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Title: George Borrow - Times Literary Supplement, 10th July 1903
Author: Seccombe, Thomas
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 July 10th, 1903, Times Literary Supplement by David
Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org

                          GEORGE BORROW. {213a}

It is a singular coincidence, perhaps, that during one and the same
summer we should be celebrating centenaries of Samuel Pepys and George
Borrow.  Pepys died in the early summer of 1703; Borrow was born in July,
1803.  Unlike each other in almost every respect, they are _dui palor_,
{213b} as Borrow would say, in one very material point.  The reputation
of each of them has risen to such a point that, except for injudicious
and exaggerated praise, it can have little to fear in the future; and in
each case this reputation is based primarily upon autobiography.  Among
the world’s autobiographers the author of “Lavengro” is entitled, we feel
sure, to rank with St. Augustine, Cellini, Pepys, Rousseau, Franklin;
and, for truthfulness, it is very probable, if we could only estimate it
properly, that he would have to be put at the top of the class.  His
nearest competitor in this respect would undoubtedly be Pepys, and the
veracity in both cases not the result of a double share of innate
truthfulness, but very largely an accident, due to lack of invention and
an absence of that powerful literary style which in the case of a Leigh
Hunt or a Stevenson distorts everything that passes through it.  In Pepys
the malignity of the literary fairy is more than compensated by the
worthy secretary’s insatiable appetite for life; in Borrow by the
_wanderlust_ or extraordinary passion and faculty for adventure, which
makes his best books such an ambrosial hash of sorcery, Jews, Gentiles,
gipsies, prisons, half-in-halves, _cosas de España_—what you will.

George Henry Borrow, to give him for once his full baptismal name, was
born at East Dereham, “a beautiful little town in the western division of
Norfolk,” on July 5, 1803.  His father, who came of an old Cornish
family, was in his forty-fifth year when Borrow was born, having married
ten years previously Anne Perfrement, of a family which had migrated from
Dauphiné in the days of Dutch William.  The father was captain in a
marching regiment, the West Norfolk Militia.  Like Sterne’s therefore,
Borrow’s early life was nomadic, and his school-life was broken between
Edinburgh, Clonmel, and Norwich.  But his real mentors were found in this
last city, where he came in contact with a French _emigré_ named
d’Éterville.  Here, too, he fell under the influence of “godless Billy”
Taylor, and dreamt of writing plays and poems and abusing religion.
Here, too, while he ought to have been studying law, he was claiming
acquaintance with gipsies, bruisers, and shady characters, such as the
notorious Thurtell.  A more dangerous influence to Borrow than any,
perhaps, was that of Sir John Bowring, a plausible polyglot, who
deliberately used his facility in acquiring and translating tongues as a
ladder to an administrative post abroad.  Borrow, as was perhaps natural,
put a wrong construction upon his sympathy, and his apparently
disinterested ambition to leave no poetic fragment in Russian, Swedish,
Polish, Servian, Bohemian, or Hungarian unrendered into English.  He
determined to emulate a purpose so lofty in its detachment, and the
mistake cost him dear, for it led him for long years into a veritable
_cul de sac_ of literature; it led also to the accentuation of that
pseudo-philological mania which played such havoc with the ordinary
development of rational ideas in a man in many respects so sane as

An entirely erroneous belief in the marketable value of Danish ballads,
Welsh triads, Russian folk-songs, and the like in rococo English
translations after the Bowring pattern led Borrow to exchange an
attorney’s office for a garret in Grub-street.  His immediate ambition
was something between Goldsmith’s and Chatterton’s ballads, Homeric odes,
epics, plays; he was, at all hazards, to write something grand—“to be
stared at, lifted on peoples’ shoulders.”  He found his Griffiths in Sir
Richard Phillips, the radical alderman and philanthropic sweater, under
whose tender mercies he rapidly developed a suicidal tendency, until in
May, 1825, a windfall of £20 enabled him to break his chain and escape to
the highway and the dingle and the picturesque group of moochers and
gipsies enshrined for ever in the pages of “Lavengro.”  The central
portion of this marvellous composition is occupied by the Dingle episode,
in which Lavengro (the “word-master,” Borrow’s gipsy name for himself) is
revealed to us in conflict with “the flaming Tinman” and in colloquy with
his Romany friend, Jasper Petulengro, with a subtle papistical
propagandist, “the man in black,” with the typical gipsy chi, Ursula, and
with the peerless Isopel Berners.  His account of his relations with her
we take to be strictly and almost literally accurate.  He was powerfully
attracted by the magnanimity of spirit no less than by the physical charm
of this Brynhildic damsel, tall, straight, and blonde, with loose-flowing
flaxen hair, and with a carriage, especially of the neck and shoulders,
which reminded the postilion of a certain marchioness of his
acquaintance.  But Borrow was of a cold temperament, a despiser and
mistruster of young women, whom he regarded primarily as invaluable
repositories of nursery lore, folk-song, tradition, and similar toys,
about which his male friends were apt to be reticent.  The attraction was
so strong that he had serious thoughts of emigrating with “the beauteous
Queen of the Dingle,” but he dallied with the idea with characteristic
waywardness until it was too late.  He sought to postpone awkward
decisions, to divert himself and amuse Isopel by making his charmer learn
Armenian—the language which he happened at the time to be studying.
Isopel bore with it for some time, but the imposition of the verb “to
love” in Armenian convinced her that the word-master was not only insane,
but also inhuman.  Love-making and Armenian do not go well together, and
Belle could not feel that the man who proposed to conjugate the verb “to
love” in Armenian was master of his intentions in plain English.  It was
even so.  The man of tongues lacked speech wherewith to make manifest his
passion; the vocabulary of the word-master was insufficient to convince
the workhouse girl of one of the plainest meanings a man can well have.
When the distracted Borrow had reached the decision that it was high time
to give over his “mocking and scoffing,” and returned with this resolve
to the dingle, Isopel Berners had quitted it, never to return.  She ran
away to the nearest sea-port, and took shipping to America.  Lavengro
with some anguish steeled his heart against following her.  The scene of
these transactions was a wooded glen or dingle a few miles from
Willenhall, in Staffordshire, where Lavengro and Isopel were encamped in
their respective tents, having as their neighbours the gipsy clan of
which Jasper was the chief.  Upon the whole the Dingle chapters are
perhaps the most brilliant and the most enduring that Borrow ever
achieved.  Their interest is greatly enhanced by the fact that they are
probably a naked transcript from actual fact, for Borrow was a poor hand
at invention.  He rarely, if ever, invented a character.  His surest
source of inspiration was the unadorned truth.

After the experience of a summer in the open, Borrow, who was now
twenty-two, relapsed into the indifferent versification of Danish ballads
and Welsh bards, was severely fleeced in obscure journeyings in Southern
Europe, and so gained some experience for future use, vainly sought a
post, on the strength of his linguistic attainments, as an assistant in
the British Museum Library, and was reduced to writing reactionary
political leaders for a Norwich paper; he was, in fact, waiting, like Mr.
Micawber, for something to turn up, or, in his own graphic phrase,
“digging holes in the sand and filling them up again.”

His deliverance was effected in rather a singular manner.  About 1833 he
became acquainted with the Skeppers of Oulton Hall, in that pleasant
stretch of country which borders on the river Waveney.  By Mrs. Clarke
(afterwards Mrs. Borrow), the widowed sister of the owner of the Hall, he
was introduced to the Rev. Francis Cunningham, rector of Pakefield, a
fine type of the Evangelical clergyman of a past generation, who had
married the sister of Joseph John Gurney.  It seemed to this good man
that Borrow’s gift of tongues might well be employed in the service of
the Bible Society, of which the famous Norfolk Quaker was an influential
member.  The hour of the former would-be martyr to infidelity had now
come; he was taken into the regular service of the society upon an
average salary of about £250, in addition to expenses, and was employed
as editor, translator, and colporteur of Bibles in strange lands.  The
labours of the next eight years of his life were as fruitful and
honourable as those of the preceding eight had been desultory and
obscure.  His first commission was to go to St. Petersburg and there edit
and superintend the setting up and printing of Lipóftsof’s version of the
New Testament into Manchu.  Borrow acquired the language and performed
his task with an almost incredible expedition.  He also learned Russian,
and in the summer of 1835 proposed to the society that he should himself
distribute the work which he had seen through the press upon the confines
of the Far East.  This scheme was scotched by the refusal of the Russian
Government to grant him the necessary authorization and passports.  But
Borrow’s energies were transferred to a project which scarcely, if at
all, less deserves the epithet Quixotic.  It was to disseminate a
Castilian translation of the Vulgate (made by Father Scio at Valencia
between 1790 and 1793) in Spain and Portugal.  To disperse Bibles in
Papua or in Park-lane were, it might be argued, an enterprise fully as
hopeful as to scatter them in Galicia or La Mancha; but this is neither
here nor there, and the stimulus that was lacking in other directions was
abundantly supplied to the society and their emissary by the fact that,
according to the _regla quinta_ of the old Index, all Spanish versions of
the Bible or of any part of it were absolutely forbidden, and that as a
necessary consequence the Bible was a book as unfamiliar in Spain as it
was held to be dangerous and revolutionary.  Spain was to Borrow what the
Harley Ministry was to Swift.  It seemed to develop in him an almost
superhuman activity and power; and, fond of cant as Borrow’s employers
too often were, it is infinitely to their credit that they not only
tolerated but even applauded the unconventional epistles which he wrote
to them of his exploits during his three long journeys in Spain, which
with two brief intervals occupied him from November, 1835, down to April,
1840.  These letters with the addition of a few chapters and a number of
insignificant changes made up “The Bible in Spain,” which was published
by John Murray on December 10, 1812, when “El Gitano,” as the
enthusiastic Ford dubbed the author, literally woke up to find himself
famous.  His experience for a season was that of “the man Sterne”; he
dined with peers, Ambassadors, and Bishops, and, like Major Pendennis,
was particularly complacent with Bishops.  We might here for a moment
compare his position to that of Johnson in 1763.  He had gone down into
the arena and fought his wild beasts, and had come up triumphant, as
Johnson had done after the Dictionary.  He still had difficulties to meet
and debts to face, for he had gradually become estranged from “the
sub-committee,” and the Bible Society suddenly found that “no sphere
remained open in which his services could be utilized.”  Fortunately, he
had provided for his future, not by obtaining a pension, but by marrying,
in April, 1840, an old ally of his, Mary Clarke, a widow with a good
jointure (over £400 a year), a skilful hand at dumplings and treacle
posset, and “an excellent woman of business.”  He was now fifteen years
older than when he had “lost” Isopel.  The motives which prompted this
scorner of matrimony to marry a woman seven or eight years his senior
were similar, it may be surmised, to those which actuated Disraeli on his
marriage.  The compact was based upon convenience and mutual esteem, and
there is no reason to doubt that it conduced not only to Borrow’s comfort
and security, but also to his happiness.  There were no children.  The
“daughter” whose accomplishments Borrow celebrated in the exordium to
“Wild Wales” was his stepdaughter, Henrietta Clarke.  He seemed now in an
enviable position, with a small but agreeable freehold on the banks of
Oulton Broad, able to indulge in “idleness and the pride of literature”
to his heart’s content.  If he had had a “club” or a Boswell about him,
he might still have been tolerably happy.  But he was not a clubbable
man, Borrow!  Nevertheless it was during the years that followed that,
like Johnson, he achieved his best title to fame, the wondrous five
volumes of autobiography so capriciously planned and so strangely
entitled “Lavengro—Romany Rye.”  The stimulus in his case was largely, we
believe, if not mainly, pecuniary.  “Money is our best friend” he wrote
to his wife in 1844.  He wanted a purse of his own to travel and give
dinners with, for the edge of episcopal hospitality was already wearing
off.  He desired too, no doubt, to put a coping stone to his fame.
Already in January, 1843, he wrote to his publisher that he had begun
upon a Robinson Borrow, and Murray, Ford, and other friends threw up
their caps.  The publisher may have well seen a veritable gold mine in
prospect.  One has only to imagine the fervent curiosity which the
personal element in “The Bible in Spain,” so suggestive of mystery and
romance, must have exalted in the reading public of 1843, to perceive
that any such anticipation was fully warranted by the facts of the case.
Here was a book which bore upon its title-page its passport to Sunday
reading as a good, serious, missionary work, but for which it was
manifest, as the surprised and delighted reader proceeded, that not
Bishop Heber or the good Schwartz, but Mendoza and Lesage had been taken
as models.  May not people well have wondered (the good, pious English
folk, to whom “luck” was a scandal, as the Bible Society’s secretary
wrote to Borrow) what manner of man this muleteer-missionary might be?
The incongruity was only heightened by familiarity with Borrow’s
Pharaoh-like visage, abundant grey hair, and tall blonde Scandinavian
figure, which reminded those who came under his spell of those roving
Northmen of the days of simple medieval devotion, who were wont to
signalize their conversion from heathen darkness by a Mediterranean
venture, combining the characters of a piratical cruise and a pious
pilgrimage.  But if publisher and client were justified in believing that
they had discovered an autobiographical El Dorado, they were, none the
less, to be sadly undeceived.

To whatever cause the disappointment may be attributed, it was certainly
not due to any lack of pains on the part of Don Jorge.  The labour which
he bestowed upon his Life was immense, quite disproportionate to his
previous efforts.  “The Gypsies in Spain,” for instance, was built up
upon already existing jottings, extracts, and notes, very loosely thrown
together; while “The Bible in Spain” itself was, in regard to its
composition, nothing more than an _olla podrida_ of journalized letters.
But he wrote “Lavengro,” as it were, with his life’s blood.  It cost him
the same agony that parts of “David Copperfield” cost Dickens, while he
had none of Dickens’s trained fluency or descriptive power.  His lack of
ease in writing often gives a wrong impression of insincerity or
artificiality.  Most of his apostrophes, even the most strained, are
expressions of genuine feeling, which he was simply incapable of
assimilating to the prevailing tone of the book, that of a _novéla
picaresca_.  His determination to be original and to tell the truth, to
avoid all padding and second-hand ideas, kept him on the rack; yet he
persevered, working hard at the Life with intervals of discouragement for
no less than six years.  “Lavengro” eventually appeared, in three
volumes, in February, 1851, and was received not merely with coldness and
unconcern, but with hostile carping and even derision.  The critics and
Borrow pronounced themselves mutually disillusioned.  It was natural that
a man like Borrow should magnify and should misinterpret this unexpected

The attitude of his critics was due to a very complex system of causes.
The English have always been the most self-complacent of peoples, and
1851 was perhaps the one year in the whole of our history when this
little weakness reached its climax.  The Oxford Movement, with Newman and
Ward as its prophets, had been succeeded by the Manchester Movement, upon
which Cobden and Macaulay had long been busily engaged in shedding the
most brilliant rays of the prevailing Whig optimism; factories, railways,
penny postage, free trade, commercial expansion, universal peace and
plenty, industrial exhibitions, religious toleration, general
education—these were the watchwords of the day, and all these things
alike were repulsive in the highest degree to George Borrow.  He was as
conservative as a gipsy or a tramp, while his hatred of novelty was
worthy of the race among whom _Vaya usted con Dios_, _y que no haya
Novedad_! is a common form of valediction.  His hatred of æsthetic
culture, of sentimental toleration, and of the modern woman amounted to a
positive mania.  Of the great writers of his own century he never spoke
unless it were to condemn, as in the case of Scott, Wordsworth,
Thackeray, and Keats, of whom he once asked, “Have they not been trying
to resuscitate him?”  In his conversations with Agnes Strickland and Miss
Cobbe, as recorded by the latter, he appears to have behaved like an
escaped lunatic, while, upon the occasion of his meeting with Anna
Gurney, we know that he literally took to flight and ran without stopping
from Sheringham to the Old Tucker’s Inn at Cromer.  An interview with
Mrs. Browning or George Eliot would have probably driven him stark
staring mad.  Another stumbling block to the critics of 1851 was the
peculiar dryness, if we may so describe it, of Borrow’s style.  He could
respond to the thrill of natural beauty.  He could enjoy and find
utterance for his mood when it came upon him, just as he could enjoy a
tankard of old ale or linger to gaze upon a sympathetic face; but he
refused to pamper such feelings, still more to simulate them; he refused
to allow himself to become the creature of literary or poetic ecstasy; he
refused to indulge in the fashionable debauch of _dilettante_ melancholy.
His life was in many ways the reverse of normal, but he insisted in
writing about it quite naturally, “as if there were nothing in it.”  It
is perfectly true, then; Borrow is dry.  What needs to be appreciated is
that his dryness is not that of dry rot, but the dryness of high
elevation, of a somewhat solitary and craggy humour—the dryness of
“Robinson Crusoe,” of “Gil Blas,” of “Hadji Baba,” and, we might add, of
“Don Quixote.”  There is an absence of verdure.  You will not find much
sentiment in Borrow.  As to word-painting, picturesque glamour and
deference to the prejudices of earnest people, a quality so dearly prized
by Englishmen of every rank and period, Borrow would have none of them.
You will find none of them in his works; but you will find “part of the
secret, brother,” especially in the Dingle.  For there Borrow is at his
best, in the open air, among the gipsies—with Jasper, Pakomovna, Tawno,
Ursula, the Man in Black, and Belle Berners, interlocutors in dialogues
of the greenwood unrivalled since the heyday of the forest of Arden.
Once more “Lavengro” badly belied the expectations of those who were
looking out for another “Eothen”; and finally, apart the author’s
objectionable and reactionary prejudices, there were other and obvious
faults about the book (mainly of literary detail, style, and arrangement)
which were abundantly manifest to the strenuous critics of 1851.  What
these gentry did not perceive was the unique character of the book—its
truth, its reality, its open-air quality, its distinctive humour, its
dramatic power, the genius which revealed to Borrow instinctively the
literary form and the picaresque manner which formed the right, nay the
inevitable, setting of the particular story that he had to tell.

Borrow’s previous success only served to emphasize the bitterness of his
defeat, for so he regarded the failure of his originality to carry his
darling “Lavengro” through the breakers.  He complained that he had “had
the honour” of being rancorously abused by every unmanly scoundrel, every
sycophantic lackey, and every political and religious renegade in the
kingdom.  His fury was that of an angry bull tormented by gnats.  His
worst passions were aroused, his most violent prejudices confirmed.  But
the abuse did not divert him by a hairbreadth from his preconceived plan.
He proceeded with deliberation to carry on in “The Romany Rye” the story
so abruptly suspended at the close of the hundredth chapter of
“Lavengro.”  The first chapters of “The Romany Rye” (which was not
actually published until May, 1857) are quite equal to anything that
Borrow ever wrote.  The book falls off a little towards the close, which
is, if possible, even more abrupt and inconclusive than that of
“Lavengro” itself.  In the appendix, the bigotries, hatreds, and
centrifugal propensities which made up the George Borrow of 1850–57 were
emphasized and underlined for the benefit of the flunkeys, vipers, and
“yahoos” who had dared to asperse his autobiography.  He never carried
his story on from 1825 to 1832 or wrote the once projected “Bible in
Russia”; perhaps he never meant to do so; but, even if he had, we more
than doubt whether they would have approached in value the first 116
chapters of his immortal autobiography.  His remaining work was the
detailed journal of a vacation tour in “Wild Wales,” which was in no way
inferior to its predecessors in literary value, though it is considerably
below them in general interest.  Wild people and old word-music, in its
“native wood-notes wild,” were a passion with Borrow to the last, and
helped to save him from himself.  He suffered terribly from horror of
death, religious gloom (“the horrors”), solitariness, and disappointment.
He experienced a series of rebuffs, failing in succession to obtain a
Consulship, a seat on the quorum, employment in China, and a
manuscript-hunting mission from the British Museum.  His unrivalled
qualifications as a linguist failed to obtain for him posts for which he
was eminently fitted, but to which he saw inferior men preferred.  If a
roving commission or an administrative post could have been found for him
abroad, by preference in the East as he himself desired, hard work might
have gone far to exorcise his melancholy, and we might have had from his
pen contributions to the study of Eastern life that would have added
lustre to a group of writers already represented in England by Curzon and
Kinglake, Lane and Morier, Palgrave and Burton.  With Burton’s love of
roving adventure, of strange tongues, and of anthropology in its widest
sense, the author of “The Bible in Spain” had many points in common.  As
it was, with brief intervals of solitary excursion in the “Celtic fringe”
or the Near East, Borrow remained glooming at home, working himself up
into a state of nervous excitement bordering upon dementia about a
neighbour’s dog or a railway bisecting his wife’s land.  The gloom, of
course, was not chronic.  There were days upon which he was himself
again, the old George Borrow.  Generally speaking, his days and years
were passed in a moody inactivity, now at Oulton, then at Yarmouth, next
in London, finally at Oulton again, where he “died, as he had lived,
alone” on July 26, 1881.  It seemed for the time as if he had outlived
his reputation.  Appearances are proverbially deceptive.

George Borrow’s life and works are one and the same thing.  Few great
writers have been more persistently autobiographical than Borrow was.
Boswell, said Johnson once, had only two subjects, Dr. Johnson and James
Boswell, and he, the Doctor, was heartily sick of both; but Borrow had
only one subject—himself, from which he practically never wandered.  The
merry gests and marvellous exploits of the incomparable George
Borrow—these form the unique theme of our Gitano Crusoe.  But it is not
enough to say that Borrow’s autobiographical methods are unique.  His
life is presented to us in four panels, each as unlike the others as it
is possible to be in size, shape, texture, and surface.  The scale varies
as much as that of an ordnance map, sometimes 25 inches to the mile, at
others five miles to the inch.  The colours upon the palette are artfully
changed, details are sometimes obtruded, at others significantly hidden.
A casual glance obscures rather than reveals the fact that, whether he is
writing of his early life and struggles (“Lavengro,” i.–lviii.), of one
vivid Bohemian episode of his early manhood (“Lavengro”—“Romany Rye”), of
the crowning triumph of his maturity (“Bible in Spain”), or of a vacation
tour during the autumn of a disappointed life (“Wild Wales”), Borrow was
always working upon the same model, with the same desperate and
conscientious zeal, with the same extraordinary gust and vigour, with the
same genius, the same bias, the same limitations.

As a man of letters he must be judged primarily as a biographer, and, if
this be done, it will be found that Borrow has achieved the great object
of biography; he has transmitted a great personality.  The blemishes in
his work are not particularly hard to find.  Inadvertently we may have
been betrayed into indicating one or two of them.  But it is not by any
means safe ground.  With the exception of Jane Austen (and temporarily
speaking, perhaps Charles Dickens) there is hardly any literary character
whom it is so dangerous to approach without passports and periphrases
(securing retreat, if necessary) and plentiful kow-tows as George Borrow.
Among all literary clansmen you shall hardly find one more implacable,
more fierce, or more blindly fanatical than your Borrovian.  Charles Lamb
is almost the only author we can think of (out of Scotland) who is
worshipped by his admirers with quite the same canine sort of affection.
But the cult of Lamb is restricted largely to briefless Templars, to
University men and “Oxford M.A.’s”; the Borrovian is drawn from a lower
social stratum, from printers, librarians, booksellers, and others who
seldom read books, from indexers, dictionary makers, and such harmless
drudges of literature.  To men of such close and restricted horizons the
breath of the Romany Rye is as that of “the wind on the heath, brother.”
Hence the stern and unbending jealousy of their cult.  Real literary
enthusiasts of advanced years are almost as rare in our streets as
elderly naval men of the peculiar type discovered by Mr. Gilbert.  Yet a
chance word in a London thoroughfare has before now elicited this
ingenuous confession of faith: “I’d walk any distance to see anything
belonging to George Borrow or to read anything fresh of his.  Lord bless
you, I almost worship that man!”


{213a}  It was not the policy of the Times Literary Supplement to give
the name of the author.  For completeness the author is Thomas Seccombe,
and the editor of the TLS. at the time was James Thursfield.—DP.

{213b}  Two brothers.  See “Gypsies in Spain,” Preface to Second Edition.

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search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.