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Transcribed from the July 10th, 1903, Times Literary Supplement by David
Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org


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.

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