Reading George Borrow can be a frustrating experience. I have long been familiar with his Wild Wales (1862). There one gets a picture of him as an eccentric English gentleman walking across Wales and telling the natives what they ought to know about their literature. But this is a late work. Reading his (semi?)-autobiographical books about his early life offers a rather different picture of him. His early childhood was spent travelling from town to town – including extended stays in Scotland and Ireland – as his father was a recruiting sergeant during the Napoleonic wars. His later youth, following his father’s retirement, was spent in Norwich. His wanderings in the Norfolk countryside led to him meeting a snake catcher who, he claims, gave him a tame viper. One day he wandered into a place where some gypsies were camped and, in response to a hostile reception, pulled out the snake. They were impressed and called him Sapengro (‘snake master’) and he became a sort of blood brother to their young son. The relationship led to further contact with the gypsies when he and his ‘brother’ Ambrose – but called Jasper Petulengro in his books - were adults. By this time Borrow was known as Lavengro (‘word master’) due to his mastery of many languages, including Romany. He referred to himself as
A lad who twenty tongues can talk
And sixty miles a day can walk
His facility for languages extended to Manchu, into which he translated the New Testament. But his knowledge was wide rather than deep. He made elementary mistakes and tended to rely on his photographic memory to support the breadth of his learning. Although apprenticed by his father to a law firm, he spent much of his time there translating the works of Dafydd ap Gwilym from an edition he found in a secondhand book shop. He eventually abandoned the law firm and moved to London hoping to get his translations from Welsh, Danish and German published. But after a year working as a hack writer he took to the road. All this is recounted in Lavengro (1851), which also tells of his near death from a drow (a poisoned cake) administered by the gypsy sorceress Mrs Herne who said he had stolen her language. He is discovered by an itinerant Welsh preacher and nursed back to health by him and his wife. The rest of Lavengro and his next book The Romany Rye (Gypsy Friend) (1857) provides further fascinating details of his life on the road and his encounters with the gypsies. It also tells of his relationship with a road girl Isopel Berners alongside whom he lived for a while in a secluded dingle. She eventually left him in frustration as he insisted on their most intimate moments together being spent trying to teach her Armenian! One senses certain wry ironies here, but with Borrow it is not always possible to be sure.
While all this is clearly based on true events it, at times, strains credulity as straight-forward autobiography. Borrow rarely displays skill as a stylist, though once or twice he reveals a potential for such skill in a response to a beautiful morning or a starry night. But for the most part he marches doggedly on with his narrative. Interleaved with this material are various episodes telling the stories of people he meets. These are not always interesting and Borrow seems not to perceive the distinction between the significant and the trivial. Several chapters are devoted to a tedious debate between him and a proselytising catholic priest to no particular purpose other than to expose what he saw as the corruption of the Catholic Church. There is also a chapter entirely devoted to a joke about a poet (apparently Wordsworth) whose work is a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Borrow was not really a literary man, except in so far as literature was a way of studying languages. If he has a literary model at all it was Daniel Defoe.
These books were written some twenty years after the latest events they recall. During some of those years he was employed by the British and Foreign Bible Society to produce and distribute Spanish Bibles in Spain. He wrote about his experiences there in Zincali (1841), an account of the Spanish gypsies and The Bible in Spain (1843) which was a runaway best-seller. The proceeds from the latter work enabled him to retire to his small estate in Norfolk where his gypsy friends had an open invitation to set up camp. It is at that distance of reflection that he then wrote Lavengro and The Romany Rye and managed to publish his translation of the Welsh classic, Ellis Wynne’s Visions of the Sleeping Bard (1860). He had told the preacher who helped him after he was poisoned that he would not then return with him to Wales as he wished to be received there with due honour as the author of his as yet unpublished translations. So that view of an eccentric English gentleman in Wales is not so far from the mark by the time he undertook his journey thinking of himself, no doubt, as having achieved that renown. But he had travelled a long road to get there.
His final work Romano-Lavo Lil : Word Book of the Romany (1872) was soon superseded by more scholarly work published by the Gypsy Lore Society which was started shortly after his death. Ernest Rhys published a selection of his translations from Dafydd ap Gwilym, Iolo Goch and Ellis Wynne in 1915.