about
this time began to be heard from the bottom, appeared to be giving notice
that it would soon require replenishment from a certain canister which,
together with a lighted taper, stood upon the table beside him.”

That the elderly German student and his youthful emulator were kindred
spirits, there is no doubt; and Taylor seems to have instilled into
Borrow’s mind many of his own tastes and admirations.  Amongst these was
a sincere admiration for Southey, whom Borrow, with his love of
superlatives, looked upon not so much as a poet as England’s best prose
writer, and probably the purest and most noble character to which she had
ever given birth.

We have no sure knowledge of whether, while in Norwich, Borrow made the
acquaintance of Old Crome.  We know, however, that he was an enthusiastic
admirer of the self-taught master of the Old Norwich School of artists.
Still, he may never have been brought into immediate contact with him;
for Crome was in his forty-sixth year when Borrow’s family first appeared
in Norwich, and George was then but a young lad.  But before 1821, when
Old Crome died, Borrow must have learnt a good deal both of the painter
and his pictures, for the admiration that he afterwards expressed can
hardly have been entirely the outcome of the artist’s posthumous fame.

“He has painted,” writes Borrow, “not pictures of the world, but English
pictures, such as Gainsborough himself might have done; beautiful rural
pieces, with trees that might well tempt the little birds to perch upon
them; thou needest not run to Rome, brother” (this was written of the
time when his brother John was leaving England to study art upon the
Continent), “where lives the old Mariolater, after pictures of the world,
whilst at home there are pictures of England; nor needest thou even go to
London, the big city, in search of a master, for thou hast one at home in
the old East Anglian town, who can instruct thee, while thou needest
instruction; better stay at home, brother, at least for a season, and
toil and strive ’midst groanings and despondency till thou hast attained
excellence, even as he has done—the little dark man with the dark-brown
coat and the top-boots, whose name will one day be considered the chief
ornament of the old town, and whose works will at no distant period rank
amongst the proudest pictures of England—and England against the
world!—thy master, my brother, all too little considered master—Crome.”

It would almost appear from the details of the dark-brown coat and
top-boots that Borrow must have met Crome at some period of his Norwich
life.  From the foregoing eulogy, one would gather that his brother John
was a pupil of the old painter.  This may well have been the case, for
Crome had many such pupils, amongst whom, as has lately been shown, were,
in earlier years, some of the sisters Gurney of Earlham.


The Norwich of Borrow’s early years was noted for its literary and
artistic associations, and the names of some of its more distinguished
writers and painters were household words in the land.  Harriet Martineau
had “left off darning stockings to take to literature”; Dr. Taylor was
opening up to English readers a new field in German writings; John Sell
Cotman was making a name for himself; and Opie, who “lived to paint,” was
often seen at Earlham, Keswick, and in the city streets.  Such names as
these, and of Elizabeth Fry, Sir James Smith (who founded the Linnæan
Society), and Mrs. Opie would fall upon the ear of the young lawyer’s
clerk whenever he mixed in polite society.  The old city was then
enjoying a reputation that was worthy of its best traditions; and it
still prides itself on the memory of those golden days.

A bookish youth could not fail to be influenced by such associations, and
it may well be that Borrow’s thoughts were first drawn into a literary
groove by a knowledge of what certain of these Norwich celebrities were
doing.  The delight he had found in the pages of his book of Danish
ballads, inspired him to turn his pen from the copying of deeds to the
writing of verses.  His “Romantic Ballads from the Danish,” printed by
Simon Wilkins of Norwich, and consisting of translations from his prized
volume, appeared in 1826.  Dr. Jessop surmises that these translations
must have brought him in a very respectable sum, but Mr. Augustus
Birrell, in his own inimitable way, expresses his doubt on the point.  “I
hope it was so,” he writes, “but, as Dr. Johnson once said about the
immortality of the soul, I should like more evidence of it.”

Borrow’s translations and linguistic pursuits, however, were not allowed
to occupy all his spare hours in those early days.  Norwich and its
neighbourhood had too much to show him, and to move him to reflection and
enthusiasm, to allow this to be the case.  By degrees, he came to love
the old city, as he never got to love any other place in after-life.
Writing many years later, the memories of it flooded in upon his brain
until he saw its castle and cathedral, its homes and hospitality, in such
a rosy light as never glowed upon the scenes through which he journeyed
in after years.  “Who can wonder,” he asks, “that the children of that
fine old city are proud of her, and offer up prayers for her prosperity?
I, myself, who was not born within her walls, offer up prayers for her
prosperity, that want may never visit her cottages, vice her palaces, and
that the abomination of idolatry may never pollute her temples.”

The grey old castle and stately cathedral were a never-failing source of
interest, worship and delight to him, as they have been to many who
cannot claim East Anglia for their homeland.  Often he would lie upon the
grass in the sunlight and watch the rooks and choughs circle about their
battlements and spires.  As he said, he was not formed for an indoor
student, and outdoor life had ever a greater charm for him than the
library or the study.  Often with rod and gun (he had an old Tower musket
nearly eighty years old) he would go down amongst the marshes to angle or
shoot as the fancy took him and the season gave him sport.  Fortunately,
the old fowling-piece was sound, although condemned on account of its
age, and he never came to harm by it; indeed, if we may believe him in
this matter—and it is always hard to put implicit faith in a solitary
sportsman or angler—he did considerable execution amongst the birds of
the Broadland.

Still there were times when even the attraction of the rod and gun were
not sufficient to keep him from dreaming.  Then, he would throw himself
down on some mossy bank and let his mind wander back into the mists and
mysteries of the days of yore.  There was one favourite spot of his,
where, from beneath an arch, “the waters rush garrulously into a blue
pool, and are there stilled for a time, for the pool is deep, and they
appear to have sunk to sleep.  Further on, however, you hear their voice
again, where they ripple gaily over yon gravelly shallow.  On the left,
the hill slopes gently down to the margin of the stream.  On the right is
a green level, a smiling meadow; grass of the richest decks the side of
the slope; mighty trees also adorn it, giant elms, the nearest of which,
when the sun is nigh its meridian, fling a broad shadow on the face of
the pool; through yon vista you catch a glimpse of the ancient brick of
an old English hall.”  This old hall stood on the site of an older
hearthstead called the Earl’s Home, where lived some “Sigurd or Thorkild”
in the days “when Thor and Freya were yet gods, and Odin was a portentous
name.”  Earlham stands to-day as it did in Borrow’s time, and, no doubt,
other Norwich lads at times lie out on the hillside dreaming of the
sea-rovers of Scandinavia who ravaged the hearths and homes of the
marshland folk of East Anglia.

Amongst the Norwich celebrities whom Borrow met, was Joseph John Gurney
of Earlham, the large-hearted Quaker brother of Elizabeth Fry.  Mr.
Gurney seems to have come across him one day while he was fishing, and to
have remonstrated with him for taking pleasure in such “a cruel
diversion.”  He was a tall man, “dressed in raiment of a quaint and
singular fashion, but of goodly materials.  He was in the pride and
vigour of manhood (Joseph John Gurney was born in 1788); his features
handsome and noble, but full of calmness and benevolence; at least I
thought so, though they were somewhat shaded by a hat of finest beaver,
with broad drooping eaves.”

The worthy Quaker, whose words had the effect of lessening Borrow’s
inclination for angling, invited him to Earlham that he might search the
library there for any such works as might please and interest him.  This
was an occupation so much to Borrow’s taste, that we wonder he did not
accept the invitation.  He did not do so, however, but sought out far
different companions—namely, the Romanies whom he met at Tombland Fair
and on Mousehold Heath.  It was many years after that he paid his first
visit to Earlham.  Gurney did not then remember him as the youth whom he
had met by the side of the marshland stream; but he took him to the
library, and showed him the books of which he had spoken many years
before.  One of them was the work of a moneychanger.  “I am a banker
myself,” said Gurney, and the fact seems to have been the cause of
reproachings on the part of some of the Norwich “Friends.”  A letter of
his appears in the chronicles of “The Gurneys of Earlham,” in which he
writes: “I suppose my leading object in life may be said to be the bank.
It sometimes startles me to find my leading object of such a nature, and
now and then I doubt whether it is quite consistent with my religious
pursuits and duties.”  Eventually he arrives at the conclusion that:
“While I am a banker, the bank must be attended to.  It is obviously the
religious duty of a trustee to so large an amount to be diligent in
watching his trust.”  Borrow, with whom he discussed the matter, sums up
the case by exclaiming, “Would that there were many like him, amidst the
money-changers of princes!  The hall of many an earl lacks the bounty,
the palace of many a prelate the piety and learning, which adorn the
quiet Quaker’s home.”

                                * * * * *

It was the death of his father that brought about the first severing of
Borrow’s connection with Norwich.  Captain Borrow, as his portrait shows
and his son declares, had been a sturdy soldier, possessing great
physical strength.  He enjoyed several years of quiet domestic life
before the end came, and lingered for some months after the fatal illness
seized him.  At times he would rally, so that he could walk abroad a
little, or sit up in the small parlour of the house in Willow Lane,
wearing an old regimental coat, and with his dog at his feet.  He used to
have long talks with George on such occasions, and would relate to him
stories of his past life, and the distinguished people he had met.  “He
had frequently conversed—almost on terms of familiarity—with good old
George.  He had known the conqueror of Tippoo Saib: and was the friend of
Townshend, who, when Wolfe fell, led the British Grenadiers against the
shrinking regiments of Montcalm.”

The old veteran’s elder son, John, who was absent from England, hastened
home just in time to receive his father’s blessing.  In the middle of the
night, a sudden relapse brought the dying man’s wife and sons to his
bedside.  In his last moments, his mind wandered and he spoke of “Minden,
and of Meredith, the old Minden sergeant.”  Last of all, “he uttered
another name clearly, distinctly, and it was the name of Christ.”  “With
that name upon his lips,” writes George Borrow, “the brave old soldier
sank back upon my bosom, and, with his hands still clasped, yielded up
his soul.”  His death took place on February 28, 1824, and he was buried
in the churchyard of St. Giles, at Norwich.

The two brothers remained at home with their mother for some time after
their father’s death.  John fitted up a studio in the little house in
Willow Lane, and there devoted himself to his art.  His work does not
seem to have been very remunerative, and eventually he went abroad in
connection with a mining venture, and died in Mexico in 1833.  George had
a great opinion of his brother’s painting, and believed that if he had
lived and continued to strive after excellence he would have left “some
enduring monument of his powers”; but his estimate of John’s endowments
may have been biassed by his affection.  His love for his brother was
deep and abiding, and was not lessened by his father’s marked preference
for his elder son.

The precise date of Borrow’s leaving Norwich and betaking himself to
London cannot be ascertained, but it is certain that he left his brother
behind him in the old home.  Mr. Birrell believes it to have been not
later than 1828, and says “his only introduction appears to have been one
from William Taylor to Sir Richard Phillips, the publisher known to all
readers of “Lavengro.”  Mr. George Saintsbury sums up his life in Norwich
with the remark that “he occupied his time with things that obviously
would not pay.”

A friend of the writer, who recently examined the old house in Willow
Lane, has contributed the following description of its appearance at the
time of his visit:

“In a quiet, secluded court, opening from a narrow lane in the old city
of Norwich, stands an unpretentious house, which at first sight presents
little to attract the attention of a visitor.  A closer inspection,
however, discloses a marble slab affixed over the door, bearing the
following inscription: ‘In this house resided for some years of the
earlier portion of his life, George Henry Borrow, author of “The Bible in
Spain”; and other valued works.  Died in 1881, aged 78 years.’  The old
house immediately becomes invested with great interest to one who has
spent many enraptured hours over the pages of the writer whose
association with Norwich has been thus commemorated by Sir Peter Eade.

“The house itself is of somewhat ancient date, and its external
appearance affords little indication of its size and the comfort of its
arrangement within.  Its condition is practically unchanged since the
time when it was inhabited by the Borrow family.  The present proprietor,
Mr. W. Cooper, with a commendable respect for the memory of the great
author, has made but few alterations.  The principal change that has been
effected is in the division of the house into two separate parts.  This
has been easily accomplished by the simple process of blocking up a door
in the hall, and forming another doorway in the front of the house.  The
peculiar plan of the building adapts itself to this arrangement, no other
alteration being found necessary for the complete disconnection of the
two parts.  Of the two cottages so formed, one is at present occupied by
an old couple, while the other is used as a workshop.

“On entering the front door, which has a picturesque, antique porchway,
access is gained to a fairly spacious hall, paved with tiles, from which
ascends the main staircase of fine old oak.  The door that is now closed,
opened into a commodious front room, with a large window facing the west.
This contains some finely carved panelling in a good state of
preservation, and was evidently the chief room of the house.  From it a
passage extends to the back buildings.  A narrow and particularly
tortuous staircase leads from the front room to the upper rooms at the
back of the house, to which access cannot be gained by the main stairs.
On passing through the hall, the visitor finds himself in a large
kitchen, where provision is made for an exceptionally big fireplace.  In
common with most old houses, every inch of available space is converted
into cupboards, which are to be discovered in most unexpected nooks and
corners.  All the rooms are panelled, but it is only the large rooms just
mentioned that contain any carving.

“On the first floor, the arrangements are of a similar nature to those on
the ground floor.  From the landing of the main staircase open two rooms,
a large one over the best room, and a smaller one above the hall.  In the
first-mentioned is a noticeable fireplace, which, in the place of the
customary mantelpiece, has a panel-work frame, uniform with that
surrounding the other rooms.  The place of the centre panel was formerly
occupied by a large oil painting, which remained in its position for some
time after the Borrows vacated the house, and is now in the possession of
Mr. Cooper.  It represents ‘The Judgment of Solomon,’ and is supposed to
be the work of John Borrow, George’s artist brother.  The two remaining
bedrooms, which are reached by the small staircase, are of unequal size
on account of a narrow passage, from which rises a short flight of stairs
leading to a very irregular-shaped attic in the roof.”


After many painful experiences in London, whither he went in the hope of
being able to gain a livelihood by devoting himself to literature, George
Borrow turned his back upon the metropolis, and set out on that wild,
rambling excursion narrated and enlarged upon in the pages of “Lavengro.”
Lapse of time has emphasised the impossibility of ascertaining how much
is fact and how much fiction in the fascinating account of his
wanderings.  Criticism on that point is unjustifiable, for Borrow
announced that the book was “a dream,” and a history only up to a certain
point.  From what the writer has gathered, however, from those who knew
Borrow intimately, he has good reason to believe that there are more
facts recorded in the latter part of “Lavengro,” and in “The Romany Rye,”
than are credited by many students of “Don Jorge’s” writings.

After lengthy roamings far and wide, he returned again to Norwich, where
he lived for a time a quiet life, of which he has left no record.  His
literary exploits had not been of such a nature as to rank his name with
those of the known writers of his day; indeed, there is every reason for
believing that as an author he was as little known as on the day when he
abandoned the quiet little house in Willow Lane for a wider field of
life.  Yet, painful, and even heartbreaking, as his experiences had been,
he was infinitely the gainer by the hard fate that sent him out a
wanderer upon the face of the earth, and we who read his books to-day may
be thankful for the tears and toilings that brought about so rich and
abundant a harvest.

An introduction from Joseph John Gurney to the British and Foreign Bible
Society resulted in Borrow’s leaving England in 1830 for the Continent,
where he went on another _wanderjahre_ not unlike that he had taken in
his native land.

After visiting France, Austria and Italy, we eventually find him in St.
Petersburg, where he undertook the translation of the Bible into the
Mandschu-Tartar language, and issued in 1835, through Schulz and Beneze,
his “Targum; or Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and
Dialects.”  While in Russia, he made many friends amongst the nobility
there, who frequently invited him to their country homes.  In the same
year that saw the publication of “Targum,” he returned home.  His stay in
England, however, was a very short one.  The British and Foreign Bible
Society was so satisfied with his work in Russia that they pressed him to
continue to serve them, and undertake a journey into Spain for the
purpose of circulating the Scriptures in that country.  His travels in
Spain occupied over four years.  While there he met Mrs. Mary Clarke, who
afterwards became his wife.  This lady, who was the widow of a naval
officer, was connected with a Suffolk family which had been associated
with the village of Oulton for several generations.  Their name was
Skeppar, and it was in their old Suffolk home by the side of Oulton Broad
that Borrow went to live on his return to England.

                                * * * * *

Borrow, who was now in his thirty-eighth year, set to work at Oulton upon
his “Bible in Spain,” which was published by Mr. John Murray, three years
later, in 1843.  Of his method, or lack of method, in working, something
may be gathered from the preface to the second edition of “The Zincali,”
which was written about the time of the issue of the former book.  Mr.
Murray had advised him to try his hand at something different from his
“sorry trash” {41} about gipsies, and write a work that would really be
of credit to the great firm in Albemarle Street.  Borrow responded by
starting on an account of his wanderings in Spain.

“At first I proceeded slowly—sickness was in the land, and the face of
Nature was overcast—heavy rainclouds swam in the heavens, the blast
howled amid the pines which nearly surround my lonely dwelling, and the
waters of the lake, which lies before it, so quiet in general and
tranquil, were fearfully agitated . . . A dreary summer and autumn passed
by, and were succeeded by as gloomy a winter.  I still proceeded with the
Bible in Spain.  The winter passed, and spring came, with cold dry winds
and occasional sunshine, whereupon I arose, shouted, and mounting my
horse, even Sidi Habismilk, I scoured all the surrounding district, and
thought but little of the Bible in Spain.  So I rode about the country,
over the heaths, and through the green lanes of my native land,
occasionally visiting friends at a distance, and sometimes, for variety’s
sake, I stayed at home and amused myself by catching huge pike, which lie
perdue in certain deep ponds skirted with lofty reeds, upon my land, and
to which there is a communication from the lagoon by a deep and narrow
watercourse.  I had almost forgotten the Bible in Spain.  Then came the
summer with much heat and sunshine, and then I would lie for hours in the
sun and recall the sunny days I had spent in Andalusia, and my thoughts
were continually reverting to Spain, and at last I remembered that the
Bible in Spain was still unfinished; whereupon I arose and said: ‘This
loitering profiteth nothing,’ and I hastened to my summer-house by the
side or the lake, and there I thought and wrote, and thought and wrote,
until I had finished the ‘Bible in Spain.’”

Within a few weeks of the publication of the “Bible in Spain,” Borrow’s
name was in everyone’s mouth.  Attempts were made to “lionise” him; but
were met with his distinct disapproval, though it was always a pleasure
to him to be looked upon as a celebrity.  To escape from the Mrs. Leo
Hunters of fashionable society, he almost immediately fled to the
Continent, where he went on another pilgrimage.  Having journeyed through
Turkey, Albania, Hungary, and Wallachia, he again came home to Oulton,
and completed “Lavengro,” which had been commenced almost as soon as the
manuscript of “The Bible in Spain” had left his hands.  This book was
finished in the summer-house of his garden by the broad where most of his
future work was done, and was issued in 1851.

Defending himself against the critics who attacked him for intermingling
truth and fiction in “Lavengro,” he afterwards wrote: “In the preface
‘Lavengro’ is stated to be a dream; and the writer takes this opportunity
of stating that he never said it was an autobiography; never authorised
any person to say that it was one; and that he has in innumerable
instances declared in public and in private, both before and after the
work was published, that it was not what is generally termed an
autobiography: but a set of people who pretend to write criticisms on
books, hating the author for various reasons, amongst others, because,
having the proper pride of a gentleman and a scholar, he did not in the
year 1843, choose to permit himself to be exhibited and made a zany of in
London, and especially because he will neither associate with, nor curry
favour with, them who are neither gentlemen nor scholars—attack his book
with abuse and calumny.”

Interrogated by Mr. Theodore Watts as to the real nature of an
autobiography, Borrow asked the question, “What is an autobiography?  Is
it a mere record of the incidents of a man’s life? or is it a picture of
the man himself—his character, his soul?”

This, Mr. Watts thinks, was a very suggestive query of Borrow’s with
regard to himself and his work.  “That he sat down to write his own life
in ‘Lavengro’ I know.  He had no idea then of departing from the strict
line of fact.  Indeed, his letters to his friend, Mr. John Murray, would
alone be sufficient to establish this in spite of his calling ‘Lavengro’
a dream.  In the first volume he did almost confine himself to matters of
fact.  But as he went on he clearly found that the ordinary tapestry into
which Destiny had woven the incidents of his life were not tinged with
sufficient depth of colour to satisfy his sense of wonder. . . .  When he
wishes to dive very boldly into the ‘abysmal deeps of personality,’ he
speaks and moves partly behind the mask of some fictitious character . .
. Let it be remembered that it was this instinct of wonder, not the
instinct of the mere _poseur_, that impelled him to make certain
exaggerated statements about the characters themselves that are
introduced into his books.”

The village of Oulton lies on the border of the marshland about a mile
from the most easterly point of England, and within hearing of the
beating of the billows of the wild North Sea.  Borrow’s home, which was
little more than a cottage, stood on the side of a slight rising bank
overlooking Oulton Broad, and was sheltered from the winds of the sea and
marshland by a belt of storm-rent pines.  The house contained a
sitting-room on either side of the entrance-hall, a kitchen, four
bedrooms, and two attics.  It was its smallness and compactness that
commended it to Borrow, and it also had the extra recommendation to a man
of his disposition of being quiet and secluded.  Indeed, so
out-of-the-way was its situation that to take a boat upon the broad was
looked upon as the best and most direct means of attaining this isolated
nook of the Broadland.

At the present time the broad, that stretches away from Lake Lothing to
the westward of Borrow’s Ham, {45} is for several months of the year
picturesque with the white sails of yachts and other pleasure boats that
have skimmed its placid waters since the Broadland first became a holiday
resort.  In the early days of Borrow’s residence at Oulton, the only
craft that stirred its sunlit ripples were the punts of the eel-catcher
and wildfowl-seeker and the slowly gliding wherries voyaging to and from
the coast and inland towns.  To-day, a little colony of dwellers in
red-brick villas have invaded the lonely spot where Borrow lived; but
even now you have but to turn aside a few steps from the lake side to
reach the edge of far-stretching marshland levels that have changed their
face but little during the passage of many centuries.  Farther away the
marshlanders have seized upon any slight piece of rising ground to
establish a firm foundation for their humble homes; here and there a grey
church tower or skeleton windmill breaks the line of the level horizon.
The meres and marshes have the silence of long dead years resting upon
them, save where the breeze stirs the riverside reeds or a curlew cries
above the ooze flats.

Queer company the “walking lord of gipsy lore” must have kept as he sat
alone in that little book-lined summer-house, hearing strange voices in
the sighing of the wind through the fir-trees and the distant sobbing of
the sea.  Out of the shadow of the past there would come to him, not only
the swarthy Romanies, but Francis Ardrey, the friend of his youth; the
Armenian merchant, with whom Lavengro discussed Haik; the victim of the
evil chance, who talked nonsense about the _star_ Jupiter and told him
that “touching” story of his fight against destiny; the Rev. Mr.
Platitude, who would neither admit there were any Dissenters nor permit
any to exist; Peter Williams, the man who committed the unpardonable sin
against the Holy Ghost, and Winifred, his patient, constant wife; the
student of Chinese, who learnt the language of the land of the Celestials
from the figures on the teapots; the Hungarian, who related so many
legends and traditions of the Magyars; and Murtagh, with his wonderful
stories of the Pope.  These were the friends with whom he spent the real
life of his latter days, and it is hardly surprising that under the
influence of their companionship he should have become somewhat of a
recluse, and lost touch with living friends and acquaintances.

Dr. Gordon Hake, whose residence at Bury St. Edmunds was contemporary
with Borrow’s settling down at Oulton, writes in his Memoirs: “George
Borrow was one of those whose mental powers are strong, and whose bodily
frame is yet stronger—a conjunction of forces often detrimental to a
literary career in an age of intellectual predominance.  His temper was
good and bad; his pride was humility; his humility was pride; his vanity,
in being negative, was of the most positive kind.  He was reticent and
candid, measured in speech, with an emphasis that makes trifles
significant.  Borrow was essentially hypochondriacal.  Society he loved
and hated alike; he loved it that he might be pointed out and talked of;
he hated it because he was not the prince that he felt himself in its
midst.  His figure was tall, and his bearing noble; he had a finely
moulded head and thick white hair—white from his youth; his brown eyes
were soft, yet piercing; his nose somewhat of the Semitic type, which
gave his face the cast of the young Memnon; his mouth had a generous
curve, and his features, for beauty and true power, were such as can have
no parallel in our portrait gallery, where it is to be hoped the likeness
of him, in Mr. Murray’s possession, may one day find a place.  Borrow and
his family used to stay with me at Bury; I visited him, less often, at
his cottage on the lake at Oulton, a fine sheet of water that flows into
the sea at Lowestoft.  He was much courted there by his neighbours and by
visitors to the seaside.  I there met Baron Alderson and his daughters,
who had ridden from Lowestoft to see him.”

Borrow had many good qualities, but it must be admitted that his temper
was queer and uncertain.  At times he was passionate and overbearing, and
he never had the necessary patience to submit to what seemed to him the
inanities and boredom of admirers, hero worshippers, and others who were
desirous of being brought to his notice.  Mr. J. W. Donne, who occupied
the position of librarian of the London Library and was afterwards reader
of plays, related to Dr. Hake how on one occasion Miss Agnes Strickland
urged him to introduce her to her brother author.  Borrow, who was in the
room at the time, offered some objection, but was at length prevailed
upon to accept the introduction.  Ignorant of the peculiar twists in
Borrow’s nature, the gifted authoress commenced the conversation by an
enthusiastic eulogy of his works, and concluded by asking permission to
send him a copy of her “Queens of England.”  “For God’s sake, don’t,
madam,” exclaimed Borrow.  “I should not know what to do with them.”  He
then got up in a rage, and, addressing Mr. Donne, said, “What a d--- fool
that woman is!”

“He once,” writes Dr. Hake, “went with me to a dinner at Mr. Bevan’s
country-house, Rougham Rookery, and placed me in an extremely awkward
position.  Mr. Bevan was a Suffolk banker, a partner of Mr. Oakes.  He
was one of the kindest and most benevolent of men.  His wife was gentle,
unassuming, attentive to her guests.  A friend of Borrow, the heir to a
very considerable estate, had run himself into difficulties and owed
money, which was not forthcoming, to the Bury banking-house; and in order
to secure repayment Mr. Bevan was said to have ‘struck the docket.’  I
knew this beforehand from Borrow, who, however, accepted the invitation,
and was seated at dinner at Mrs. Bevan’s side.  This lady, a simple,
unpretending woman, desirous of pleasing him, said, ‘Oh, Mr. Borrow, I
have read your books with so much pleasure!’  On which he exclaimed,
‘Pray, what books do you mean, madam?  Do you mean my account-books?’  On
this he fretted and fumed, rose from the table, and walked up and down
amongst the servants during the whole of dinner, and afterwards wandered
about the rooms and passage, till the carriage could be ordered for our
return home.”

On another occasion Hake and Borrow were guests together at Hardwicke
House, Suffolk, a fine old Jacobean Hall, then the residence of Sir
Thomas Cullum.  There were also staying at the Hall at the time Lord
Bristol, Sir Fitzroy Kelly, William Makepeace Thackeray, and other
distinguished people.  Borrow and Thackeray did not get on well together.
The latter evidently felt it his duty to live up to his reputation by
entertaining the company with lively sallies and witticisms.  At last he
approached Borrow, and inquired, “Have you read my Snob Papers in
_Punch_?”  “In _Punch_?” asked Borrow.  “It is a periodical I never look

Mr. John Murray, in his “Reminiscences,” has also given instances of
Borrow’s strange behaviour in other people’s houses; but there is reason
to believe that he often keenly reproached himself afterwards for giving
way in public to such unseemly displays of temper and spleen.  That his
heart was in the right place and he was not lacking in powers of
restraint, are facts fully demonstrated by the following incident.  He
was invited to meet Dr. Robert Latham at the house of Dr. Hake, who had
many inward tremors at what might be the outcome of bringing them
together.  Latham was in the habit of indulging somewhat too freely at
table, and under such circumstances, as might be expected, was often
deficient in tact and courtesy.

“All, like most things that are planned, began well.  But with Latham
life was a game of show.  He had to put forth all his knowledge of
subjects in which he deemed Borrow was an adept.  He began with
horse-racing.  Borrow quietly assented.  He showed off all he knew of the
ring.  Borrow freely responded.  He had to show what he knew of
publishers, instancing the Longmans.  Borrow said, ‘I suppose you dine
with your publishers sometimes?’  It was Latham’s opportunity; he could
not resist it, and replied, ‘Never; I hope I should never do anything so
low.  You do not dine with Mr. John Murray, I presume?’  ‘Indeed, I do,’
said Borrow, emotionally.  ‘He is a most kind friend.  When I have had
sickness in my house he has been unfailing in his goodness towards me.
There is no man I value more.’  Latham’s conversation was fast falling
under the influence of wine; with this his better taste departed from
him.  ‘I have heard,’ he said, ‘that you are a brave man over a bottle of
wine.  Now, how many bottles can you get through at a sitting?’  Borrow
saw what the other was; he was resolved not to take offence at what was
only impertinent and self-asserting, so he said, ‘When I was in Madrid I
knew a priest who would sit down alone to his two bottles.’  ‘Yes,’
replied Latham, with his knowing look and his head on one side like a
bird, ‘but what I want to know is, how many bottles you can manage at one
sitting?’  ‘I once knew another priest,’ said Borrow, ‘it was at Oporto;
I have seen him get through two bottles by himself.’  By this time Latham
was a little unsteady, he slipped from his chair as if it had been an
inclined plane and lay on the carpet.  He was unable to rise, but he held
his head up with a cunning smile, saying, ‘This must be a very
disreputable house.’  Borrow saw Latham after this at times on his way to
me, and always stopped to say a kind word to him, seeing his forlorn

Given as he was to snubbing and browbeating others, Borrow was not a man
to sit silent and see another man badly treated without raising hand or
voice in his defence.  Proof of this is found in an instructive story
related by Mr. J. Ewing Ritchie in his chatty “East Anglian
Reminiscences.”  “One good anecdote I heard about George Borrow,” writes
Mr. Ritchie.  “My informant was an Independent minister, at the time
supplying the pulpit at Lowestoft and staying at Oulton Hall, then
inhabited by a worthy dissenting tenant.  One night a meeting of the
Bible Society was held at Mutford Bridge, at which the party from the
Hall attended, and where George Borrow was one of the speakers.  After
the meeting was over, all the speakers went back to supper at Oulton
Hall, and my friend among them, who, in the course of the supper, found
himself violently attacked by a clergyman for holding Calvinistic
opinions.  Naturally my friend replied that the clergyman was bound to do
the same.  ‘How do you make that out?’  ‘Why, the Articles of your Church
are Calvinistic, and to them you have sworn assent!’  ‘Oh yes, but there
is a way of explaining them away!’  ‘How so?’ said my friend.  ‘Oh,’
replied the clergyman, ‘we are not bound to take the words in their
natural sense.’  My friend, an honest, blunt East Anglian, intimated that
he did not understand that way of evading the difficulty; but he was then
a young man and did not like to continue the discussion further.
However, George Borrow, who had not said a word hitherto, entered into
the discussion, opening fire on the clergyman in a very unexpected
manner, and giving him such a setting down as the hearers, at any rate,
never forgot.  All the sophistry about the non-natural meaning of terms
was held up by Borrow to ridicule, and the clergyman was beaten at every
point.  ‘Never,’ says my friend, ‘did I hear one man give another such a
dressing as on that occasion.’”

                                * * * * *

Borrow was often asked by visitors to Oulton if it was his intention to
leave behind him the necessary material for the compilation of a
biography of his strange career.  This, however, he could never be
persuaded to do.  He maintained that “Lavengro,” “The Romany Rye,” and
“The Bible in Spain,” contained all of his life that it was necessary for
posterity to know.  It was not the man but his works that should live, he
would say, and his books contained the best part of himself.  While in
London, however, at the house which he took in Hereford Square, Brompton,
he consented to sit for his portrait, the artist being Henry Philips.
This picture afterwards passed into the possession of his step-daughter,
Mrs. Henrietta MacOubrey.

Of the painting of this portrait a very good story is told.  Borrow was a
very bad sitter, he was ever anxious to get out into the fresh air and
sunlight.  Philips was greatly hindered by this restlessness, but one day
he hit upon a plan which conquered the chafing child of Nature and served
his own purpose admirably.  He was aware of Borrow’s wonderful gift of
tongues and the fascination that philological studies had for him.  So he
remarked, “I have always heard, Mr. Borrow, that the Persian is a very
fine language; is it so?”  “It is, Philips; it is,” replied “Lavengro.”
“Perhaps you will not mind reciting me something in the Persian tongue?”
“Dear me, no; certainly not.”  And then Borrow’s face lit up with the
light that Philips longed for, and he commenced declaiming at the top of
his voice, while the painter made the most of his opportunity.  When he
found his subject was lapsing into silence, and that the old feeling of
weariness and boredom was again creeping upon him, he would start him off
again by saying, “I have always heard that the Turkish—or the Armenian—is
a very fine language,” with a like result, until at length the portrait
was completed.

The monotony of Borrow’s life at Oulton was varied by occasional visits
to London and excursions into Wales and to the Isle of Man.  In his
travels through Wales he was accompanied by his wife and step-daughter.
How the journey was brought about he explains in the first chapter of
“Wild Wales,” a work which, published in 1862, was the outcome of his
ramblings in the Principality.  “In the summer of 1854, myself, wife and
daughter, determined upon going into Wales, to pass a few months there.
We are country-people of a corner of East Anglia, and, at the time of
which I am speaking, had been residing so long on our own little estate
that we had become tired of the objects around us, and conceived that we
should be all the better for changing the scene for a short period.  We
were undetermined for some time with respect to where we should go.  I
proposed Wales from the first, but my wife and daughter, who have always
had rather a hankering after what is fashionable, said they thought it
would be more advisable to go to Harrogate or Leamington.  On my
observing that these were terrible places for expense, they replied that
though the price of corn had of late been shamefully low we had a spare
hundred pounds or two in our pockets and could afford to pay for a little
insight into fashionable life.  I told them that there was nothing I so
much hated as fashionable life, but that, as I was anything but a selfish
person, I would endeavour to stifle my abhorrence of it for a time and
attend them either to Leamington or Harrogate.  By this speech I obtained
my wish, even as I knew I should, for my wife and daughter instantly
observed that, after all, they thought we had better go into Wales,
which, though not so fashionable as either Leamington or Harrogate, was a
very picturesque country, where they had no doubt they should get on very
well, more especially as I was acquainted with the Welsh language.”

This is Borrow’s account of how he obtained his own way; it would have
been interesting had his wife and step-daughter also recorded their
version of the affair.

Borrow’s mother, who had given up her house in Willow Lane, died at
Oulton, in 1860.  The same year Borrow published a small volume, entitled
“The Sleeping Bard,” a translation from the Welsh of Elis Wyn.  During
the years 1862–3 various translations of his appeared in _Once a Week_, a
magazine that then numbered amongst its contributors such writers as
Harriet Martineau and S. Baring-Gould, and artists as Leech, Keene,
Tenniel, Millais and Du Maurier.  Amongst these translations were “The
Hailstorm, or the Death of Bui,” from the ancient Norse; “The Count of
Vendal’s Daughter,” from the ancient Danish; “Harald Harfagr,” from the
Norse; “Emelian the Fool,” and “The Story of Yashka with the Bear’s Ear,”
from the Russian; and several ballads from the Manx.  Other translations
from the Danish of Oehlenschlaeger are still in the possession of Mrs.
MacOubrey, and have never been printed.  His last book, “The Romano
Lavo-Lil,” was issued in 1872.

Between 1860 and 1870, Borrow spent a good deal of his time in London, at
his house in Hereford Square.  This was mainly on account of the
ill-health of his wife, who died there in 1869, and was buried in
Brompton Cemetery.  After her death, however, he returned to Oulton,
telling Mr. Watts that he was going down into East Anglia to die.

From that time his life was lived more apart from the world than ever.
His visitors were few; and fewer still were the visits he paid to others.
During his latter years his tall, erect, somewhat mysterious figure was
often seen in the early hours of summer mornings or late at night on the
lonely pathways that wind in and out from the banks of Oulton Broad.  He
loved to be mysterious, and the village children used to hush their
voices and draw aside at his approach.  They looked upon him with fear
and awe—for had they not seen him stop and talk with the gipsies, who ran
away with little children?  But in his heart, Borrow was fond of the
little ones, though it amused him to watch the impression his strange
personality made upon them.  Older people he seldom spoke to when out on
his solitary rambles; but sometimes he would flash out such a glance from
beneath his broad-brimmed hat and shaggy eyebrows as would make timid
country-folk hasten on their way filled with vague thoughts and fears of
the evil eye.  Mr. John Murray has referred to this love of mystery on
the part of his father’s friend, and also to his moody and variable
temperament; while Mr. G. T. Bettany has related how he enjoyed creating
a sensation by riding about on a fine Arab horse which he brought home
with him from Turkey in 1844.

Still Borrow was not unpopular with the villagers, many of whom, long
after his death, remembered little acts of kindness on his part by which
they had benefited.  To the sick and infirm he was always a good friend,
though his almost invariable remedy for all the ills that flesh is heir
to were wine and ale.  He was exceedingly fond of animals, and nothing
aroused his wrath more than to see them badly treated.  On one occasion,
while out walking not far from his home, he encountered some men who were
ill-using a fallen horse.  He remonstrated with them, and his words,
backed by his commanding figure, prevailed upon them to desist from their
cruelty.  He then sent one of them for a bowl of ale.  When it was
brought, he knelt down on the road beside the exhausted animal, and
poured it down its throat.  Having afterwards assisted the men in getting
the horse upon its feet, he left them, but not before he had given them a
severe lecture on the treatment of dumb animals in general and fallen
horses in particular.

At another time, a favourite old cat that was ill, crawled out of his
house to die in the garden hedge.  Borrow no sooner missed the poor
creature than he went in search of it, and brought it indoors in his
arms.  He then laid it down in a comfortable spot, and sat and watched it
till it was dead.

Owing to the somewhat eccentric manner in which he passed his latter
days, there were some persons who assumed after his death that in his
declining years he lacked the attention of friends, and the little
comforts and considerations that are due to old age.  Yet this was not
so; if the world heard little of him from the time of his final
retirement into rural seclusion, and lost sight of him and believed him
dead, it was his own choosing that they should remain in ignorance.  He
had had his day, a longer and fuller one than falls to the lot of most of
the sons of men, and, when the weight of years began to tell upon him, he
chose to live out the little time that was left to him amidst such scenes
as were in harmony with his nature.  He died at Oulton on July 26, 1881,
just three weeks after the completion of his seventy-eighth year.  His
step-daughter, Mrs. MacOubrey, the Henrietta of “Wild Wales,” who had a
sincere affection for him, was his constant attendant during his last
illness, and was with him at the end.  He was buried at Brompton
Cemetery, where his body lies beside that of his wife.  Not long after
his death, his Oulton home was pulled down.  All that now remains to mark
the spot where it once stood are the old summer-house in which he loved
to linger, and the ragged fir-trees that sighed the requiem of his last


During the first quarter of the present century pugilism was rampant in
the Eastern Counties of England.  A pugilistic encounter was then looked
upon as an affair of national interest, and people came in their
thousands from far and near to witness it.  The Norwich neighbourhood was
noted for its prize-fights, and Borrow had the names of all the champions
at his tongue’s end.  Cobbett, Cribb, Belcher, Tom Spring of Bedford,
Black Richmond, Irish Randall—he was acquainted with the records of them
all, as well as with those of the leading fighting-men amongst the
gipsies.  They were to him the leaders of the old spirit of English
aggressiveness, and as such he revered them.  His pen was always ready to
defend a straightforward bruiser, with whom, he contended, the Roman
gladiator and the Spanish bull-fighter were not to be compared.  He,
himself, was no mean student of the art of self-defence, and there is
some ground for believing that the scene between Lavengro and the Flaming
Tinman, in which the burly tinker succumbs to the former’s prowess after
a warm encounter in the Mumpers’ Dingle, is founded upon an event which
occurred during Borrow’s wayward progress through rural England.

On the publication of “Lavengro,” Borrow’s evident partiality for the
pugilists of his day brought down upon him a torrent of criticism and
condemnation.  Who, it was asked, but a man of coarse instincts could
have found pleasure in mingling with brutal fighting-men and describing
their desperate exploits?  The writer of a work who went out of his way
to drag in such characters and scenes as these could be little better
than a barbarian!

Borrow was not a man to sit down quietly under such attacks as these; he
waited his opportunity, and then had his fling.  At the end of “The
Romany Rye,” there appeared an Appendix, in which the author set himself
the task of smashing his critics.  This same Appendix is an amazing piece
of writing; in it Borrow slashes right and left as might a gallant
swordsman who found himself alone in the midst of a mob bent on his
destruction.  Mr. Augustine Birrell regrets that it was ever printed; but
there are few who will agree with him; it contains too many good things
that Borrovians would be loth to lose.

Borrow’s defence is carried on in his own peculiar and inimitable style,
it is an onslaught into the camp of the enemy.  Speaking of the
prize-fighters, whom a reviewer condemned as blackguards, he exclaims
defiantly, “Can the rolls of the English aristocracy exhibit names
belonging to more noble, more heroic men than those who were called
respectively Pearce, Cribb, and Spring?  Did ever one of the English
aristocracy contract the seeds of fatal consumption by rushing up the
stairs of a burning edifice, even to the topmost garret, and rescuing a
woman from seemingly inevitable destruction?  The writer says no.  A
woman was rescued from the top of a burning house; but the man who
rescued her was no aristocrat; it was Pearce, not Percy, who ran up the
burning stairs.”  And so he goes on, overwhelming his opponents with a
tornado of generalities that have nothing whatever to do with
prize-fighting, and yet how delightful it all is!

There were other critics—Borrow always had plenty of critics—who found it
difficult to make his admiration for the prize-ring fit in with his
denunciation in one passage of “those disgraceful and brutalising
exhibitions called pugilistic combats.”  The explanation has been
suggested that for once the “John Bull” Borrow, with his patriotic
exaltation of all things English, gave way before the proselytising agent
of the British and Foreign Bible Society.  It would be hard to find a
writer who does not contradict himself at times, and Borrow was so much a
man of “moods” that it would be uncharitable to set him down as a
hypocrite, as Caroline Fox does, because all his sayings and doings do
not tally with a superhuman exactitude.

But whether it was in respect to the number of glasses of ale that he
drank on his Welsh rambles—and has not “Wild Wales” been called “The Epic
of Ale?”—or his associations with the great fighting-men of his day, he
was never ashamed to admit his liking both for the ale and the men.  “Why
should I hide the truth?” he asks, when telling of his presence when a
boy of fourteen at a prize-fight which took place near Norwich.
Thurtell, whose boast it was that he had introduced bruising into East
Anglia, had arranged the fight, which was ever after memorable to Borrow
for the appearance on the scene of Gipsy Will and his celebrated gang.
This well-known Romany, who was afterwards hanged outside the gaol at
Bury St. Edmunds for a murder committed in his youth, was a sturdy,
muscular fellow, six feet in height, who rendered himself especially
noticeable by wearing a broad-brimmed, high-peaked Andalusian hat.  He
was anxious on this occasion to fight the best man in England for twenty
pounds (not a very tempting sum in the light of our more advanced days);
but no one accepted the challenge, though a young countryman was anxious
to do so until assured by his friends that the notorious gipsy would
certainly kill him.

Borrow has gone out of his way in “The Gipsies of Spain” to give a full
description of this Gipsy Will and his notable companions.  At the risk
of wearying some readers who deprecate the prize-ring and its
cosmopolitan environment, the writer quotes something of this
description, as it appears in one of the less known of Borrow’s works:

“Some time before the commencement of the combat, three men, mounted on
wild-looking horses came dashing down the road in the direction of the
meadow, in the midst of which they presently showed themselves, their
horses clearing the deep ditches with wonderful alacrity.  ‘That’s Gipsy
Will and his gang,’ lisped a Hebrew pickpocket; ‘we shall have another
fight.’  The word gipsy was always sufficient to excite my curiosity, and
I looked attentively at the new-comers.

“I have seen gipsies of various lands, Russian, Hungarian, and Turkish;
and I have also seen the legitimate children of most countries of the
world; but I never saw, upon the whole, three more remarkable
individuals, as far as personal appearance was concerned, than the three
English gipsies who now presented themselves to my eyes on that spot.
Two of them had dismounted, and were holding their horses by the reins.
The tallest, and, at the first glance, the most (!) interesting of the
two, was almost a giant, for his height could not have been less than six
feet three.  It is impossible for the imagination to conceive anything
more perfectly beautiful than were the features of this man, and the most
skilful sculptor of Greece might have taken them as his model for a hero
and a god.  The forehead was exceedingly lofty, a rare thing in a gipsy;
the nose less Roman than Grecian, fine, yet delicate; the eyes large,
overhung with long drooping lashes, giving them almost a melancholy
expression; it was only when the lashes were elevated that the gipsy
glance was seen, if that can be called a glance which is a strange stare,
like nothing else in the world.  His complexion was a beautiful olive;
and his teeth were of a brilliancy uncommon even among these people, who
have all fine teeth.  He was dressed in a coarse waggoner’s slop, which,
however, was unable to conceal altogether the proportions of his noble
and Herculean figure.  He might be about twenty-eight.  His companion and
his captain, Gipsy Will, was, I think, fifty, when he was hanged ten
years subsequently.  I have still present before me his bushy black hair,
his black face, and his big black eyes, fixed and staring.  His dress
consisted of a loose blue jockey coat, jockey boots and breeches; in his
hand was a huge jockey whip, and on his head (it struck me at the time
for its singularity) a broad-brimmed, high-peaked, Andalusian hat, or at
least one very much resembling those generally worn in that province.  In
stature he was shorter than his more youthful companion, yet he must have
measured six feet at least, and was stronger built, if possible.  What
brawn! what bone! what legs! what thighs!  The third gipsy, who remained
on horseback, looked more like a phantom than anything human.  His
complexion was the colour of pale dust, and of that same colour was all
that pertained to him, hat and clothes.  His boots were dusty, of course,
and his very horse was of a dusty dun.  His features were whimsically
ugly, most of his teeth were gone, and as to his age, he might be thirty
or sixty.  He was somewhat lame and halt; but an unequalled rider when
once upon his steed, which he was naturally not very solicitous to quit.
I subsequently discovered that he was considered the wizard of the gang.”

Any one who is familiar with the living descendants of the Romanies of
Borrow’s early lifetime will know that amongst the few characteristics of
their fathers that have been preserved down to the present day is that
skill at boxing or fisticuffs which was an absolute necessity in a time
when their hand was against every man and every man’s hand against them.
Nearly all the male Romanies are possessed of a lithe, sinewy, active
frame, combined with a quickness of hand and eye that gives them a
considerable advantage over less alert antagonists of heavier build.
They are not, as a rule, in a hurry to come to blows, for they know that
in the event of injury or police-court proceedings resulting from an
encounter, prejudice is strongly against the gipsy.  Still, the Romany
blood pulses quickly, and when it flies to the swarthy cheek and sets the
eyes flashing, the time has come for someone to beware.  The writer has
seen something of the gipsy’s skill and adroitness under such conditions,
and the impression made was a lasting one.  He has known, too, of a
small, slim-built Romany thrashing a strong, six-feet-high constable, for
unwarrantable interference with the former’s mother in a public bar.  The
Romany race is fast dying out from our midst; but it is dying what the
sportsman would call “game.”

Although Borrow’s obvious admiration for the brawny men of the prize-ring
brought him almost universal condemnation, his opinions were unchanged by
his critics’ wrath and denunciations.  There were many points in his
father’s character for which he held him in esteem and affection; but he
admired him most because he had once vanquished Big Ben Brain in a fight
in Hyde Park.

“He was always at his best,” writes Mr. Theodore Watts, “in describing a
pugilistic encounter; for in the saving grace of pugilism as an English
accomplishment, he believed as devoutly as he believed in East Anglia and
the Bible.”


East Anglia has for centuries been a favourite roaming ground for certain
of the families of the true Romany tribe.  The reason for this, assigned
by the gipsies themselves, is not a flattering one to East Englanders.
They will tell you, if you are in their confidence, that they come to
East Anglia on account of the simplicity and gullibility of its
inhabitants.  Nowhere else can the swarthy _chals_ find _gorgios_ so
ready to purchase a doctored nag, or the dark-eyed _chis_ so easily cozen
credulous villagers and simple servant-girls by the mysteries of
_dukkeripen_.  Every fair-ground and race-course is dotted with their
travelling vans; the end of every harvest sees them congregate on the
village greens; the “making up” of the North Sea fishing-boats attracts
them to the Eastern coast.

It may well be that Borrow first made the acquaintance of the Romanies
when a child at East Dereham, for there is a heath just outside the
little town which has long been their central halting-place for the
district.  If this was the case, he has left no record of such a meeting:
in all probability, had his wondering eyes rested upon their unfamiliar
faces and smouldering camp-fires he would have shared the childish fears
instilled by kitchen and nursery legends and have fled the scene.  It was
outside Norman Cross that he first came into close contact with the alien
wanderers.  Straying into a green lane he fell in with a low tent from
which smoke was issuing, and in front of which a man was carding plaited
straw, while a woman was engaged in the manufacture of spurious coin.
Their queer appearance, so unlike that of any men or women he had
hitherto encountered, excited his lively curiosity; but, ere he had time
to examine them closely, they were down upon him with threats and curses.
Violence was about to be done to him when a viper, which he had concealed
in his jacket, lifted its head from his bosom, and the gipsies’ wrath at
being discovered changed to awe of one who fearlessly handled such a
deadly creature.  From that day Borrow’s interest in the Romany tribe
continued to widen and deepen, until, at length, when fame and fortune
were his, it led him to take extended journeys into Hungary, Wallachia,
and other European countries for the purpose of searching out the
descendants of the original wanderers from the East and learning from
them their language, customs and history.

Borrow himself says that he could remember no time when the mere mention
of the name of gipsy did not awaken within him feelings hard to be
described.  He could not account for it, but some of the Romanies, he
remarks, “to whom I have stated this circumstance have accounted for it
on the supposition that the soul which at present animates my body has at
some former period tenanted that of one of their people, for many among
them are believers in metempsychosis and, like the followers of Bouddha,
imagine that their souls by passing through an infinite number of bodies,
attain at length sufficient purity to be admitted to a state of perfect
rest and quietude, which is the only idea of heaven they can form.”

The Norwich Castle Hill provided Borrow with many opportunities of
observing the habits of the East Anglian Romanies, who, in his day,
attended in considerable numbers the horse sales and fairs that were held
in the old city.  Thither would come the Smiths or Petulengros, Bosviles,
Grays and Pinfolds; and often, when they left the Hill, he would
accompany them to their camps on Mousehold Heath and to neighbouring
fairs and markets.  Their daring horsemanship fascinated him, while the
strange tongue they employed amongst themselves when bargaining with the
farmers and dealers, aroused in him a curiosity that could only be
satisfied by a closer acquaintance with its form and meaning.  Many of
the _chals_ and _chis_ to be met with in “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye”
were transferred to the pages of those works from the East Anglian heaths
and fairsteads.  It was on a heath not far from his Suffolk home that he
introduced the Jew of Fez to Jasper Petulengro in order that he might
refute the theory entertained by one of his critics that the Romanies
were nothing less than the descendants of the two lost tribes of Israel.

The village of Oulton, too, gave him many chances of intercourse with the
gipsies.  Within five minutes’ walk of his home there is a spot where
they frequently assembled, and where a few of them may sometimes be seen
even at the present day.  The writer has reason to know that the gipsies
looked upon Borrow with no small amount of curiosity, for they were
unaccustomed to meet with _gorgios_ of his position who took so keen an
interest in their sayings and doings.  As a rule, they are exceedingly
suspicious of the approaches of any one outside the Romany pale; and it
must not be assumed that he was popular with them because he usually
succeeded in extracting from them the information he required.  There was
something about Borrow that made it hard to evade his questioning; he had
such a masterful way with him, and his keen eyes fixed upon a man as
though they would pierce him through and read his most secret thoughts.
He himself attributes his success with the gipsies to his knowledge of
the Romany tongue and customs, while they firmly believed that he had
gipsy blood in his veins.  “He has known them,” he says, writing of
himself as the author of “The Zincali,” “for upwards of twenty years in
various countries, and they never injured a hair of his head or deprived
him of a shred of his raiment; but he is not deceived as to the motive of
their forbearance: they thought him a _Rom_, and on this supposition they
hurt him not, their love of ‘the blood’ being their most distinguishing
characteristic.”  This error on their part served his purpose well, as it
enabled him to obtain from them a great deal of curious knowledge that
would never have come into his possession had it been known he was one of
the despised _gorgios_.  He was known amongst them as the Romany Rye; but
that is a name by which, even at the present day, they distinguished any
stranger who can “rokkra Romany” to the extent of a dozen words.

Although Borrow spent so much time amongst the East Anglian gipsies, it
is often difficult to ascertain the exact localities in which he met with
them.  He seldom condescends to give the date of any incident, and as
infrequently does he choose to enlighten us as to his precise whereabouts
when it occurred.  Then, too, one might conclude that his investigations
were almost wholly confined to two families, those of the Smiths or
Petulengros, and Hernes.  As Mr. Watts has aptly remarked, one would
imagine from all that is said about these families in “Lavengro” and “The
Romany Rye” that he knew nothing about the other Romanies of the Eastern
Counties.  Yet he must have been familiar also with the Bosviles, Grays,
and Pinfolds, some descendants of whom still haunt the heaths and greens
of Eastern England.  According to Borrow, the Petulengros were
continually turning up wherever he might wander.  Jasper Petulengro’s
nature seems something akin to that of the Wandering Jew; and yet, if we
may believe “Lavengro” and our own knowledge, the Smiths look upon East
Anglia as their native heath.  First, he appears in the green lane near
Norman Cross; then at Norwich Fair and on Mousehold Heath; again at
Greenwich Fair, where he tries to persuade Lavengro to take to the gipsy
life; and once more in the neighbourhood of the noted dingle of the
Isopel Berners episode.  This, of course, is due to the exigencies of
what Mr. Watts calls a “spiritual biography,” and it is evident that
whenever anything particularly striking pertaining to the Romanies occurs
to Borrow the Romanies themselves promptly appear to illustrate it.

Yet we know that Jasper Petulengro was a genuine character, even if he
comes to us under a fictitious name.  He was a representative of one of
the oldest of the East Anglian gipsy families, and a personal friend of
Borrow, who found in him much that was in common with his own nature.
Borrow has left a dependable record of a meeting which took place between
them at his Oulton home, during the Christmas of 1842.  “He stayed with
me during the greater part of the morning, discoursing on the affairs of
Egypt, the aspect of which, he assured me, was becoming daily worse and
worse.  There is no living for the poor people, brother, said he, the
chokengres (police) pursue us from place to place, and the gorgios are
become either so poor or miserly, that they grudge our cattle a bite of
grass by the wayside, and ourselves a yard of ground to light a fire
upon.  Unless times alter, brother, and of that I see no probability,
unless you are made either poknees or mecralliskoe geiro (Justice of the
Peace or Prime Minister), I am afraid the poor persons will have to give
up wandering altogether, and then what will become of them?”

Yet there was much of Borrow’s nature that was in common with that of
Jasper Petulengro.  Often the swarthy, horse-dealing gipsy was the
mouthpiece through which he breathed forth his own abhorrence of
conventional restraints and the thronging crowds of busy streets.  He
loved the open air country life that he lived near the Suffolk coast,
where the fresh salt winds sweep up from the sea across gorse-clad denes
and pleasant pasture-lands.  He was happiest when amongst the “summer
saturated heathen” of the heath and glen.  Who can doubt that the
much-quoted conversation in the twenty-fifth chapter of “Lavengro,” gives
expression to much of Borrow’s own philosophy?

“Life is sweet, brother.”

“Do you think so?”

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

“I would wish to die?”

“You talk like a gorgio—which is the same as talking like a fool—were you
a Romany chal you would talk wiser.  Wish to die, indeed!  A Romany chal
would wish to live for ever!”

“In sickness, Jasper?”

“There’s the sun and stars, brother.”

“In blindness, Jasper?”

“There’s the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I
would gladly live for ever.”

Like Bamfylde Moore Carew, though for a different reason, it was to the
gipsy life that Borrow turned after his unsuccessful literary work in
London.  Disappointed and despondent, he fled the scenes that had
witnessed his failures.  It is easy to imagine how great must have been
his sense of freedom when he cast off the shackles of city life, and
breathed again the air of the hills and pine-woods of rural England.
With the poet whose bones rest in the midst of the little town of his
birth, he felt and all his life maintained, that

    “’Tis liberty alone that gives the flower
    Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume,
    And we are weeds without it.  All constraint,
    Except what wisdom lays on evil men,
    Is evil; hurts the faculties, impedes
    Their progress in the road of science; blinds
    The eyesight of discovery, and begets
    In those that suffer it, a sordid mind
    Bestial, a meagre intellect, unfit
    To be the tenant of man’s noble form.”

The gipsies of the first quarter of the present century possessed the
distinctive characteristics of their type in a far more marked degree
than their descendants of to-day.  There were few amongst them who had
not a fair knowledge of the old Romany tongue, though they were utterly
ignorant of its source.  Questioned as to where their ancestors came
from, they would tell you Egypt; and “business of Egypt” was their name
for the mysteries of fortune-telling, and the other questionable
proceedings they engaged in.  Several of their families were fairly
well-to-do in the eyes of their tribe, though the fact was carefully
concealed from inquisitive gorgios.  Often a gipsy _gry-engro_, or
horse-dealer, would have a score or more horses on his hands at a time,
while, not infrequently, his sales on a fair-day would amount to £50 or
£60.  The women of his camp would be gaudily and expensively dressed, and
bedecked in heavy gold jewelry: he, himself, would often spend five or
six pounds on a suit of clothes, and half a guinea on a silk handkerchief
for his neck.  Few of the women ever thought of marrying out of the
Romany tribe, and their virtue and constancy were an example to all
classes of society.

This last-mentioned fact is the more striking in view of the intense
admiration often felt for the handsome _chis_ by men who were not of the
gipsy race.  Commenting upon it not long ago, {77} an _Athenæum_ reviewer
said: “Between some Englishmen and gipsy women there is an extraordinary
attraction—an attraction, we may say in passing, which did not exist
between Borrow and the gipsy women with whom he was brought into contact.
Supposing Borrow to have been physically drawn to any woman, she would
have been of the Scandinavian type; she would have been what he used to
call a Brynhild.  It was tall blondes he really admired.  Hence,
notwithstanding his love of the economies of gipsy life, his gipsy women
are all mere scenic characters, they clothe and beautify the scene: they
are not dramatic characters.  When he comes to delineate a heroine,
Isopel Bernes, she is physically the very opposite of the Romany _chi_—a
Scandinavian Brynhild, in short.”

Mr. Watts has remarked on Borrow’s neglect to portray the higher traits
in the gipsy woman’s character.  Mrs. Herne and her grandchild Leonora,
who are instanced as the two great successes of his Romany group, are
both steeped in wickedness, and by omitting to draw a picture of the
women’s loftier side, he is said to have failed to demonstrate their
great claim for distinction.  There is a good deal of truth in this
accusation; and yet it cannot be admitted wholly justifiable.  In “The
Romany Rye” we have a whole chapter devoted to the emphasising of the
chastity of the Romany girls, and their self-sacrificing devotion to
their husbands.  Ursula marries a lazy, good-for-nothing _chal_, and then
expressess her willingness to steal and swindle in order to keep him in
comfort.  The method is not commendable, but the object that prompts it
is highly praiseworthy—from a Romany point of view.

But to-day the old race of genuine Romanies is fast dying out, and soon
we shall have wholly lost the traces of a people who for many centuries
have constituted a familiar feature of English country life.  One of the
last surviving _chals_ of an old East Anglian gipsy family, in reply to a
remark of the writer said, not long ago, “Yes, it is quite true that the
old race of gipsies is dying out; there are very few of the real old
Romanies to be met with at the present day.  ‘Mumpers’ there are in
plenty; folks who sell baskets and peddle clothes-pegs; but they are not
of the true gipsy breed.  At one time a gipsy never married out of his or
her own tribe; but that day has gone, and there has been reared a mixed
race with little of the true blood in them.  Marrying into the ‘mumping’
and house-dwelling families has brought this about, and soon there will
be no true Romanies left.  Here and there you may meet a few, such as the
Grays, Lees, and Coopers, and one or two of the Pinfolds; but they, too,
are going the way of the rest.  Yes, as you say, it is a pity, for after
all the Romanies are a strange people, and, bad as they may have been,
they were not without their good points.  They knew a good horse when
they saw one, and they let people see how a man, if he chooses, can shift
for himself, without being beholden to any one.  Anyhow, they have given
clever men something to puzzle their brains about, and their language is
not, as some would have it, a mere thieves ‘patter,’ but is a good, if
not a better one, than that which the clever men speak themselves.”

“Yes,” went on my Romany friend, “this old language seems to interest a
good many of the clever men.  I have known some of them come to our tents
and vans and write down the words and their meaning as we told them.  I
did not mind their doing it; but some of my people did not like it, and
told them lies, and put them off with all sorts of queer stories.  They
were afraid the men should put the words into their books, and then it
might be awkward for the gipsies when they wished to have a little talk
amongst themselves on matters that were nobody’s business but their own.
Very few of the gipsies can read, so they did not learn the language in
that way; most of us who know anything of it picked it up from our
fathers and mothers when we were young.  My father used to teach me
certain sayings about horses that were very useful when we were dealing
at the fairs.  Now, however, some people who are not gipsies know more
about these things than we do ourselves.”

                  _Printed by_ BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO.
                          _London and Edinburgh_


{41}  “The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gipsies of Spain,” issued in
two volumes in 1841.

{45}  This is the name that was given to a small inlet during Borrows
residence at Oulton.  To-day it is sometimes called Burrough’s Ham.

{77}  _Athenæum_, March 28, 1896.

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